top of page

Part science, part magic: The Smithsonian, Seattle, and the future of philanthropy

This month, the Smithsonian Institution announced a new initiative called American Philanthropy, and a new exhibition called Giving in America. They are hiring a full-time Curator of Philanthropy, expanding their permanent collection, and developing research and scholarship alongside the effort.


The Smithsonian plays an important and vastly complex role in American identity, preservation, and learning; it’s a philanthropic marvel. Most Americans don’t know that the Smithsonian’s origin lies in the somewhat mysterious bequest of James Smithson, a British scientist who had never been to America. Close to two hundred years later, we now know just how catalytic this extraordinary gift became.

Philanthropy is part science and part magic. The combination of detailed strategy and game-changing generosity can be awe-inspiring. In the case of James Smithson, his generosity conjured a world-changing institution out of thin air.


As a kid in the DC area, I grew up with that classic mix of disdain and wonder with regard to the Smithsonian. I complained about every field trip to the Portrait Gallery or the American History Museum, but I adored the Air and Space Museum’s antique planes, Hubble telescope images, and astronaut ice cream. The Museum of Natural History’s gemstone exhibit boggles my mind to this day. I simply cannot wait to show my young son the taxidermied elephant that lives in their lobby, the preserved giant squid, and the dinosaur skeletons. And then there’s the National Zoo, and the giant pandas, and their cubs. Everyone has their own favorites.

But the Smithsonian is so much more than museums. It has a broad reach in the research and preservation sciences, with huge institutional support aimed at everything from environmental sustainability and astrophysics to American art and museum preservation. The Smithsonian Archives are a national treasure. As a songwriter, performer, and scholar of 20th century music, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of the Smithsonian’s acquisition and continuation of the Folkways record label to help preserve and educate our citizens and visitors. Everyone has their own favorites.


According to 2014 figures, nearly 80% of the Smithsonian is funded by the feds – a combination of appropriations (64%) and grants (15%). When talking about billion dollar budgets, it can be difficult to stop and think about, conceptually, how this could relate to nonprofits in our community with budgets that are 0.05% of that size. But I get a little caught up in imagining what it may have seemed like to old James Smithson. What purpose did he envision for his gift? Did he intend to ignite a civic institution unique in the world? Did he anticipate the thousands of people it would employ, or the millions of lives it would touch?

I don’t doubt that many of you reading this have dreamily contemplated the profound efforts of philanthropists and nonprofits alike. Nor do I doubt that you have seen small gifts yield extraordinary outcomes, far greater than could have been imagined.

As fundraisers, we often discuss ways to engage new donors and ways to describe impact. Again, this is part science and part magic; some critical things can be predicted, measured, and repeated, while others simply happen whether they were meant to or not. Our job is to generate the opportunity for both science and magic in order to create the foundation for change in our community.


The Smithsonian’s vision, “Shaping the future by preserving our heritage, discovering new knowledge, and sharing our resources with the world,” is one that most philanthropists share. From Andrew Carnegie to Bill and Melinda Gates, philanthropists strive to continue to fulfill this vision in myriad ways. There is no right way to make an impact on a person, a family, a city, or a society. Nevertheless, there is great value in appreciating what has worked in the past, how lasting contributions came about, and what conditions allowed them to thrive.

Seattle has a long and rich philanthropic history. Wealth generated from natural resources and manufacturing far pre-dates the tech boom of recent decades, and corporations like Boeing, PACCAR, and Weyerhaeuser continue to be important players in the philanthropic landscape of our region. Later, the wealth generated by Microsoft spurned a new wave of extreme growth and innovation in giving.

That we are currently experiencing outsized growth of Amazon, radical income inequality, and also social justice advocacy is not mere coincidence. Correlation, of course, does not imply causation, as we who produce grant reports well know. But wealth, philanthropy, and social justice are inextricably linked. Depending on one’s political persuasion, one might add government to that group as well. Given the specialized nature of our region’s economic success and innovation, our potential for national and global influence on the philanthropic landscape is astounding.

At Ostara, we often get to learn about new philanthropic initiatives and new nonprofit programs that address our most pressing issues. Many Seattle organizations are deeply involved in promoting a better society – en masse, or one person at a time. Our clients help people with disabilities gain satisfying employment, provide emotional and financial support for cancer patients and their loved ones, provide food for struggling families, educate vulnerable students of all ages, support their college readiness, and mentor them through complex social and emotional learning challenges. Some clients focus on ensuring access to healthcare, some bring the arts to the chronically underserved, and some boost the capacity of other non-profit organizations. That’s just the tip of the iceberg; everyone has their own favorites.

The Smithsonian, too, is engaged in this important work on a different scale. Since I left the DC area, they have helped build the national conversation on these topics in their way, first with the opening of the American Indian Museum (2004), and next year with the completion of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (2016). Giving in America adds tremendously to the depth of this conversation. As with most things, it won’t fix the problem, but it is a start. 


bottom of page