A Mid-Year Letter from the Foundation

Jul 27 2023

We are midway through a year marked by optimism, a year where many closed the door on the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic and stepped through toward a better future. I anticipate many positive things for the remaining months of 2023, primarily because of the enthusiasm, innovation, and growth mindset demonstrated by so many of our grantees.

The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation portfolio addresses big challenges across the environment, arts & culture, and our communities. Our support ranges from protecting the natural environment, to investing in regional arts infrastructure, to elevating the talent and voices of youth. These are issues that can’t wait so we have decided to act quickly, commit to learning by doing, and then applying what we learn in subsequent efforts. In other words, act, learn, and iterate.

There are extraordinary changemakers out there working to better our world. We can all learn from them, help them replicate or scale their concepts, and connect across disciplines to move the needle faster and further on positive impact.

Changemakers were particularly evident in our portfolio during the past six months. With the second annual cohort of Earthshot Prize winners, we experienced a range of innovation and solution-oriented optimists working around the globe. I’m thinking of Charlot Magayi in Kenya, who, as a child, sold charcoal for fuel and saw firsthand the devastating respiratory impacts and safety hazards of charcoal burning. Charlot founded Mukuru Clean Stoves in 2017. Since then, 200,000 people across Kenya have saved $10 million in fuel costs, significantly cut emissions, and reduced the time young girls spent collecting firewood. Charlot plans to put clean-burning stoves in 1 million households in three years and 10 million in 10 years, which will make a significant impact on the environment and families throughout the continent. 

And changemakers emerge at any age. The foundation partnered with the National Geographic Society to launch the first Slingshot Challenge, and youth aged 13-18 were invited to submit concepts that tackle the most pressing environmental issues in their communities. In just its first year, more than 1,800 submissions from 80 countries poured in from dedicated young people who are already working to make a difference. The winners recently connected with National Geographic Explorers and like-minded NGOs to potentially scale their ideas. Teenager Abdullah Shahid in Pakistan can grow his cycle club, a grassroots movement to improve air quality in his city and change the way students get to school. Regina Gutierrez in Mexico can inspire others to restore ecosystems that have been damaged by fire. Soren Goldsmith can continue to use his camera to tell the stories of the magnificent wildlife that are threatened by unchecked urban development. Given the determination, ingenuity, and urgency that this next generation brings to our global challenges, it is no leap to anticipate a Slingshot Challenge winner in 2023 may become a future Earthshot Prize winner. We must nourish innovation and action—locally and globally—as early as we can. 

Slingshot Winners were invited to the National Geographic Explorers Festival in Washington D.C. where they had the opportunity to attend symposiums and engage with National Geographic Explorers from around the world. Photo courtesy of National Geographic Society.  
Slingshot Winners Nancy Nkili, Ayomide Alagbe, Oluwaseyi Aina, Mercy Ojotola, and Naimat Lukman are part of the MESL School Environmental Protection Club (MSEPC) in New Bussa, Nigeria. The objective of the club is to enlighten its members of the need to protect our environment and identify ways they can contribute to protecting the environment. Photo courtesy of National Geographic Society. 

Incorporating learning into how we fund also means shifting from what we already know to embracing the power of experimentation. We can sometimes find solutions at a more rapid pace through quick testing or iteration. The pilot Community Accelerator Grant with ArtsFund propelled us into new territory for accelerated arts and culture grantmaking and successfully distributed more than $10 million to 671 grantees across Washington state. These unrestricted grants ranged from $2,500 to $25,000, went to organizations serving 35 of the 39 Washington counties, and prioritized organizations serving BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and rural communities, as well as people with disabilities. Grantee Jessyca Murphy from Bellingham’s Make.Shift Art Space said, “[These funds] allow us to improve our programming and upgrade some things in the space. Even small things mean a lot to artists.” We look forward to an analysis of how grant money was spent, and how this format of accelerated, community-advised, unrestricted funding helped each grantee, as well as areas where the model may be improved. We want to further experiment and iterate to find new ways of celebrating arts and culture to strengthen communities.

The value of research and data is realized when learning unlocks action. Our partnership with the National Science Foundation (NSF) was formed on this principle of applied science. This unprecedented public/private Partnership to Advance Conservation Science and Practice combines NSF’s rigorous academic standards with our foundation’s experience supporting research-based, data-driven action. Six projects were funded through a combined $8 million grant, focusing on the protection and conservation of threatened or endangered species and habitats. Projects exhibited the rigorous innovation we anticipated, such as outfitting blunt-nosed lizards with radio transmitters and identifying the “Achilles heel” of White Noise Syndrome in bats. Kenneth Hayes from Bishop Museum said he was “excited about the ability to directly address the research knowledge gap for applied conservation action,” referring to his study of endangered Hawaiian land snails.  

It's not just science and data that are illuminating a path forward. It’s the communities of partners, academics, policymakers, and engaged youth that share our resolve of turning learning into solutions. The women of Home Range Wildlife Research continually engage their community of local stakeholders as they research how the endangered Canada lynx utilize burned habitat throughout the Methow Valley in Washington. One day Home Range is hosting residents to build monitoring traps and the next day they’re meeting with the U.S. Forest Service to share information that could lead to better fire control solutions. As grantee Carmen Vanbianchi said, “Crossing our fingers every year and hoping these megafires don’t burn lynx habitat is not a great management strategy.” Megafires impact wildlife, plant life, and humans alike, and the environment is inextricably linked to the well-being of society.   

High in the sub boreal forest of Washington’s North Cascade Mountains lives a rare wild cat; the Canada lynx. Today, fewer than 50 lynx are estimated to remain in the North Cascades where they face a growing threat: climate change-driven megafires. 
This project aims to understand how lynx use burned areas, and collect the information needed to recommend management actions that will create more resilient forests and conserve lynx populations threatened by megafires into the future. Photo courtesy of Home Range Wildlife Research. 

The Society for the Protection of Underground Networks (SPUN) issued a global call for science partners to document mycorrhizal fungi in the world’s underexplored regions—and the world responded. With 20 “underground explorers,” the data being collected will be translated into high-resolution maps projecting threats to underground ecosystems so the most vulnerable fungi can be identified and conserved. As Jessica Duchicela from Ecuador told us, “Mycorrhizal fungi networks are magical hidden secrets” that are under-explored and must be protected. These networks have played a critical role in supporting life on Earth for more than 450 million years and have been identified as an untapped resource in our fight against climate change.

Not unlike that vast underground web explored by SPUN, the foundation is working across our network of interconnected individuals and organizations, all pushing toward a common goal—action with impact. We’re only halfway through the year, but we will keep learning, applying insights, sharing discoveries, and fostering collaboration for a better world. I am excited to keep this feedback loop advancing, building upon each positive step to help address the significant challenges we face today. 

Lara Littlefield
Executive Director, Programs & Partnerships
On behalf of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation

For more information about the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation’s current portfolio, please visit pgafamilyfoundation.org.