Following the death of prominent philanthropist David Rockefeller last year, the world of philanthropy recently lost another giant: Paul Allen. The cofounder of Microsoft Corporation, Allen made a name for himself as a philanthropist not afraid of taking risks. During a time when the majority of foundations and individual donors gave cautiously and backed only established charities, Allen was not afraid to back lesser-known organizations and support ideas he believed in, even if they weren’t guaranteed to succeed. Toward the last few years of his life, Allen demonstrated creativity with his giving, and he leaves behind a remarkable legacy for future generations.
Paul Allen first became involved with philanthropy 30 years ago, when he started a foundation together with his sister, Jody. Since that time, he has contributed $2 billion to a variety of causes representing the unrestrained ambition with which he gave. Despite this, he maintained a relatively low profile with his philanthropy, which kept him from becoming a household name, but that may change in the years to come as his legacy comes to light. He demonstrated a strong commitment to protecting the most vulnerable people on the planet, from individuals experiencing homelessness in Seattle to people in third-world countries facing serious risk of disease.
Allen’s Early Work as a Philanthropist
About five years ago, Allen’s philanthropy benefited a narrower range of causes. He supported a variety of institutions in his Seattle community, and funded research related to brain science.
In 2003, he established the Allen Institute for Brain Sciences and funded it with hundreds of millions of dollars. Today, this institute sits at the cutting edge of neuroscience research and discovery and has the potential to change the way physicians approach serious conditions like autism spectrum disorders and dementia. While neuroscience has become a major focus of both donor attention and government funding, Allen become involved with the field way ahead of the curve and helped give scientists a jumpstart on pressing issues.
In terms of revitalizing Seattle, Allen was also ahead of the curve. So-called “super-citizens” have recently risen to prominence in cities across the United States, but he has invested in his community for decades, supporting a broad variety of causes. On the one hand, he donated tens of millions of dollars to both the University of Washington and Washington State University. On the other hand, he owned the Seattle Seahawks and was part owner of the Seattle Sounders FC. On the arts front, he opened the Experience Music Project in 2000. This venture transformed into Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture after joining with another of his projects, the Science Fiction Museum. More recently, he started the three-day music celebration Upstream Music Fest + Summit.
An Expanded View of How to Make a Lasting Impact on the World
In the past five years, Paul Allen expanded his philanthropy exponentially and embraced a wide range of new issues. One of the most significant moves he made was in 2014 after the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa. Shortly after the crisis arose, he committed $100 million to the cause, an amount significantly greater than any other private donor. Once the outbreak abated, he still kept his support in the region, focusing on the other challenges burdening West African healthcare systems. In more recent years, he became heavily involved with the response to the Zika virus in South America.
In terms of scientific philanthropy, Allen became involved in other research areas beyond the brain. He founded an additional institute focused on cell biology, an area of biomedical research with several direct applications to human health. Four years ago, he opened an institute for artificial intelligence. Pushing the boundaries even further, he established the Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group, which has the goal of transforming entire fields of knowledge by developing new approaches to science and uncovering innovative solutions to problems. Through the group, he helped create a community of forward-thinking scientists who imagine a different sort of future and are willing to push boundaries in the name of progress.
The Legacy that Allen Leaves Behind for the Future of Philanthropy
Unfortunately, the world lost Allen when he seemed to be approaching the height of his giving. Three years ago, he received the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy and spoke about becoming a catalyst for change by making it easier for leaders in different fields to collaborate and challenge convention. Observers assumed that Allen’s various pursuits would somehow come together over time, but it is now unclear how this will happen. At the same time, we have not heard the last from Allen and his legacy. He was a Giving Pledge signatory, and because he never married nor had children, much of his estimated $20 billion fortune may go to philanthropy. However, years may pass before it is clear how exactly these funds will be allocated.