Seattle Philanthropists Have a Message: Just Give
Six ‘quiet giant’ philanthropists speak candidly about what they’ve learned and why charity isn’t nearly as difficult as it’s sometimes made out to be
By Jonathan Sposato December 26, 2022
Often, folks tell me a simple confession: “I want to start giving back but I don’t know how.” While I am no expert on the topic and consider myself recently influenced by several inspiring folks in the region, I can appreciate the lack of candid and direct info on how it all works.
My immigrant single mother and adopted working-class father struggled to keep much in savings and didn’t come from a culture of giving. Much like the majority of middle-class folks staking a claim on the American Dream, they threw a few dollars into the coffers at the end of Catholic mass and worked hard to give themselves a leg up. They figured there was little reason why others couldn’t do the same on their own.
But, of course, not all of us have the same starting place, opportunities and luck as others, and we live in a world where more and more people drop through the cracks. As a very good friend managing one of the largest and most powerful nonprofits said to me, “The whole world is on fire right now. Now is the time to give as much as possible.”
So, I asked some of the “quiet giants” in our region their thoughts about philanthropy. This highly diverse group of successful philanthropists can each write a “how to” guide to help anyone get started. Many are self-made, while others carry on a second-generation legacy. I asked each: “What advice would you give your younger self in order to get started? How should the uninitiated take their first step? What are the most important needs today?” (Answers lightly edited for length and clarity.)
Steve, Connie Ballmer:
The Ballmers are the founders of the Ballmer Group, which is committed to improving economic mobility for children and families in the United States. The Ballmer Group funds leaders and organizations that have demonstrated the ability to reshape opportunity and reduce systemic inequities, and to focus on multiple areas and systems that can influence economic mobility, including early learning, K-12 education, college and career pathways, housing and criminal justice. Connie Ballmer is multi-decade career philanthropist, and her husband, Steve, is a former CEO of Microsoft, founder of USAFacts and chairman of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers. To learn more, visit ballmergroup.org/grants
“Our philanthropy has grown and evolved over the years, and we expect that it always will. Every year, we learn more, which helps us have greater impact. When Connie first started 20 years ago, she focused on the foster care system here in Washington state. Through that work, it became clear that in order to create lasting impact, we needed to go upstream and consider the many issues that affect families and children.
“Today at Ballmer Group, we focus on child welfare, early childhood education, K-12, post-secondary success, criminal justice reform, public safety, behavioral health and more.
“In 2014, when Steve retired from Microsoft, he established our commitment to improving economic mobility for children and families in the United States. Coming from a business background, Steve pushed us to better understand the data — “I’m a numbers guy!” — on underlying barriers to economic mobility to determine the best way to make an impact. He also had a question: Shouldn’t the government cover funding for the initiatives we were being asked to support?
“This inquiry led Steve and a small team to build out a public resource called USAFacts, which offers a one-stop shop for anyone looking to better understand numbers and trends in government spending. It also told us a lot about government funding and helped shape our giving. We know that government is, by far, the largest funder and provider of social services, and therefore philanthropy shouldn’t try to replace government functions.
“However, philanthropy can play an important role by providing flexible resources to expand or enhance effective programs and to speed up the pace of progress. We often work in partnership with the public sector to make tax dollars go further and help more people.
“It has been a humbling responsibility, learning about many issues that can hold children back in our country, and then trying to discern the highest and best role for philanthropic dollars. There is no one right way to give, but here are a few learnings we have picked up along the way.
- “Place matters. While we fund many national organizations and initiatives, we started in our own community. Look to local organizations and community foundations as you begin the work, get involved, establish relationships and you’ll find meaningful ways to engage.
- “Partnerships and collaboration are critical. The challenges in today’s communities are now too complicated for any one program to address, and so community players and sectors must learn to work together effectively. Communities are successfully improving outcomes for kids in disciplined partnerships that incorporate both grass tops and grassroots voices, use data to measure progress, hold each other accountable and unite to make progress. Philanthropy helps by bringing resources to the collective table and by being an active and accountable partner in getting results.
- “Keep a long-term view. Making multiyear grants is key to give organizations time to realize this progress.
- “Funders need each other. Although funders can have different areas of interest and approaches, it is important to gather and learn from each other, sometimes pooling funding. Coordinated funding makes the dollars go further, reduces the reporting needs for nonprofits, and helps everyone better understand cause and effect. We have met many smart people in this space who teach us a lot.
“Today, we have more than 300 active grants, and we list them all on our website so that others can learn about the grantees we support.
