Before it’s Too Late: A Wealthy Couple’s Long Journey in Environmental Conservation

Willapa Bay, WA. vewfinder/shutterstock

Willapa Bay, WA. vewfinder/shutterstock

University of Colorado graduate Richard Leeds did a stint at Microsoft in the early 1980s as a software project leader, helping deliver software for the first IBM PC. He went on to found CPI Corp in 1985, which he describes as a “research and development lab implementing conversation processing intelligence.” Richard and his wife Anne Kroeker both hail from the East Coast, but have spent a good chunk of their lives out west, taking up residence in the Seattle area to work in tech.

Through the years, they’ve also been philanthropic, launching the Kaleidoscope Foundation in 1997, which has given several hundred thousand dollars annually of late. I recently spoke with Richard and Anne to find out more about their giving and how it’s evolved over the years.

Anne told me that the family started giving back “because they could.” But prior to having significant means, the importance of charity was instilled in both of them from an early age. “It’s something I learned early on from my mother and her mother. Not always directly, sometimes just in the things they stood up to do or talked about… I think just being able to open yourself to that so you have empathy. When you have empathy, a lot of good things can come from that, and so I do think that’s what compelled us early on,” Anne explained.

With ties to Long Island and Boston, the couple talks about the transformative experience of settling in the Pacific Northwest. Richard says that they “fell in love with a place that had old growth trees, native fish, unique arts and culture, and untamed wilderness.” Exploring the outdoors of their adopted state, including regular jaunts to Mt. Rainier, the couple starting digging into the realm of conservation. Private land conservation is now a passion for them both, and they have become statewide and national leaders in the land trust movement, including as key supporters of Washington Association of Land Trusts and as members of the Land Trust Alliance’s National Council.

In 1997, they established the Kaleidoscope Foundation, though the couple do minimal work through that organization. Kaleidoscope mainly functions as an umbrella for two funds that reflect the couple’s two-pronged focuses. Their Wildlife Forever Fund works with the Land Trust Alliance, and with other land trusts and organizations that promote wildlife conservation, education, recreation, business ventures and scientific investigations—primarily in the Northwest.

The couple also has a longstanding interest in education. Anne was a volunteer in the art education program for years in Bellevue Public Schools. And Richard spent a semi-sabbatical teaching math and science. Their Educational Legacy Fund works with organizations providing sustainable business education, experiential environmental education, STEM training and public education projects.

Last decade, the extended Leeds family gave a $35 million gift to University of Colorado at Boulder College of Business to endow the CU-Boulder business school, with the goal of advancing the school’s leadership on issues of social responsibility. "Businesses do well by doing good,” Richard said at the time. “A company's financial success is linked to its contributions to the community and the way it treats its employees.”

Richard and his brother Michael both attended the school. The extended family has co-funded several gifts through the years, Richard says. The brothers learned about social responsibility in business from their parents, who founded an electronics magazine publishing company, CMP Media, on Long Island in 1971, which was an early leader of such practices as offering on-site daycare to workers. Fortune magazine once named the firm one of its "Top 100 Companies to Work For."

Richard and Anne have many stories to tell about their experiences in conservation through the years. One thing that’s been critical for them is connecting with experts. “The science really drives what our giving is. We listen to these people about why you should target this piece of land versus another piece. It’s quite a big conservation community up here, too. It’s a very enriching experience being in this kind of community.”

They’ve worked with chapters of the Audubon Society, as well as hunting and fishing groups like Ducks Unlimited and Trout Unlimited. Anne adds that it’s been critical that these organizations have a local presence. “If they didn’t have a local presence, we probably wouldn’t be able to work with them,” she says.

Other partners include Columbia Land Trust, Forterra and Nature Conservancy. Having grown up on Long Island, Richard is a big seafood fan, especially shellfish. He tells me that Washington has great shellfish, so one project focused on preserving the Puget Sound to maintain the shellfish population. And back on the East Coast, the family was involved with the preservation of a section of Long Island Sound. “We played a small part in reintroducing shellfish into Long Island Sound. The project seems to have taken root with a lot of local help and participation. We’ve done a few other small projects back East with other land trusts.” 

The couple has also supported a major conservation project focused on estuaries around Willapa Bay, Washington. These pieces of land are particularly important because they’re part of a critical ecosystem, including several hundred acres of forest and a freshwater wetland and river, which brings clean water into Willapa Bay.

“Out here, there’s land here that’s still good and it hasn’t been entirely trampled over,” Richard and Anne tell me.

For this reason, Anne says that land conservation is easier in some ways out in the Northwest. The land the couple conserved on Long Island, for instance, was attached to many millions of dollars of property. “There’s not as much land value out here, yet. If there’s less value to preserve, land trusts don’t have as hard a time getting things done.” But while this might seem hopeful, the couple warned me that there’s still not enough urgency around the conservation issue. "We still have to preserve the land while we have it rather than build on it.”

Richard and Anne have a strong interest in migratory species, and part of their work includes conservation within the entire Pacific Flyway, a major north-south flyway for migratory birds in America, extending from Alaska to Patagonia. They’ve worked with organizations like Conservation International, particularly in Alaska, as well as Eco-Viva, and the Foundation for Self Sufficiency and Sustainability in Central America. They’ve also worked to preserve the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia and habitat preservation for an iconic species of marine turtles in the Pacific Ocean.

The couple see advocacy as an important strategy to advance conservation. “We need to be helping the policymakers of governments and agencies support and understand what conservation organizations are doing. So that is definitely a piece, and always needs to be a piece.”

Richard and Anne also mention what they believe is evidence of an important sea change. Consider University of Washington’s recently named College of Built Environments, described as “at the forefront of a global discourse increasingly focused on the process of urbanization, globalization, and sustainable development,” as well as the College of the Environment, “helping bridge the divide between scientific disciplines, stakeholders and societies, policymakers and the public.”

Over the decades they’ve been involved in environmental work, Richard and Anne feel that sustainability issues have increasingly become mainstream concerns, including in the business world. But they also see major challenges going forward.

A lot of the work we do is toward mitigation and toward keeping the environment more resilient. Yet, we’re doing this in the face of a population that has doubled since we were born, and quadrupled since our parents were born. There’s a lot of stress on places for people versus places for not people. We recognize that we do work in a larger environment—all downstream of industrial society. We need to be making industrial society compatible long-term. We’re at a nexus of positive industrial change, and in the face of that, we have a requirement to conserve wild areas in perpetuity. 

Richard and Anne’s Wildlife Forever Fund and Educational Legacy Fund (not to mention Kaleidoscope) do not have websites. It’s a small shop, and they’re the only staff, enlisting the services of an accounting firm and a legal firm. “We didn’t ever want a larger staff. No email, either. We only do things personally.” 

Through the years, the family has worked with other nonprofits like the Chehalis River Basin Land Trust in Centralia, Washington, Washington Forest Law Center, ACLU, Institute for Student Achievement, Museum of Flight, Seattle Symphony, Zeno Math, and Women's Funding Alliance (Anne has an interest in women’s rights).

While Richard and Anne don’t accept proposals from organizations, they definitely want to hear from others who are interested in or even tempted to do the kinds of things that they do. “Our objective is to enthuse other families and their imaginations for doable, moderate-scale regional and national projects.”