Friday, February 7, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Empowerment To The People -- The Rainier Foundation: Ordinary Folks Giving Money Away To Worthy Recipients

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

Dr. Philip Nitschke of Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia, was baffled - pleasantly baffled - when he recently received a letter awarding him the "Rainier Foundation Humanitarian Award for 1997" and a $500 check.

The letter, postmarked Seattle, was only three paragraphs long, and told him that each year the Rainier Foundation makes unsolicited awards to deserving individuals.

"We are aware of your personal sacrifices and struggles," the letter added.

Nitschke has been the major player in Northern Territory's new law - the first anywhere that legalizes euthanasia for the terminally ill. A former park ranger who came to medicine late in life and built a practice among drug addicts and prostitutes, Nitschke devised a computer-controlled hypodermic needle that three of his dying patients have used to end their lives.

"I was left rather surprised and confused about who the Rainier Foundation was," said Nitschke by phone from the territory best known to most Americans as the wild land of Crocodile Dundee.

He'd put a inquiry on his Web home page ( but heard only from others who were curious, too.

"Do you know who these people are?" he asked. He was taken aback at the answer. "Really? That's who they are? Really? That's great!"

`It came in a shirt box'

When the package arrived in July at Ada Shen-Jaffe's Pioneer Square office, "It came in a shirt box, and I thought it must be a book or nightshirt from my sister. It had that home-wrapped quality."

Instead, she found a beautiful plaque for the Rainier Foundation Service Award and a $500 check.

It had been a tough year for Shen-Jaffe, who was head of Evergreen Legal Services (since dismantled and reorganized; Shen-Jaffe now directs Columbia Legal Services). Charged with providing civil legal representation to the poor, she'd faced federal funding cuts and new restrictions that forced the closure of six of 14 offices; the office had laid off or lost almost half the staff.

She noticed the name of the president of the Rainier Foundation who had signed the award letter: Lana Staheli. That was the Laurelhurst psychologist she'd met earlier at a party at Children's Hospital & Medical Center, where both their husbands worked.

They'd talked then how they served people at opposite ends of the spectrum. Shen-Jaffe said, "We're trying to keep homeless families from losing their children, dealing with battered women every day, senior citizens in nursing homes, farm workers." Staheli counseled the mostly well-off.

Shen-Jaffe recalls that Staheli just shook her head: "How do you and your people keep going, in the face of a public climate where it just seems people's compassion has reached its limits?"

Staheli was impressed when Shen-Jaffe mentioned she was canceling her longstanding plans to go to China with her family at the invitation of the Chinese government, because it wouldn't be right to go at such a tough time.

As she thought back, Shen-Jaffe realized that that conversation probably had prompted the award, which she passed to the legal-services fund-raising arm.

"I was shocked." But what, exactly, Shen-Jaffe wondered, was the Rainier Foundation?

Accomplished, but ordinary

Despite its lofty name, the Rainier Foundation is nine accomplished but ordinary Seattle-area folks. Comfortably off, but hardly moguls or captains of industry, they are a psychologist, a pediatric orthopedic physician, an attorney, a psychiatrist, financial planners, small-business persons.

Every year, each puts $1,000 into the pot. Then they get together quarterly to decide how to give the money away.

Throughout the year, they keep an eye out for worthy recipients - whether in the arts, medicine, education, social issues.

Call it the "mini-MacArthur" award - a home-grown, down-home version of the more famous "genius grants." As with the MacArthur awards, Rainier's money comes with no strings attached (they reason that if you give to good people, trust they'll do good things with it). It accepts no applications. If you're going to get one, it will simply come.

"We're passionate people who believe in the empowerment of people," says Penny Tanase, now retired and a volunteer, whose personal passion is empowering women to become self-sufficient. She's one of five members who remain from the original group of seven. Only one couple has left (they moved away), and another couple and a few husbands of the originals have joined.

