The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is spreading its wealth across the Northwest by giving grants to community organizations that in turn will fund local projects that help low-income families.

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More famous for fighting sickness and poverty abroad, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is spreading a little more of its wealth across the Pacific Northwest with grants to nine community organizations.

The amounts are modest compared to the billions the world’s largest philanthropy invests in cures and vaccines for malaria, AIDS and other major killers. But the $5 million infusion will be a significant boost for local groups, and several of the grants will reach people in rural parts of the state where the foundation’s largesse has barely penetrated.

“It’s going to make a huge difference here,” said Rose Lincoln Hamilton, CEO and president of the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation, which received $1 million — the largest of the nine grants.

The other awards range from $340,000 to $700,000, and target some of Washington’s poorest counties. The overarching goal is to reduce the kind of entrenched poverty that persists from one generation to the next, said Marie Sauter, program officer for the Seattle-based Gates Foundation.

The grant recipients won’t hang onto the money but will act as philanthropic clearinghouses, passing it on to nonprofits in the community that provide everything from job-skills training to permanent housing for homeless families.

That means the foundation will be making fewer direct grants and relying on the expertise of these nine organizations to pick the most effective local programs to fund, said David Bley, director of the foundation’s Pacific Northwest Initiative.

“They have relationships and knowledge that we could simply never have,” he said. “They’re going to make better use of our money.”

Since its earliest days, the Gates Foundation has given to programs in its backyard — though those efforts are overshadowed by the nearly $3 billion a year the foundation devotes to global health, development and educational programs. The foundation’s Pacific Northwest program distributes about $38 million annually, mostly in Washington state and Portland.

Until now, the bulk of that spending has been concentrated in the Puget Sound region, Bley said.

The new grants will expand the foundation’s geographic reach to include a more intensive focus on Central, Eastern and Southwest Washington, as well as Whatcom and Pierce counties and the Yakima Valley.

The $350,000 going to the Inland Northwest Community Foundation isn’t the organization’s first Gates grant, but it is the largest, said Mark Hurtubise, CEO and president of the Spokane-based foundation.

The group works across an area the size of Illinois in Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho. In some of the 20 counties it covers, nearly 30 percent of people live below the poverty level.

Being designated one of the Gates Foundation’s community partners will give the organization a boost in visibility, and leverage to attract other donors, Hurtubise said.

“It’s sort of the sterling seal of approval we’ve been awarded,” he said. “What’s most important isn’t the amount of money, but the philosophy behind it and having the Gates name associated with Eastern Washington.”

Hurtubise hopes to work with rural communities and nonprofits to find ways to get at the roots of long-term poverty, instead of just addressing the symptoms with emergency programs such as food banks. “What we’ve done historically has been all good work, but have we really moved the meter?” he asked. “This will allow us to drill down.”

The new Gates funding will be spread over four years. For the Tacoma foundation, it amounts to a 60 percent increase in the money that will go to local nonprofits competing for grants, said Hamilton. The average grant size is growing, from a little over $6,000 to $8,000.

“That’s a big increase in the amount of money we can give to area nonprofits,” she said.

The foundation picked the nine organizations because they are key players in their local communities, Sauter said. Beyond a general guideline that the money go to help low-income families, it will largely be up to the organizations to decide how best to spend it. The Gates Foundation plans to issue similar grants to a new group of community organizations every year for the foreseeable future, Bley said.

The other grant recipients and the amounts they received are: Spokane County United Way, $700,000; Community Foundation for Southwest Washington, $700,000; United Way of the Columbia-Willamette, $700,000; United Way of Central Washington, $440,000; Yakima Valley Community Foundation, $440,000; Potlatch Fund, $400,000; Whatcom Community Foundation, $340,000.

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or