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Monday, February 15, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sowing The Seeds Of Philanthropy

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

WITH MONEY in his pocket and nature in his soul, Paul Brainerd is helping environmental groups, while encouraging other high-tech millionaires to give away their wealth.

Many years ago, long before Paul Brainerd had invented desktop publishing and secured his company, Aldus, a spot among the top software firms in the world, he was a little boy, deep in the Oregon forest, out on a walk with his parents and his younger sister.

Venturing from their summer cabin of knotty pine, the family came upon a meadow and spied four silver foxes.

"For 30 seconds, we looked at them, and they looked at us, and there was this sense of connection," says Brainerd. "It was their family out on a walk and our family out on a walk."

Several decades and millions of dollars later, Brainerd still brushes away a lone tear as he recounts this childhood tale.

But don't let his boyhood reminiscences fool you: Brainerd is no daydreamer. At 51, he is reinventing what it means to be a leader in the fast-changing Northwest.

Brainerd is not running for office or putting together big business deals. In a Northwest era some people compare to the Medici's 15th-century Florence for its concentration of young, wealthy, innovative thinkers, Brainerd has transformed himself from a computer magnate into an philanthropist and environmental activist. In doing so, he hopes to inspire the region's new breed of high-tech millionaires to put their money and time into their passions.

"Certainly the potential is here in terms of wealth and brainpower," Brainerd says. "The question is whether it can be harnessed and organized."

An Oregon native who grew up working in his parents' photography shop in the timber town of Medford, Brainerd made about $120 million when he sold Aldus to Adobe Systems for $525 million five years ago. He plans to give most of his money away, much of it to protect ecosystems and prevent water and air pollution, from Yellowstone National Park to the Yukon Territory.

To be sure, dozens of other Northwest computer moguls have checked out of the computer world to pursue charitable ventures in recent years.

But only a few, such as former Microsoft executive Scott Oki - whose Oki Foundation gives money to children's causes - are as public about their giving as Brainerd has been. Brainerd created a nonprofit organization called Social Venture Partners to inspire his peers to give away their money and teach them how to do it using business as a model. He frequently lectures on the gratification of philanthropy and is quoted in nearly every national story that examines the phenomenon of high-tech giving.

"People involved in philanthropy all over the country are all very interested in hearing Paul's story," said Julia Kittross, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Grantmakers Forum. "The lessons he's learned and the inspiration he can provide will probably expand nationwide."

Second career in giving

The tale of how at age 36 Brainerd turned an idea into a computing revolution has become legend in the world of high technology. In the years since he and a handful of engineers hunkered down in a studio apartment below the Pike Place Market to create PageMaker, the software that would turn personal computers into miniature printing presses, he's told the story many times.

To him, the idea was a natural bridge between his lifelong fascination with computers and his passionate stint in journalism.

The tale Brainerd prefers to tell - about how he walked away from his phenomenal success to start a new career - has a beginning, but so far no middle or end. Yet the short story already has a moral: Giving away lots of money can take just as much time, energy and determination as making it. But the reward is a bearhug compared with a handshake.

"This type of work is the most satisfying work one can do in one's life," he says.

Brainerd doesn't try to convert people to his particular passion, but encourages them to identify and support their own.

After achieving what he set out to do with Aldus, Brainerd orchestrated a merger with Adobe in 1995 and used the proceeds from the deal to launch the $50 million Brainerd Foundation. Since then, the foundation has awarded about $6 million in grants to environmental-protection projects across the Northwest and Alaska.

Funding has helped turn 11 million acres into parkland in British Columbia and, most recently, prompt a two-year moratorium on mining along Montana's Rocky Mountain Front.

A little means a lot

Sometimes it doesn't take much to make a difference.

Gene Sentz, a fourth-grade teacher in Montana, had been waging a campaign for the mining moratorium for 21 years, sending out handwritten letters he and his daughter addressed one at a time.

A year and a half ago, he applied to the Brainerd Foundation for a $2,000 grant to buy a computer. As soon as the computer was installed, Sentz's audience swelled.

"Just the fact that we can communicate with so many people and ask them to write letters - it helped us tremendously," Sentz said.

Sentz began sending out dozens of e-mails, urging people to write letters to the U.S. Forest Service seeking protection for the pristine, 100-mile-long area. Last week the Clinton administration announced its decision to prohibit hard-rock mining in the region.

Brainerd's intense commitment to the environment is masked by his low-key demeanor and the traces of his childhood shyness that still linger in his lanky frame. But nearly every wall of his working and living space has either a view of the water or a large framed photograph of a rushing creek or a snow-covered tree. The low bookshelves in the entryway to his downtown office are lined with oversized picture books such as "Clearcut: The Tragedy of Industrial Forestry" and "Wasteland: Meditations on a Ravaged Landscape."

But as he set out to protect the environment, Brainerd concluded that there was much more that needed to be done.

`This feels good'

Two years ago, Brainerd decided his peers were hungry for leadership, inspiration and instruction about nonprofit giving. So he teamed up with a handful of technology entrepreneurs to found Social Venture Partners (SVP). SVP partners don't just give money to organizations - they also get involved with projects, helping to set goals, upgrade computer systems and improve accounting.

