The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation looks homeward

Richard Hugo played semi-pro baseball and, as a young man and something of a loner, fished Porgies in a now-polluted stretch of the Duwamish River that runs through Seattle’s industrial harbor.

He served in the Army Air Corps during World War II and later returned to his native White Center, a district near West Seattle that, at the time, was home to many European immigrants. After completing English and creative writing degrees at the University of Washington, he worked as a technical writer for the Northwest’s iconic airplane manufacturer, Boeing.

In 1961, Hugo published his first book of poetry, A Run of Jacks. From then until his untimely death in 1982 from leukemia, Hugo set down a powerful body of work in both prose and poetry that breathed life into the overlooked, undervalued, and mostly forgotten places of the Pacific Northwest. His words today resuscitate for readers timeless themes culled from the particularity of an authentically Northwest and, indeed, American life and landscape.

I was pleasantly reminded of Richard Hugo this week when the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation announced its latest round of grants: $2.5 million in awards to 38 different nonprofit organizations contributing to, among other things, the health and vibrancy of cities and towns through the arts.

The foundation contributed $30,000 in support of the Richard Hugo House’s 2011–2012 Literary Series, a program that commissions original works by authors such as Sherman Alexie and Charles Johnson. Named for the poet of “overlooked places,” the Hugo House on Seattle’s Capital Hill is a home for writers and readers. The grant to the Hugo House caught my eye for a couple of reasons.

First, the Hugo House is the kind of local nonprofit that is easily and often overlooked by large foundations, especially in these recessionary times. Its budget is modest, its namesake and board members are mostly unknown, and its sphere of influence is hopelessly (and blessedly) local. With its 20,000-volume collection of zines, comics, chapbooks, and other small-press periodicals, the Hugo House hardly conforms to the grandiose theories of change promoted by many large foundations.

Yet, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation’s catalog of grantees is a laundry list of many overlooked Northwest places like the Hugo House: The Log Cabin Literary Center in Boise, Idaho; Literary Arts in Portland, Oregon; Perseverance Theatre in Douglas, Alaska; Company of Fools in Haley, Idaho; and many others. The list of grantees is striking for its off-beat attention to the nonprofits that make the Northwest a distinctive place and that tell the story of who we are. Someone at the foundation has been doing their homework. Someone there cares about the Northwest as a real, distinctive place.

Second, the professionalization of philanthropy has made it more difficult for small organizations like the Hugo House and other locally focused nonprofits to compete for grants from large private foundations, not to mention from government sources. This is not merely because such nonprofits lack the necessary staff or sophistication, as is often reported. Many of today’s foundation officers and government granting officials have been trained in professional graduate programs in philanthropy. These programs consciously and unconsciously promote a certain habit of mind among their graduates: a habit of mind that pursues so-called industry best practices in philanthropy—practices that often exclude the unconventional, idiosyncratic, and local.

For example, the mind-numbing academic and industry obsession with the nebulous concepts of “impact” and “advocacy,” as reflected in the recent book Do More than Give, almost ensures the crowding out of nonconformist nonprofits. There is a real danger that as foundations and governments pursue similar “best-practice” standards in grantmaking, the diversity of America’s nonprofits will be diminished.

The federal government’s Social Innovation Fund is, perhaps, the best example of how cutting-edge thinking about “best practices” results in the crowding out of local knowledge, nonprofit diversity, and transparency in grantmaking. By establishing national standards for innovation through its application and review process, the Social Innovation Fund produces conformity.

The final thing that caught my attention about the Hugo House grant was this: Compared to the cacophony of press accounts celebrating the Giving Pledge and what more than one observer has called the second Golden Age of Philanthropy, it is striking how the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation has quietly and effectively gone about its business of focusing on local and regional philanthropy in the Northwest.

Local philanthropy, especially to direct service organizations and to the arts, is often looked down upon today by philanthropy professionals as mere “charity.” Charity is considered, well, unsophisticated and old-fashioned. Homespun. Charity is nice, even essential, but you’ll never change the world through charity.

But contrary to prevailing opinion, it is extraordinarily challenging to do local and regional philanthropy well, especially on a large scale. And there may be more to the notion of thinking and giving locally as a means of bettering our human lot than the globalists would have us believe. For one thing, doesn’t it make little sense to try to change the world when one’s backyard is in disarray?

By working with nonprofits that many other large foundations overlook—nonprofits like the Richard Hugo House—perhaps the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation will inspire other foundations to buck the experts and look homeward in their giving. If more foundations would nurture the cities, institutions, and nonprofits that have nurtured them and made their places distinctive, the world might be changed after all.

3 Responses to “The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation looks homeward”

  1. Jeff Cain says:

    Brian — I agree, words have the power to change lives. The Hugo House, like Hugo himself, is a gem of a place that has influenced many lives for the better. Keep up the great work.

    Steve — New site coming in late August at http://www.americanphilanthropic.com. I never visited the Hugo House when I was in college but have since then.

  2. Hi Jeff,

    Thank you for this wonderful piece on Hugo House. We are very honored to receive support from the Allen Foundation and appreciate you citing how important it is to support small, locally-focused nonprofits, like the House, especially in these tough economic times.

    I’d like to think we are, in fact, changing lives–one word at a time. I know Hugo House certainly changed mine when I came here seven years ago as a young writer looking for a place to call home.

    Thank you again!
    Brian

    Brian McGuigan
    Programs & Marketing Director
    Richard Hugo House

  3. Steve says:

    Jeff,

    Nice article. Did you ever visit the Hugo House when you attended Seattle U?

    I too have always felt uncomfortable about the “Think Global” mantra often cited whether it be charity or business. Meanwhile, I’m convinced that buying the Yuan is an excellent long term investment.

    When will the new web site be up?

    Cheers!

    Steve

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