“The Ballmer Group recently announced that Sam Ballmer, son of Steve and Connie Ballmer, is joining the philanthropy to focus on the climate emergency. In October, the organization announced its first tranche of grants, totaling more than $160 million that focus on global deforestation.
“One last thing we have learned is that it is understandable, even necessary, to feel impatient for impact. Try to balance that sense of urgency with patience and steady commitment. Systemic change is necessary, but effective changes may take immense amounts of work, time and incremental progress to add up to something bigger.
Jodi Green: A former Microsoft executive, Green was the first in her family to attend college, earning her bachelor’s degree from Brown University and becoming one of only three women in her class to earn a Computer Science degree.
At Microsoft, Green led the development teams for Microsoft Word and the first version of Microsoft Outlook. Since retiring in 1998, she has remained active in the community through philanthropic work, serving as University of Washington Foundation board chair, cochair of the University of Washington’s Be Boundless campaign, and board member of Washington Women’s Foundation, Henry Art Gallery and the Seattle Public Library Foundation.
“I want people to start giving first. Refine the process later. Don’t put up barriers to giving. I think many funders make it so hard to say yes to an org. My wish is that people getting started focus on giving instead of finding reasons not to give. Just do it. It doesn’t matter what you do. Just get started. Sometimes it’s your heart and your passion or your intellect that will drive where you give and what you do. Other times it’s the incoming requests you get that come from other people’s hearts and passions. Say ‘yes’ when it feels right.
“When someone cares deeply about something and they are connected with an organization doing great work in that area, it can be magical. Give the amount that feels comfortable. And don’t worry about making a mistake! Keep track of what you give and to whom. After a while — six months, a year, five years or more — reflect back on what you’ve done. What are the themes? How has your giving changed over time? No doubt the amounts have gotten bigger over time as you feel more comfortable.
“Maybe there are some trends. Now you have something to build from. Learn from what you’ve done in the past to help inform what you want to do in the future. Maybe more of the same feels right, or maybe you realize your passions have completely changed since you started. I have a family mission statement. I have a complicated spreadsheet where I keep and categorize every gift. I have areas of focus and a well-developed philosophy about who I give to and how I give. But that came years after I started giving. It’s too easy to put yourself in a box before you’ve even given a dollar with premature decisions about what you won’t give to.
“After many years, I’ve learned a lot about how I dedicate my philanthropic dollars regardless of the area of focus. I like to support organizations that are based in or working in places that are local and meaningful to me. I’m relational. I like to support organizations where I have a strong connection and am values-aligned with the people involved. I like to work with organizations where I can use my knowledge, expertise and network to move things forward. I am really comfortable being first dollars in where my dollars and my involvement can be catalytic. I find people I trust, and I fund them. I’ve also learned that impact doesn’t only happen in the traditional philanthropic arena. When I think about how I can lean in to positive change making, it’s a tri-fold environment with the nonprofit sector, the for-profit sector and the political sector as the three legs of my stool.”
John Stanton: Stanton founded and served as CEO of Western Wireless Corp. and was former chairman of Clearwire Corp. He is now the chairman of the board of Trilogy International Partners, as well as the majority owner of the Seattle Mariners. Stanton has served as chair of the United Way of King County campaign, the Year Up board and Whitman College Board of Trustees.
“Follow your heart. My philanthropic journey was inspired by my parents. My father was a teen in the Depression. He went to college at 15 and had to drop out because his father lost his business. He was focused on food — when everything is gone, families have to eat. Our foundation focuses on family security and food insecurity. Mom was a speech pathology specialist at Seattle Hearing and Speech — she focused on children and education. Our foundation is devoted to children, disadvantaged families, education and at-risk children. Together, the mission of serving children and reducing food insecurity is a testament to our parents. My heart is formed by my parents. Listen to your heart and follow.
“My wife and I were entrepreneurs and we now fund and support entrepreneurs. My advice is to support nonprofit entrepreneurs. One of the most inspiring nonprofits we have invested in is Year Up, which was formed by Gerald Chertavian, who created his nonprofit out of whole cloth to help thousands of young people seeking to overcome the opportunity divide, and at the same time help businesses benefit from diverse talent. Nonprofit entrepreneurs combine the vision, passion and talent to create programs that help people in innovative ways.”
Mary Snapp: Snapp led the team responsible for Microsoft’s philanthropic efforts. In the most recent fiscal year, Microsoft’s total annual giving surpassed $1 billion, with cash donations of nearly $120 million and in-kind donations worth nearly $950 million. She is now leading Microsoft’s environmental, social and governance efforts directed toward rural America, where she has created partnerships with organizations highly respected for their work, especially in rural communities. “There is more in common than different between rural and urban America, despite what you might read,” she says. Snapp is also an active board leader for nonprofit organizations in Seattle and around the country, including YWCA Seattle|King|Snohomish, the Seattle Art Museum, the National 4-H Council and the Farm Foundation. She serves her alma mater, the University of Michigan, on the President’s Advisory Group.
