The Seattle nonprofit PATH has named Steve Davis, best-known for helping run the digital-media company Corbis, as its new president and CEO.

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At first glance, Steve Davis seems like an odd pick as the new leader of PATH.

The Seattle nonprofit is known for its work to improve health in the developing world through tools like water filters, birthing kits for rural women and vaccines against parasitic diseases.

Davis, 54, is best known for the nearly 15 years he spent helping run Corbis, the Seattle-based digital media company owned by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.

But the Montana native has deep roots as an advocate for social justice and the disenfranchised, starting with his first job out of college working with refugees who fled the “killing fields” of Cambodia.

In the years since, Davis earned a law degree at Columbia University, became a specialist in civil rights and intellectual property, served on a dizzying list of boards, fought for gay and lesbian causes and led a Seattle biotech.

That varied background will help him guide PATH through a new era, Davis said Monday — an era when funding is uncertain and the traditional approach to aid is being questioned.

“I think we’re entering a different stage in the evolution of the global health arena — and of PATH,” he said.

There’s a growing shift away from programs that focus on single diseases, such as AIDS or tuberculosis, in favor of a broader view of what it takes to lift people out of poverty and improve health, Davis explained. Developing countries also want to set their own priorities, not have them imposed by outside groups. And booming nations like China, Brazil and India are shifting from aid recipients to aid funders.

“The next 10 years will be very interesting, and critical, in global health and global development,” Davis said.

Lisa Cohen, executive director of the Washington Global Health Alliance, praised Davis’ skills as a leader and strategic thinker. “He’s somebody who’s going to hit the ground running,” she said.

Davis replaces Dr. Chris Elias, who led the nonprofit through more than a decade of explosive growth. In 2000, PATH had about 300 employees and an annual budget of $60 million. Today, the budget is $305 million and the payroll extends to 1,200 people working in 22 countries. PATH outgrew its old headquarters in Ballard and moved into a high-rise in South Lake Union in 2010.

The nonprofit’s fortunes are closely linked to its biggest benefactor — the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Elias now leads the foundation’s global development and anti-poverty programs. Davis’ long friendship with the Microsoft billionaire certainly won’t hurt PATH’s prospects, Cohen said.

But Davis pointed out that more than half of PATH’s annual budget comes from the federal government and other sources — and he hopes to continue that diversification.

The response to Davis’ appointment by some longtime global-health experts was a collective: “Who?” His reputation is more as a techie and a manager than someone with on-the-ground experience in the developing world, one said.

“The choice is definitely outside the typical mold,” added another veteran, Melinda Moree, former director of malaria-vaccine development at PATH. “But increasingly leaders from industry are coming into the nonprofit sector, which could be a good thing,” said Moree, who now leads a drug-development program called BIO Ventures for Global Health.

Davis pointed out he has served on PATH’s board and lived in China, where he studied legal issues and worked behind the scenes to help the Gates Foundation gain a foothold. He also spent six months as the temporary leader of PATH’s programs in India, during which he was based largely in Delhi.

He said his primary goal will be to help PATH make strategic decisions about its future: What to focus on to have the biggest impact. How to scale-up projects. And how to be most effective in a shifting landscape.

“My job is to coax and guide and help set strategy,” he said.

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com