The sale in 1994 of Seattle’s Aldus to Adobe for $525 million didn’t end Paul Brainerd’s entrepreneurial run. It just pointed it in a new direction.
A personal windfall of roughly $120 million allowed Brainerd, whose PageMaker software revolutionized desktop publishing, to break from the business world and move to nonprofits. He spearheaded the launch of a series of organizations that sought innovative strategies for practicing philanthropy, education and saving the environment.
Those efforts include Social Venture Partners, a program to spur high-impact philanthropy and educate donors that has expanded to 44 chapters in nine countries; IslandWood, an environmental learning organization with a 250-acre campus on Bainbridge Island near Seattle; ONE/Northwest, a program now called Groundwire, that helped enviro groups boost their tech savvy; and an eco-friendly campground in New Zealand, where Brainerd currently spends much of his time.
And at the root of it all is the Brainerd Foundation, launched shortly after Brainerd, then 47 years old, sold Aldus. The environmentally-focused foundation has forged its own way, funding hundreds of nonprofits in a holistic, collaborative approach to conservation. Along the way, Brainerd and the organizations he helped found had an outsized impact on the Pacific Northwest, the region he long called home.
When Brainerd turned from money-making to do-gooding, he brought with him an innovative, entrepreneurial outlook more closely associated with the tech world. And now, nearly 25 years after his philanthropic chapter first opened, some major plot twists are unfolding.
The Brainerd Foundation, which has awarded grants roughly totaling $66 million so far, is taking the uncommon route of “sunsetting.” Brainerd decided to disperse the foundation’s remaining dollars by 2020 and close its doors for multiple reasons, including a sense of urgency in addressing serious environmental issues and because he doesn’t have children to take over the organization.
At the same time, the original Seattle chapter of Social Venture Partners, or SVP, has initiated a reinvention of sorts, reorienting the nonprofit to address race and equity issues that have long cried out for greater attention and taken on a heightened urgency in recent years.
And this fall, the Northwest Conservation Philanthropy Fellowship — an initiative with ties to SVP and the foundation — will host its sixth and possibly penultimate session, providing a small cohort of philanthropists with an intensive training in effective giving and nonprofit engagement.
It’s a program to spark the next generation of donors in a time when environmental protections and other causes dear to Brainerd are under assault.
But Brainerd takes comfort when others become engaged, when he encounters “[p]eople who are willing to give of their time, money and skills to make a difference,” he said by email from New Zealand. “Every time when I meet one of these people, I am inspired and hopeful for the future.”
An entrepreneurial spirit
Brainerd’s path to environmental involvement is pretty easy to follow. Born in 1947, he developed a strong love of nature spending summers at a rustic family cabin at Diamond Lake in southern Oregon.
His journey to selling a tech company for half-a-billion dollars is more circuitous.
Brainerd’s parents owned a photography studio and camera shop in Medford, Ore., and readily shared the ups and downs of business ownership with Paul and his younger sister, Sherry.
“My entrepreneurial spirit is much connected to the experience of my family running a small business,” said Brainerd in a 2006 interview with the Computer History Museum in California. “…[T]hey inspired me and gave me the confidence to do what I did.”
Brainerd studied business and journalism as an undergraduate and in a master’s degree program, and worked at his universities’ newspapers. After graduation, he was the assistant to the operations director at the Minneapolis Star and Tribune Company where he gained firsthand experience with the technology used in newspaper publishing. That included the newsroom’s adoption of Atex, a clunky text-processing system for reporters that used primitive computer terminals.
Brainerd made the jump from journalism to the nascent tech sector when he was offered a position at Atex as vice president of maintenance and customer service. He worked in Boston, then for a West Coast division that Atex ultimately shut down — but not before Brainerd had the chance to work with engineers developing a visual graphics interface for newspaper layout.
Unemployed but with a small nest egg funded by Atex stocks, Brainerd launched his own tech company, hiring four of his laid-off colleagues.
“We gave ourselves the task of doing the business plan, building the prototype, writing the functional specification and raising the money that we’d need to continue,” Brainerd recounted in 2006. “We literally had six months to do it because we only had roughly $100,000 in capital, which is what I put up. The engineers worked at half salary and I worked for no salary.”
In the summer of 1984, Brainerd set out to raise money for Aldus and their PageMaker product. He pitched to venture capitalists in Seattle and Silicon Valley. Forty-nine turned him down. With only $5,000 left in the bank, the 50th, which included former Apple Computer executives, said yes.
“Microsoft hadn’t gone public yet,” Brainerd recalled in the earlier interview. “It was still a private company, and people just didn’t see how a software company was a worthy investment. It was too risky.”
Aldus shipped PageMaker 1.0 within a year, with Brainerd coining the phrase “desktop publishing.”
Less than a decade later, Aldus merged with Adobe and Brainerd was out of work again — this time by choice.
A foundation as a partner
When Brainerd made his shift from technologist to philanthropist, one of his first calls was to his sister. He asked if Sherry, who was herself a successful tech entrepreneur, wanted to be a part of his new foundation.
“Neither of us really knew what we were going to be doing, but I knew that environmental issues were critically important and we both had a tie to the Pacific Northwest and cared about the land and how people interacted with it,” said Sherry Brainerd. “It sounded like it would be a really engaging thing to be involved with.”
So they launched the Brainerd Foundation with $50 million, and Paul as president and Sherry as vice president. One of Paul’s first steps was touring Northwest states and provinces to learn directly from communities and nonprofits about their challenges.