“I grew up in a small town in the middle of Kansas, in a community very influenced by Mennonite families. My parents were engaged with St. Mary’s in town and volunteered for just about anything connected to that church. As my parents did in Newton, Kan., I also engage in philanthropy — volunteering skills and time along with funding — when I am passionate about the cause and where I can see immediate impact. But I have learned that the real key for me is to support organizations that are also committed to ‘systems level’ changes.
“Washington STEM is a great example of an organization that networks across the state to provide early childhood learning support and secondary skills training for young adults, but one that is also is deeply engaged in research and data analysis to inform our legislators about needed education policy changes. The YWCA Seattle|King|Snohomish provides housing for nearly 900 women and families, but also is steadfast in advocating for policies and programs intended to end systemic and institutional disparities grounded in racism. The Seattle Art Museum has recently reimagined its American art installation to tell a more inclusive story of our history, and to help make the art museum a place where everyone feels like they belong.
“As nonprofit organizations look at systems level changes, I believe that requires collaboration not just with clients and donors, but also with the community surrounding them and with other surrounding institutions. I am drawn to nonprofits which blend in an entrepreneurial flavor and which welcome collaboration with the public sector. I think each entity plays a critical role in collaborating to meet needs in the moment, but also for the long term to help solve underlying problems.
“And I truly enjoy the people I work with. They are funny and witty and easily dispense hugs. When I left my deputy general counsel role at Microsoft to lead Microsoft Philanthropies, everyone asked me how my career had changed. Well, no one hugged me when I entered the room as a lawyer to negotiate a merger agreement. In philanthropy, the conclusion of a 30-minute first meeting often earned me a hug!
“The most important step in ‘giving back’ is the first step. A vibrant community needs support from all sectors — human services, education, arts and culture, environmental sustainability, animal welfare. I love organizations that find ways to bridge support across sectors. The Seattle Humane Society may focus on animal welfare, but its programming includes collaboration with Washington State University students, food banks and reading programs for youngsters. It’s all good, so don’t be dissuaded by thinking that one cause is ‘better’ than another. Find your passion and take a step.
“There will always be emergent areas of greater need in a community. We saw generous support from Seattleites during Covid for those displaced from homes and jobs. While supporting those needs is important, I also look for philanthropy opportunities where I can build or renew relationships, learn about different sectors.”
Kathy Surace-Smith: Surace-Smith is vice president and general counsel at Seattle-based biotech company NanoString Technologies Inc. In addition to her role as vice chairperson of the board of trustees of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle, she is a member of the board of trustees of Columbia University in New York. She served as board chairperson and campaign cochairperson at United Way of King County along with husband Brad Smith, the president of Microsoft. She is also active in the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and was honored by the “Puget Sound Business Journal” as a 2018 Woman of Influence.
“Do your due diligence before you make any financial or time commitments to a nonprofit and make sure you care about the mission. Don’t feel pressured or flattered into giving to an organization or volunteering for one unless you fully understand what you are getting into. I made the mistake of joining two boards that were not a good fit for me when I first moved to Seattle over 20 years ago and it was disappointing for me and for the organizations as well, I am sure.
“So, choose your engagement wisely and then it will be truly fulfilling. I can say that is the case with my current involvement at the Fred Hutch Cancer Center and Columbia University, and certainly was during my previous board service with United Way of King County and YWCA. Secondly, engage fully. Don’t show up and just sit in a room and not participate. Ask questions and be present. Don’t be afraid to probe something you don’t understand. And thirdly, be a learner. Approach your involvement with an open mind and open heart. You may be smart and successful in your day job, but it’s unlikely you know as much about the work of the organization as the people doing the work. Respect what they know and what they experience and find ways to make them successful. Those partnerships can be truly transformative.
“There is no one way to give back. Sometimes it is through donating funds or serving on boards and committees. But very often it is volunteering your time — mentoring youth, coaching a sports team, engaging with schools, serving meals at a homeless shelter, cleaning up a park or beach, etc. In the wake of the pandemic, there is so much need, and so many ways to help. I believe there is a widespread desire to engage with each other and find our sense of community again. Volunteering is an act of kindness and as I think we can all agree, we need more kindness in this world.”
