A(nother) Guy Named Bill Creating Seattle’s Do-Gooder Community

Some of the most amazing people I know on this beat — covering Seattle’s role in global health and poverty reduction — are named Bill.

There’s Bill Gates, of course, his bold and insightful (and often funny) dad Bill Gates Sr., Bill Foege, the local doc who figured out how to beat smallpox, and then there’s Bill Clapp.

I can’t really quantify this, but I don’t think many would argue with me if I said that Bill Clapp has probably done more than any other single person (named Bill or not) over the years to try to promote the culture, the emerging community, of do-gooders in Seattle and throughout this region.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the 8,000-lb gorilla on the scene today, of course. The Gates Foundation and its primary mission of global health tend to dominate the do-gooder conversation and media coverage.

But Clapp and his wife Paula were active philanthropists fighting poverty years before Bill and Melinda Gates got into the act — and well before most of us were really paying that much attention.

This is the second of three parts in a series aimed at how Seattle’s burgeoning humanitarian “sector” is coalescing, coming together. As noted in the first post, it’s a bit of a hodgepodge right now, with hundreds of groups working on their own, often unaware of others with shared interests and missions.

Moving from this creative chaos to community has long been one of Clapp’s primary aims.

“I believe in synergy, the power of collaboration,” he said.

He and Paula have launched or helped launch several initiatives aimed at creating this kind of synergy — the Seattle International Foundation (subject of my first post), Global Washington and the Initiative for Global Development.

Arguably, all of them are different means to the same end — bringing people together to figure out how to make the world a better place.

The great-grandson of the timber baron and Weyerhaeuser Co. co-founder Matthew Norton, Clapp has always been wealthy, business-minded and one of those old-school (moderate and reasonable) gang of Washington state Republicans like former Sen. Dan Evans. He certainly wasn’t always philanthropic.

As this Seattle Times article by Carol Ostrom quoted him describing his pre-philanthropy stage:

“I didn’t know what I wanted to be doing, because I hadn’t done anything socially redeeming, I guess you’d say, for most of my career, other than trying to do a good job at my work.”

A trip he and Paula took in the early 1990s to El Salvador changed all that.

Seattle had strong connections to El Salvador, Nicaragua and other Central American countries in part because we were a sanctuary city for many fleeing the numerous civil wars (some of them funded or supported by the U.S. government). In 1992, the Clapps were asked by some anti-poverty advocates to join them on a trip down south.

“I was just stunned, appalled really, to see what conditions were like down there,” Clapp said. “Just two hours outside of the U.S. and here were people living in shacks with dirt floors, in severe poverty.”

With the end of the conflict in El Salvador, he said, the U.S. government also apparently lost interest in sending any more money down there. The war had ravaged this tiny country but few were working to rebuild it.

That motivated the Clapps to move into microfinance, the anti-poverty scheme that involves giving small loans to poor people allowing them to grow their businesses or otherwise get themselves out of poverty. A year or so later, they started Global Partnerships, Seattle’s oldest and largest microfinance organization.

“We worked hard at this but eventually realized that much of what U.S. government was doing wasn’t supporting what we were trying to do, and was even sometimes at cross-purposes,” Clapp said. So he and some of those other old Republicans — Dan Evans, Bill Gates Sr., former Nixon EPA director Bill Ruckelshaus, etc. — launched the Initiative for Global Development.

“These were all people who understand, practically and not ideologically, why international development is important to our country, to our business community and to improving all aspects of our society,” Clapp said. Unfortunately, he added, many in Congress these days don’t seem to understand this.

“Our community has, for some reason, always been very aware of this,” Clapp said. “Historically, we were the first to open up trade with Japan, China and Russia. We took in a lot of refugees during the wars in Central America. There is something about this place.”

There always has been a strong international mindset here, Clapp said, and this has exploded in scope over the past decade.The Gates Foundation is highest-profile, he said, but there are literally hundreds of other small organizations — many of them launched by young “social entrepreneurs” — out there also trying to do their part.

What’s lacking, Clapp said, is a coherent community. The global health community has come together, he said, but global health really is just (or should be) a subset of development, of the fight against poverty. And the rest of the Seattle do-gooder community remains a bit fragmented, working in isolation.

“I would like to see other aspects of international development gain the same momentum global health has gained, thanks to the great work being done by the Gates Foundation,” Clapp said.

The Clapps are on a roll, creating organizations like Global Washington and the Seattle International Foundation, aimed helping support and grow what could someday become the world’s biggest community of do-gooders.

A(nother) Guy Named Bill Creating Seattle’s Do-Gooder Community
Tom Paulson | Humanosphere | July 29