What’s Next For the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation?

What’s Next For the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation?

Centibillionaires Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer might be the richest philanthropists minted at Microsoft, but there’s another such figure whose philanthropic legacy is still very much evolving – even though he passed away in 2018. The late Paul G. Allen cofounded Microsoft in the 1970s with Gates, his childhood friend. At the time of his death in October 2018, age 65, Allen was worth some $20 billion and his philanthropy was already well underway.

Allen never married and never had children, making the future of his philanthropy a huge wildcard, along with the question of how much of his estate might eventually find its way to charity — the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation in particular. Founded in 1988 by Paul Allen and his sister Jody Allen, who currently serves as president and board chair, the $1 billion foundation invests in communities across the Pacific Northwest with an eye toward arts and culture, underserved populations, and mobilizing young people. The foundation also works on a global level in areas like science and technology, wildlife protection, ocean preservation, and bioscience.

In his life, Allen was responsible for spearheading many institutions, including the Museum of Pop Art (MoPOP) in Seattle and the Allen Institute and Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group, two bioscience backers. Scientific research is one big throughline for the Allen philanthropic legacy, but it’s not the only one. Allen funded many interests, including preschools, museums, housing, the epidemic response and Ebola — pledging $100 million in 2014 to tackle the disease, and creating the Paul G. Allen Ebola Program at Vulcan.

What is Vulcan? Well, Vulcan, now known as Vale Group LLC, is another one of Allen’s big bets, a private company he started with Jody Allen that has played a major, evolving role in his philanthropic legacy. Vulcan has tapped dozens of engineers and scientists who are building technological and data-based solutions to solve some of the world’s toughest problems. This was a common refrain for Allen, who was both hugely ambitious and a Giving Pledge signatory. We’ve long held that despite Paul Allen’s death six years ago, the Allen story of giving is just beginning.

In order to get a better understanding of how that story is progressing, Inside Philanthropy recently connected with Lara Littlefield, executive director, partnerships and programs at the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, to get a sense of where the foundation finds itself now, and what to expect in the future. We also connected with longtime grantee National Geographic Society to find out more about the impact the foundation is making, including in youth and environmental sustainability.

“Our whole city is defined by their philanthropy in so many ways”

Lara Littlefield grew up in the Seattle area and worked in advancement and innovation at University of Washington for around a decade. It was in this capacity that she first crossed paths with Vulcan. Among other efforts, Vulcan Real Estate and the UW School of Medicine collaborated to develop a research campus for the university. So when Littlefield had the opportunity to join the Allen ecosystem in 2021, she immediately jumped on it. “Our whole city is defined by their philanthropy in so many ways,” Littlefield said of the impact and importance of Paul and Jody Allen in the Emerald City.

Though Allen family philanthropy is not the multigenerational family affair of some of the other grantmakers we profile, Littlefield still spoke about a distinct Allen family legacy and a learning curve as she came into the fold. She said that the family had a long interest in areas like the arts, as well as using technology and science solutions to advance “the good of the planet.”

She also pointed to the Allen family’s aim to push the envelope. In the final decade of his life, Littlefield said, Paul Allen really focused on climate, which he believed was the most pressing issue of our time. “We have a robust portfolio in this space,” Littlefield said. Work in this area includes the National Science Foundation Partnership to Advance Conservation Science and Practice, which provided $8 million in funding toward a half-dozen projects that combine scientific research and conservation activities to learn from and protect Earth’s biodiversity.

While this environmental grantmaking was ramping up, the foundation’s arts and culture grantmaking waned a bit, according to Littlefield. So, too, did its investments in housing and human services. More recently, as the foundation continues to dig into climate, it also began ramping up its arts giving again, as well as working with organizations that empower youth. Littlefield points to these two areas as high priority in the coming years.

In 2023, the Allen estate donated a number of pop culture artifacts — including a “Star Trek” captain’s chair, a Darth Vader helmet and a Jimi Hendrix guitar — to the Museum of Pop Art, which opened in 2000, four years after it was conceived by Paul and Jody Allen. 