“He didn’t want it to be another foundation where he could throw a bunch of money in a bucket and dole it out,” said Ann Krumboltz, long-time co-director of the Brainerd Foundation. “He wanted to make sure that the programs that we designed were ones that were as effective and efficient as possible to help our grantees do what they need to do to achieve their goals.”
The result was a foundation that strove to act with humility as a partner, advisor and sometimes confidante to those engaged in environmental causes.
The group has funded more than 300 organizations and prides itself in bringing together disparate partners, including landowners, farmers, native peoples and conservation groups. Recent initiatives include funding groups who successfully fought the construction of an oil terminal in Vancouver, Wash., and an effort by First Nations to protect land in the Yukon.
The foundation wanted to create systemic changes. That meant funding litigation, advocacy and support for policy changes. It has worked to build strong nonprofits that will thrive after the Brainerd Foundation sunsets and the flow of dollars ends. It’s difficult to close shop as environmental protections are under attack from the Trump administration, but if the money was well spent, its impacts should be lasting.
“We have maximized our input to our grantees during a time frame where they had the luxury to learn and move forward,” Sherry Brainerd said. “So now in this atmosphere, hopefully they will be better prepared to move forward.”
VC model of philanthropy
In 1997 — the start of the dot-com bubble — the Northwest was already feeling flush with tech dollars. It was a perfect time, Paul Brainerd and others reasoned, to tap some of that wealth for good.
So he and fellow Seattle business leaders Scott Oki, Ida Cole, Bill Neukom, and Doug and Maggie Walker, invited friends to the Ruins, an event space near the Seattle Center. One hundred people showed up to learn about their vision for giving.
“The model that they created was active, engaged, collective philanthropy,” said Paul Shoemaker, SVP’s long-time former president. It was “not passive and just writing a check, and not doing it alone.”
“They really were part of a new wave of bringing in philanthropists who were new to supporting nonprofits,” said Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy. “They had quite the insight to say, ‘We need to act more like venture capitalists do and get involved on the ground floor.’”
SVP partners — the people who become donors through the program — act almost like VC or angel investors, offering their dollars as well as their professional expertise to nonprofits. In addition to giving out $18.5 million in grants, the partners have contributed more than 43,000 hours of skilled volunteering since the program started.
“You are really there to help them figure out what the organization needs and how SVP can help them build up that organization,” said Dawn Trudeau, co-owner of the Seattle Storm women’s pro-basketball team and SVP partner.
Seattle SVP’s most public role locally is hosting the annual SVP Fast Pitch where entrepreneurs compete for grant dollars and receive coaching in developing their ideas for tackling social and environmental problems.
Trudeau, who was a general manager at Microsoft, attended that first meeting at the Ruins and left excited by the opportunity to be hands-on in her giving. “I wanted to make sure what I was doing made a difference,” she said. “You don’t have a lot of time for this, and if you’re going to do it, you want to make sure it’s going to have an impact.”
“I am very excited about the role that SVP has played over the last 20 years in preparing a new generation of community leaders for this work,” Brainerd said by email. “SVP has engaged lots of smart people with good hearts that really are making a difference in their communities.”
‘A time for change’
And now Seattle SVP is launching an effort to increase its community impact by putting racial diversity and equality front and center.
CEO Solynn McCurdy, who took the helm a year ago, is leading the charge.
“With any organization, there is always going to be a time for change and organizational growth and shifting,” said McCurdy.
Seattle SVP is going to examine its grant making — the group already supports nonprofits’ general funds so that dollars aren’t tied to specific initiatives — and will look at how it measures success to make sure it’s helping enable racially diverse efforts. SVP may seek out nonprofits led by boards of color or those explicitly committed to racial equity. It will also help grantees run programs that are intrinsically multi-cultural and anti-racist.
On the partner side, Seattle SVP wants to encourage and recruit a more diverse membership. The near-term goal is by 2020 to double the percent of partners who are people of color, aiming for 30 percent.
“We have felt like an elite club of former tech folks and we need to get beyond that now after 20 years,” McCurdy said. The shift, he acknowledges, might be tough for some.
“It’s not going to be without some scrapes and bumps along the way,” he said, but added, “I hope people can trust us enough to pick up their backpack and go on this journey.”
‘Impact and empower’
Now in his 70s, Paul Brainerd isn’t spinning out new philanthropic ventures the way he used to. Parkinson’s disease has slowed him down — but it hasn’t stopped his nonprofit engagement.
Brainerd and his wife, Debbi, spend much of their time in New Zealand in a town called Glenorchy, near Queenstown. It’s a spectacular setting and recognizable to many as the backdrop for the rugged mountain and forest landscapes featured in “The Hobbit” and “Lord the of Rings” movies.
A few years ago, the Brainerds purchased a dilapidated campsite in Glenorchy and rebuilt it into an ultra-green facility constructed in part from recyclable materials and powered with solar energy. There are affordable accommodations and the site features work from local artists. Plans for Camp Glenorchy upset some of the locals who objected to American outsiders launching a development in their quiet town. But others cheered the environmentally sustainable project, which created jobs and whose profits are funneled into a community fund. The campground opened in March.
It’s a development well aligned with Brainerd’s lifelong efforts to give people the tools they need to advance their causes, from Aldus’s software — which Boris Yeltsin used to spread opposition to a KGB-led coup — to grooming new environmental advocates and bolstering eco-groups to giving an economic boost to a community.
Bill McAleer, former Aldus chief financial officer and co-founder of Voyager Capital — as well as a long-time friend to Brainerd — said the trajectory makes sense to him.
“He’s a guy,” McAleer said of Paul, “who wants to have an impact and empower and move things forward.”