Cynthia Stroum: Stroum is a prominent Seattle-area philanthropist and former American diplomat and political donor who served as the United States ambassador to Luxembourg from 2009 to 2011. She produced the hit Tony Award-winning Broadway play “Come from Away,” as well as “The Great Society” and “Diana: the Musical.” She is also an active venture capitalist in several technology companies.
“My Dad likened himself to an Israeli officer charging into philanthropic battle. Israeli officers always say, ‘Follow me!’ That’s their motto. Because the officers are the ones out front, they get shot at first. But that, my Dad used to say, ‘is what you do as a leader.’
“I learned philanthropy by my father’s example. The semantics [and] nuts and bolts of philanthropy. The awesome responsibility of determining who and what should be funded. The power and magic of bestowing a gift. I wish I could explain the thought process of how I select who to give to. For me, personally, it has to touch my heart. I have to feel some connection. I make not only a financial commitment, but an emotional commitment.
“For me, philanthropy is also quite unstructured and often whimsical, serendipitous. Basically, I give where I want to give, when I want to give, to whom I want to give. Yes, there’s a strategic balance between giving to achieve specific goals and giving from your heart. But don’t get me wrong, this is an investment. It’s more than a tug of my heartstrings. Maybe that’s where it starts but then I do my homework. I want my money to be put to good use. I research the prospective charities. I review their financials. I make site visits. I talk to other philanthropists. I may know board members involved. I meet with the leaders and the staff. I try to avoid duplication of services. Once you’ve given the gift, though, it’s not enough to just trust that the organization will spend your money the way promised. The old days of ‘no accountability’ are over and more donors are requiring, as we do, that the organization gives a summary of how the money has been spent. This is an ongoing process.
“My guidelines for giving have been a moving target and have continually changed over the years. For example, I’ve noticed my giving was more child-centered as I was raising my daughter. If I sit on a particular nonprofit board, I also give financial support. I’ve given to projects that I felt were important for my community and future generations. And now, since my father’s illness and death, I’ve once again taken our foundations into a new direction, shifting focus from the arts instead to pancreatic cancer research.
“The transfer of knowledge is also essential. I’ve taken a more structured approach in mentoring and teaching not only my daughter, but my two nephews as well through their participation in the family foundation. I’m hoping to impart the core values that drove my father’s charitable giving. The kids rotate each year as a director of the family foundation. They are each given an ‘allowance’ of what they can give directly. However, they must also come together as a group and make a decision on a family gift.
“I am not paying a bill. I am making a gift. I don’t owe you anything. This is often overlooked. Donors have an impulse to be generous but it is still a gift. One of India’s most revered spiritual texts, the “Mahabharata,” asserts that a gift of any size given to ‘the right person at the right time, with a pure spirit, will yield endless fruits hereafter.’
“I hope so.”
Erica Wiley: Wiley leads the development team at United Way of King County, one of the largest charitable organizations in the region, reaching 600,000 people annually. She leads a team that raises more than $70 million annually.
“Perhaps the title ‘philanthropist’ has given people the impression your gift has to have a whole bunch of zeros to be meaningful or impactful, but actually, you are the person who gives it meaning. Ask yourself, ‘What does this gift mean to you? Did you give because a person or organization impacted your family life? Did you give because of crisis, and you felt compelled to action? Did you stretch yourself by giving a little more than you thought you could and you were surprised by how good it felt?’ That’s how you know your gift is important. That’s philanthropy.
“One transformational experience for me was volunteering for United Way’s free tax campaign, which helps people keep more of the money that they’ve earned. To be clear, I don’t love doing taxes, but as soon as that first person sat down, I could sense their relief at having a buddy going through this intimidating process with them. One man I worked with had four W2s but no home address. It stuck me that here’s a guy who is trying to scratch out a living and he’s got no permanent, safe place to send his refund check to. It was humbling to think about how much I had taken for granted — quickly followed by the conviction that our community can do better. I believe hunger is unacceptable in a community so wealthy, that homelessness steals dignity from all of us and when systemic racism holds people of color back from reaching their fullest potential, we all lose. These are tough issues, but working together with smart, caring people to tackle them gives me hope and purpose. These are the places I invest my time, talent and treasure.
“If you are just starting out, I’d recommend giving to a whole bunch of places working on the issues you care about. It doesn’t have to be much money. They can be little organizations or big ones, but take some time to read the things they send you and look at the events they invite you to. Choose one organization to get to know better. Go to their events. Meet someone — could be another donor or staff. Volunteer. Take a step closer at your pace. You are starting a new relationship, making a new friend.
“Then, if you really want to take your philanthropy to the next level, just meet someone who works for the organization you support. You’re going learn more in a 30-minute conversation than you ever will on a website or annual report, because philanthropy is all about what can we create together as a collective.”