Paul Allen's Big Moment: What's Behind His Surprising Leadership on Ebola?

The ongoing Ebola epidemic in Africa has killed more than 2,400 people across a broad region and infected well over 4,000, so it's not surprising that the world's preeminent private global health funder, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has stepped up with a $50 million commitment to contain the outbreak. 

What is surprising, though, is that another major player in Seattle philanthropy (and Microsoft mythology) has also responded decisively. 

Paul Allen has launched the Tackle Ebola campaign, and helped create several partnerships to take on the issue, committing $20 million to the cause through his Paul G. Allen Foundation, with his investment firm, Vulcan, Inc., also backing the effort. 

Sure, Allen hasn't committed as much as the Gates Foundation yet, but he has pushed more money out the door, showing that having a smaller and more nimble foundation has its advantages, especially when immediate action is required. There's also no indication that Allen is done with this issue, either; new announcements have been made regularly over the last few weeks. 

Allen's commitment here isn't just significant in terms of the amount of money he's given; it may also signify a shift in his philanthropy and give us a preview of what may be to come.

Allen, of course, is best known for his massive investment in brain science, which we've covered often here at IP. As well, he's well known in the Pacific Northwest for his extensive giving in his home region.

See IP's full profile of Paul Allen

So, for a long time, the picture we had of Paul Allen's philanthropy was of a guy laser focused on making a big mark on a very specific frontier of science while also doing his best to give back locally. 

But Allen's philanthropy has been changing, and broadening, in just the past year or two. He's getting involved in more stuff through his foundation's Global Initiatives program, including a big jump into protecting the health of oceans and a growing foray into wildlife conservation. Also, the foundation's funding in basic science, which began in a big way in 2010, has expanded Paul Allen's philanthropic footprint well beyond brain science. And just the other day we reported on how Allen has given big to a ballot drive to strengthen gun control laws in Washington State. 

And now comes the Allen foundation's urgent response to Ebola, which feels completely out of right field, since Allen has never done significant giving in the field of global health or humanitarian disasters. 

What is the Allen foundation doing to stem the spread of Ebola? Well, that keeps changing as new gifts are made, but here's what we have so far: 

  • $9 million to the CDC Foundation to establish emergency operations centers in the most-affected countries, GuineaLiberia and Sierra Leone.
  • A $3.6 million matching gift that created a partnership with UNICEF and UPS to airlift 50,000 protection kits into Liberia.
  • A $3 million grant establishing a partnership with Airlink to execute an air bridge to deliver critically needed medical protective gear and pharmaceuticals.
  • $2.8 million to the American Red Cross to fund equipment, volunteers and educational materials in the hardest hit regions.
  • $1.3 million to Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) to treat infected patients.
  • $318,000 to Medical Teams International to provide housing, transportation and equipment for MTI’s staff, supporting infection control at 250 health clinics, contact tracing and case investigation, and preventative and responsive health care in refugee camps in Liberia.
  • A $100,000 matching grant to Global Giving, funding 10 organizations that will distribute sanitation supplies, conduct training sessions and produce public service announcements.

The Allen foundation isn't just writing checks. Tackle Ebola launched with its own brand and website, and with publicity efforts aimed at building public awareness of the epidemic and getting Americans to donate to relief efforts. Two players from Allen's football team, the Seahawks, have made videos to support the cause. 

All this feels like a big pivot point in Allen's philanthropy. What's driving it?

Since we can't put Allen on the couch, and we're still hoping to talk to Jody Allen, who runs the foundation, we can't say for sure right now. 

Allen has said about Eloba that this is a "winnable battle should never be lost." And he's said, “We can tackle Ebola, but it will require an accelerated and coordinated global effort. Time is of the essence in this battle.” 

Of course, Allen is right that containing Ebola is basically a straightforward challenge that hinges on resources more than anything else. This is not, as the cliche goes, brain surgery, and that apparently appeals to a guy who has spent a fortune on brain science. 

The broader picture here is of a philanthropist who's beginning to look up and around at the broader array of challenge facing the planet, and showing a new appetite for making a wider impact. 

All of which makes sense. Allen is sitting on a $17 billion fortune; he's signed the Giving Pledge; and he's not getting any younger. He's also mastered the first two spheres of philanthropy he took onbrain science and community givingand clearly now has the bandwidth to do more. 

Which is a good thing for the people of West Africa.