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When IP founding editor David Callahan did a deep dive into Vulcan in 2019, he noted that in an era when much of billionaire giving was still centered on making grants, Vulcan — originally founded in 1986 — charted out a different path, tapping expertise from engineers, a government relations office and even a media arm. In that sense, it presaged the ongoing trend among billionaire-backed outfits — including the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Arnold Ventures, Emerson Collective, Omidyar Network, and now, increasingly, Melinda French Gates’ Pivotal Ventures — to embrace unconventional approaches and a wider set of tools than 501(c)(3) grantmaking alone. 

But what does Vulcan look like nowadays, and what role does it play in the Allen family’s broader philanthropic world?

For starters, Vulcan is now the Vale Group LLC, a private holding company owned by Paul Allen’s estate. “Vulcan and what it was has just changed dramatically. We’re a lot smaller… We’re really focused on supporting service to our real estate portfolio, and to the foundation,” Littlefield said.

A builder at heart, Paul Allen’s first act with Vulcan took place in-house. If Vulcan wanted to work on conservation, for instance, it built conservation technology in-house.  While this still happens in some areas, Littlefield said, there’s been a gradual shift to lean on experts and leaders who are closest to these problems and know best how to solve them.

But the Allen ecosystem has no interest in taking a one-size-fits-all approach, especially as it funds science and technology, as well as other areas of interest. Littlefield said that the foundation’s board has really challenged the team to think about the best approach for a particular problem, and what tools they might use to solve it. As an example, in the arts and culture space, the foundation partnered with ArtsFund, which piloted a program with the Washington State Department of Commerce that showed the ability to get money out of the door to underserved organizations on the ground quickly. The foundation quickly caught interest and connected with ArtsFund.

In the first year, the partnership moved $10 million out the door to more than 670 organizations in almost every county in the state. In its sophomore year, the partnership again granted $10 million, this time through 811 grants, reaching all but two Washington counties.  

Youth funding with National Geographic

As another example of the foundation’s range, one of the youth projects it’s funding these days is Slingshot Challenge, a program of National Geographic Society, which has had a longstanding relationship with the foundation, starting back with Vulcan under Paul Allen. 

Vulcan and the society linked up to work on tech-focused conversation projects in marine and land conversation. That team at the society continues to work with the Allen Institute for AI to this day, according to Kara Ramirez Mullins, National Geographic Society’s chief advancement officer. 

In 2020, National Geographic and the Allen Foundation started thinking more seriously about the idea of a global youth challenge and engaged in several discussions. “It was a really great match for our mission between the two of us,” Mullins says. Slingshot was formally launched in fall 2022.

The global call for youth ages 13-18 aims to find young people engaged in solutions to the planet’s most pressing environmental problems. Top submissions will receive $10,000 each, and 10 “Significant Achievement” submissions will receive $1,000 each to advance their projects and continue to explore big ideas.

The 2024 Slingshot Challenge received 2,134 one-minute video submissions from 87 countries. Winning submissions have included a food waste fighting app, a tree-planting robot, and a project called Urban Pollinators, the first registry of native pollinator plants in Tapachula, Mexico. “I see these young people and I’m like, ‘what have I been doing with my life?’” Mullins said. The challenge also connects youth to mentorship opportunities.

Looking ahead at Allen’s future

In 2022 fiscal year, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation held some $1 billion in assets and gave away around $50 million. How much money from the Allen estate will ultimately find its way there remains to be seen. Save a negligible five-figure gift the estate gave to the foundation in 2019, recent contributions have been hard to track.

Complicating matters is the number of other outfits under the Allen banner. For instance, the Allen Institute held some $320 million in assets in recent years, and MoPOP held some $150 million. It’s unclear how much money might flow there eventually. 

Moreover, things appear to be in flux at Vulcan, now Vale Group LLC. Jody Allen was unavailable for comment for this article, but Lara Littlefield did call working with her “a career highlight,” learning from Jody’s business mindset and the high premium she places on replication and scaling up.

“We’re all here in this moment in time today. Things change. Viewpoints change. But what I’ve really been impressed with is [Jody Allen’s] commitment to community and that we all have to play a part… We need to bring the civic components back into what it means to drive progress,” Littlefield said.

Littlefield spoke of the foundation being at a sort of crossroads these days. On the one hand, she said, the foundation is keen on honoring its legacy. But it’s not content to “rest on its laurels.” It aims to keep pushing the bounds, as well as be pushed, to make an impact across the arts, the environment, youth and all its different interest areas. 

In the era of big philanthropy, sometimes the only thing you can do is stay tuned.

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