As Staheli recalls, back in 1983, "I was donating time to things, sitting on some boards, spending a lot of time in meetings. We'd always donated to United Way, American Red Cross, the University of Washington, the usually really good charities. I thought, `That's a really good thing to do, but it seems we ought to be able to do more with things that involve no overhead.' "

It was about that time, recalls Joanne Merriman, owner of a jewelry-industry supplier, that many of the present members met on a bus trip to an Ashland, Ore., theater festival. Along the way, they started talking about "putting something back." They all shared a desire to make sure money went where they wanted.

Before long, they launched their idea. They brought in a few more friends and incorporated as a nonprofit organization.

At the time, most were in their late 30s. "Since then, everybody has done very well, but at that point, these were not people rolling in gobs of discretionary money," Staheli says.

In being interviewed for this story, Staheli, who had just returned from a national tour promoting her book "Triangles: Understanding, Preventing and Surviving an Affair," said she wanted to de-emphasize the individuals of the Rainier Foundation.

Rather, she wants to emphasize the idea that getting together friends to give away money is something others can do. "It doesn't have to be $1,000. You can get together 10 friends and each put in $100."

In fact, what really pleases her is that the idea has started to spread elsewhere. Her daughter and a friend have each started similar groups in Washington, D.C., and Cincinnati. "I do believe good will is contagious," says Staheli.

Over time, the Rainier Foundation awards have gone to an eclectic mix of people and causes.

As foundation member Howard Saxaurer notes, because it has no restricting rules or other bureaucracy, the group has the flexibility to donate to anyone it considers deserving and in need.

Awards in the early years concentrated on individuals and on the Pacific Northwest. More recently, Lana's husband, Lynn, and Penny Tanase in particular have encouraged a more global view.

One of the first awards was to buy $2,000 worth of videotapes for Virginia Brookbush, then dubbed the "matron saint and grande dame of Seattle public-access TV." Brookbush, now 80, recalls there could have been no greater gift: She was financing production of around seven shows a week from her Social Security check and rummage sales, and surviving on beans and rice.

Brookbush's health finally forced her to quit - but not before training more than 500 people. "It wasn't a career, it was a cause - freedom of speech and the right to know - to be able to have community people share their talents and views . . ."

Various Rainier Foundation members have pet projects that the others usually support.

Because of Tanase, they've given steady support to Results, an organization she describes as pressuring First World countries to direct foreign aid away from the usual big dams, highways and corrupt politics and toward the people at "the end of the chain." Results particularly favors "microlending" programs that distribute small loans, primarily to poor rural women (who tend to be the cottage entrepreneurs in the Third World). Results is also piloting a small-loan program for women on welfare in this country.

Because of a longstanding interest of Lana's husband, Dr. Lynn Staheli, a University of Washington orthopedics professor, Andrea Driano, a third-year UW medical student, received the "medical student research award" in June. She earned it for her two years of research showing how wearing so-called corrective footwear - which generally is unnecessary and often detrimental - led to lowered self-esteem and self-image in children.

The foundation has supported students at the Marrowstone Music Festival, and at Mount Zion Preparatory Academy; it aided a single mom to come out with her own CD, and another to finish college. It has sponsored scholarships for pediatric orthopedists in poor countries to study here, helped doctors in the former Soviet Union get a start in practice, and given money for supplies to struggling artists. It supported a social-service director who worked in child abuse and violence prevention as she earned her MBA.

For anyone considering setting up a donation circle, says Staheli, the rewards quickly become apparent. Beyond the good it does for others, she says, it fosters a shift in attitude that benefits the donors:

"One of the neat spinoffs from this whole thing is, it gives you that attitude in day-to-day life that you're looking for people doing good things."


Setting up a circle

Want to set up your own donation circle?

For tax purposes, says Lana Staheli, you may want to set up as a private foundation recognized by the Internal Revenue Service.

The IRS's Publication 578 tells about forming and operating a private foundation. To get a lawyer to set up the foundation could cost at least $2,000 to $5,000 in lawyer's fees (unless you can negotiate something less with a charity-minded lawyer).

You need not set up a foundation if you aren't concerned about the tax deduction.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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