Vision, Daring, and Compassion: Paul Allen's Legacy of Philanthropy


While philanthropy has often been called “society’s risk capital,” many donors and foundations give pretty cautiously. They play it safe by backing established causes and name-brand charities. They steer clear of ventures that explore the unknown or that have unclear chances of success.

Paul Allen, who died yesterday at the age of 65, was different.

Allen embraced risk taking, and in recent years, had grown ever more creative with his philanthropy.

He first started a foundation in 1988 with his sister Jody, and donated $2 billion over the years. But in some ways, it seemed like he was just getting started as a philanthropist, with grand ambitions that took him to the outer frontiers of scientific knowledge and to the front lines of the world’s biggest challenges.

Because he kept a relatively low profile in his giving, it wasn’t widely known how Allen often exemplified big philanthropy at its best. He was visionary and daring, but he also deeply cared about vulnerable people—whether it was Africans struggling against dread diseases or homeless people sleeping on the sidewalk on the streets of Seattle. His death is a major loss, cutting short one of the most intriguing stories in the philanthrosphere today.

Five years ago, when Inside Philanthropy first began covering Allen’s giving, it was contained in scope. The billionaire co-founder of Microsoft had two major passions: brain science and improving life in Seattle. He’d founded the Allen Institute for Brain Sciences in 2003, pumping hundreds of million into it and building up a research center working at the cutting edge of neuroscience. This has become a red-hot field in recent years, amid concerns about rising levels of dementia, autism and other disorders; the field is now attracting new donors and government funding. Allen was well ahead of the curve in grasping why it was urgently important to unravel the brain’s many mysteries.

Likewise, Allen was an early example of a philanthropist and business leader who was determined to improve his home city through a combination of traditional giving and investments. These days, we write all the time at IP about so-called “super-citizens” who are bringing big ideas and deep pockets to revitalizing America’s urban centers. Allen has been doing this for decades in Seattle—and not without controversy along the way, underscoring that the power of big local donors can be a two-edged sword. Super-citizens can move cities forward, but they can also wield excessive power in public debates. I’ll leave it to others to assess Allen’s record of local giving.

I can testify to the dazzling ways that Paul Allen’s philanthropy has expanded in the five years that we’ve been tracking his giving. During this period, he has moved into a range of new issue areas, including ocean protection, wildlife conservation, climate change and global health.

Allen’s boldest move in recent years was his rapid, large-scale response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Allen committed $100 million to fighting a pandemic that was killing thousands of people, far more than any other philanthropist or private foundation. After the outbreak was over, he continued to focus on challenges facing health systems in West Africa, and later mounted a response to the Zika pandemic in South America.

Allen also expanded his science philanthropy. He started a new institute for cell science, moving into another fundamental area of biomedical research where new breakthroughs could yield a broad range of health gains. In 2014, Allen created an institute for artificial intelligence to conduct “high-impact research and engineering in the field of artificial intelligence, all for the common good.” Finally, to explore even edgier topics, Allen created the Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group which seeks to “uncover novel ideas in bioscience with the potential to transform fields,” and to create “new ways of doing science, new ways of solving problems, and foster a creative community that imagines and creates the future.”

Inside Philanthropy covered all these moves by Allen as they occurred; we often wondered where all this work was leading and how it would fit together over time. With Allen’s passing, the future of his grand philanthropic ambitions is now uncertain. His wealth was estimated in recent years at over $20 billion, and he was a signatory of the Giving Pledge with no heirs. So I assume that nearly all of that will go to philanthropy. But it may be years before we know how things play out in terms of the work already underway.

One thing is clear: Allen was rich enough to endow multiple institutions at a major level. My guess is that the story of Paul Allen’s philanthropic legacy is one that we’ll be watching for many decades to come.