The Bullitt Foundation, an agenda-setting funder of the Northwest environmental movement, plans to wind down a quarter-century of grant-giving that has pumped more than $200 million into efforts ranging from restoration projects on the Green River to climate activism, as it pushed the region toward a greener future.
The foundation, which traces its roots to a storied Seattle family, will give away most of what’s left of its endowment during the next five years.
“The board decided, right from the start, that we did not want to be here in perpetuity,” said Denis Hayes, the Bullitt Foundation’s executive director, who also said the foundation was nearing the point when “we must pass the torch to the next generation of environmental philanthropists.”
Once the grant-giving ends in 2024, the foundation plans to continue to award its annual prize for environmental leadership, and also lease office space at its Seattle headquarters – the six-story Bullitt Center – that has gained international recognition for its ecological design.
Bullitt, which had less than $82 million in net assets in 2017, is a relatively small foundation yet has has played an outsized role in shaping the regional environmental agenda.
Much of that is due to Hayes, who organized the first Earth Day and led a solar-research institute in President Jimmy Carter’s administration. At the Bullitt Foundation, he has helped bring Northwest environmental leaders together to discuss where the movement should go, how to get there and how to diversify its ranks to include more communities of color.
“They’ve really challenged organizations to think about racial equity and racial justice,” said Joan Crooks, CEO of the Washington Environmental Council and Washington Conservation Voters.
The foundation’s grants typically range from $40,000 to $120,000, often seed money for groups that, once they passed muster with the Bullitt Foundation, had an easier time persuading other donors to chip in.
“It’s like Warren Buffett buying stock; if they support an effort, it tends to move other money,” said Alan Durning, the founder of Sightline Institute, which received a start-up grant of $20,000 from the foundation in 1993 when he was working out of his Seattle bedroom. Today, Sightline, an environmental policy group, continues to receive Bullitt Foundation support, but that money is a now a small part of a $2.2 million budget for an organization that has grown to employ 20 people in three cities.
Early focus was conservation
Through the years, the Bullitt Foundation has spread dollars across a broad swath of the region ranging from Alaska to Oregon and east to Idaho and Montana. Since 2016, the foundation has focused more narrowly on what Hayes calls the “emerald corridor” that stretches from Vancouver, B.C. to Portland. It is a region that he hopes could become a global model for equitable, sustainable urban development – a vision that still seems far away as the Northwest grapples with an epidemic of homelessness.
Some Bullitt Foundation money has gone to groups testing new ideas in housing, energy and agriculture. In the early years there was more of a focus on conserving lands, including grants to groups campaigning for preservation of what became the Hanford Reach National Monument and the Cascade Siskiyou National Monument.
Many of the grants have helped to fuel efforts by groups that organize protests, file lawsuits or lobby for legislation.
“I would say 90%-plus of our grants have been designed to influence policy,” Hayes said. “As a nonprofit, we cannot make a grant to hire a lobbyist or influence legislation … but all the policy development is fair game to us.”
Increasingly, the Bullitt Foundation and Hayes have wrestled with how to shift the region away from fossil fuels that drive climate change as they are burned or leaked into the atmosphere drive climate change.
Taking a cue from scientists who say strong action must be taken within the next decade to head off the worst effects of a warming planet, the foundation has ramped up spending.
On that climate-change front, Bullitt Foundation funding has included grants to Seattle-based Climate Solutions, the Washington Environmental Council and the Northwest Energy Coalition, which successfully pushed for 2019 legislation in Olympia to reduce carbon emissions. The foundation also has made grants to Columbia Riverkeepers, which has repeatedly challenged permitting of fossil fuel development projects.
There are failures to go along with the success.
Hayes backed Initiative 1631, the 2018 ballot measure that would have put a fee on state carbon emissions, and the Bullitt Foundation funded, over the years, some of the proponents. In an opinion piece published in Crosscut (which receives Bullitt Foundation money) days before the election, Hayes tried to rally support as he attacked BP oil – a major contributor to the opposition campaign – as “the face of environmental villainy.”
The Washington initiative was resoundingly defeated, and at the national level the Trump administration is rolling back Obama-era policies to reduce emissions.
“Bottom line, in 2021, if the U.S. and major carbon emitters don’t dramatically change direction, we’ll have made the decision to permanently impoverish the planet,” Hayes said in a recent interview.
Built by timber money
The foundation was created by Dorothy Bullitt, whose family’s initial wealth came from cutting down and milling one of the region’s most abundant resources – old-growth timber.
Born in 1892, she was the daughter of C.D. Stimson, who invested in real estate and joined with his brother and father to build Stimson Lumber Company, one of the oldest wood products companies in the nation.
Dorothy married attorney A. Scott Bullitt in 1918, and when her husband died in 1932, she embarked on her own business career. She managed real estate and acquired radio stations. Then, as television came of age, she founded King Broadcasting, with its flagship station, Seattle’s KING-TV.
In 1952, Dorothy created the foundation, which by 1977 had funding of $1.3 million and – influenced by two of her children Charles Stimson Bullitt and Harriet Bullitt – emerged as an early regional pioneer of environmental giving.
“It’s what we were interested in as a family,” Bullitt said in a 1977 interview in The Seattle Times, which described it then as a “radical among local foundations” and noted grants that preserved a canyon and funded a group involved in environmental lawsuits.
In 1991, two years after Dorothy Bullitt died, KING Broadcasting was sold. Much of the proceeds went to the foundation, which saw its endowment swell to more than $85 million. In 1992, the foundation hired Hayes, who grew up in Southwest Washington, to help lead a new era of activist grant-giving.
He said he initially planned to stay less than a decade. But today, at age 74, he still directs the foundation’s work.
“This region is part of my soul,” Hayes said. “The job is deeply rewarding.”
For years, the foundation board knew its ability to fund grants would come to an end. Strong investment returns continued to push that date back. Meanwhile, the board wrestled with what would remain of the foundation once the grants end, according to Rod Brown, founder of Cascadia Law and the Bullitt board chair.
Brown said the board members rallied around a plan that keeps ownership of its headquarters, which pushed the envelope of green design when it first opened in 2013 and has since attracted some 30,000 visitors from world.
The $32.5 million building, designed to last 250 years, was a big investment for the foundation, with Hayes hoping it would serve as a model that would spur more innovation in the building industry.
The center, which is fully leased and has operated profitably, relies on geothermal wells for radiant heating. Outdoor blinds automatically tilt at various angles to regulate the interior temperature. Solar panels power the the building, with excess electricity sent to Seattle City Light’s grid. Rainwater on the roof, collected in a 56,000-gallon cistern, provides drinking water.
The interior design, spare and modern with cozy wood complements, leaves visitors with the impression they might be an interloper in an Apple commercial.
In an interview, Gov. Jay Inslee described the center as the “Taj Mahal of energy efficiency” and an “absolute monument.” Inslee said the structure likely helped persuade lawmakers this session to pass a bill he supported to create new energy standards for large buildings.
Hayes still takes pride in the building that he made sure “walks the talk” of environmentalism.
In winter, Hayes sometimes traverses its concrete floors in socks to enjoy the radiant heat. On a hot summer day, it’s comfortable, even without air conditioning.
The building’s loan will be paid off soon, Hayes said. Some tenants will be phased out when their leases expire.
The foundation plans to fill the office with environmental organizations, activists and like-minded organizations and charge “dramatically reduced rates” on rent, he said.
This final bet on the movement’s future will be the foundation’s legacy.