As the project has grown to 136 members, most from the region's high-tech industry, it has drawn attention from media and academic institutions across the country. Last year SVP awarded about $300,000 in grants to organizations dealing with education and children's issues.

Brainerd has "lit the spark," says Paul Shoemaker, a former Microsoft manager who quit 1 1/2 years ago to run SVP.

"It's important to have a few role models like Paul stand up and say, `This is fun, this feels good,' " Shoemaker said.

One recipient was a program called Ventures at Talbot Hill Elementary School in Renton which teaches children how to cooperate, resolve conflicts and understand how American society works. SVP's help has gone well beyond its $24,000 donation to the project. Partners have improved the program's mock-court and accounting systems. A former MSNBC executive plans to set up a closed-circuit television studio for the media program, and computer experts are hoping to start an Intranet for the school.

"It's not about charity," Brainerd says. "This is a more engaged giving style. If it's done right, both sides end up with more in the end."

When he found that nonprofit environmental groups often lagged behind business in technology, Brainerd partnered with the Bullitt Foundation to start ONE/Northwest. The organization has helped set up Web sites for environmental organizations and established more than 200 e-mail discussion lists, connecting activists around specific causes. It has also built an online database of more than 1,200 conservation organizations.

In their latest project, Brainerd and his wife, Debbi, spent $3 million to buy 214 acres on Bainbridge Island. They plan to turn the land into an environmental center for children to study nature.

Brainerd believes activist philanthropy can't happen independently of politics. In a Seattle Times analysis last year, Brainerd ranked No. 25 of the state's top 50 political patrons of the 1990s, contributing nearly $130,000 from 1992 through 1996 to politicians such as Adam Smith and Brian Baird whom he deemed environment-friendly. To further the support of pro-environment candidates, he has started a political-action organization called Conservation Strategies.

Brainerd's devotion to the environment was born in the hills around his family's cabin on Diamond Lake, and his optimistic view of activism grew out of his fiery journalism career in Oregon and Minnesota.

Medford's timber-dependent economy often spelled lean times for the Brainerd family. But from the time Brainerd learned to walk, his family found its fortune in summertime weekends at the rustic cabin. As he took long walks in woods that were home to black bears, deer, skunks and squirrels, and floated on the lake in a boat he built, nature seeped into Brainerd's soul. He learned to respect, not fear wild animals, and to appreciate the quiet solitude of a forest.

As editor of the student newspaper at the University of Oregon and later at the University of Minnesota, where he was earning a graduate degree in journalism, Brainerd recorded and photographed some of the nation's most tumultuous times.

At Oregon, the military used tear gas to break up a protest of the Vietnam War at the administration building. On different occasions, he photographed Robert Kennedy and members of the Chicago Seven as they passed through Eugene.

Brainerd came out of the era optimistic that activism can make a difference.

"People can mobilize around important issues," he says. "If something really matters, people will do something."

The next decade took Brainerd to the Minneapolis Star and Tribune where he began to merge his interests in computers and journalism. By 1984, he had come up with a company called Aldus and a way to lay out a story on a computer screen.

The result was PageMaker, and the impact stretched across the globe.

Life after PageMaker

When he quit working at Aldus, Brainerd planned to devote half of his time to nonprofit ventures, one-quarter of it to travel and the other quarter to pursuing hobbies he hasn't had time for, such as photography.

But things haven't quite worked out as planned. To juggle his various projects, Brainerd works full time out of his tidy downtown Seattle office above the Nordstrom Rack with a peekaboo view of Elliott Bay.

But giving away his money doesn't prevent Brainerd from enjoying the fruits of his success. He and Debbi, who met in the elevator of his building about two years ago, make time for travel abroad, weekend getaways and art collecting.

Their condo is crammed with paintings by Morris Graves and Mark Tobey, and dotted with commissioned sculptures. The long entrance hall is hung with dozens of black-and-white photographs by Marsha Burns, Robert Doineau and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Floor-to-ceiling library shelves are packed with dogeared, bookmarked copies of travel guides to Nepal, Ireland and New Zealand.

On a recent evening, about 50 patrons of the Henry Art Gallery traipsed through the Brainerds' penthouse condominium above the Pike Place Market, gazing at the art collection and admiring the city's glowing skyscrapers through the floor-to-ceiling windows.

Brainerd moved easily among his well-to-do guests. The next morning, he mingled just as comfortably with a roomful of dressed-down environmentalists, exchanging ideas about how to save salmon and comparing notes on preservation of endangered lands.

Many of the new millionaires in the region, who in their 30s or 40s suddenly find themselves wealthier than they'd ever imagined, have to ask a crucial question before they begin to give away their money: How much is enough for them and for their children?

A little older and with no plans to have children, Brainerd knows he's at a different starting point. He acknowledges he lives very comfortably but says he would be a hypocritical environmentalist if he were a big consumer of the environment.

"I don't buy fancy cars; I don't have five houses," he says. "Buying lots of things I don't think makes one very happy."

Brainerd inherited more than a connection to the environment from his parents. Like his father did, he always carefully analyzes an issue before moving forward. But like his mother, once he's made up his mind, he follows his gut and sticks with his decision.

For him, the decision to give away his riches was easy. His challenge now will be figuring out the best way to do it.

Susan Byrnes' phone message number is 206-464-2189. Her e-mail address is sbyrnes@seattletimes.com

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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