Someone recently told Phyllis Campbell ’73 that she had the perfect resume to run for governor.
In her office high above 5th Avenue in Seattle, Campbell tells me this with a mixture of amusement and certitude. Running for political office is the last thing she’s interested in.
“You can print that,” she says. “I’ll never run for political office.
“I value people who do,” she adds, “but that’s not my calling.”
Politics, after all, is so short-term.
Campbell shows me, with obvious pleasure, the medal that represents the Regents’ Distinguished Alumnus Award with which she was recently honored. Campbell’s relationship to Washington State University, which the award recognizes, has been continuous and energetic since graduation. But her calling, as she refers to it, has changed considerably since she was last covered by a University publication.
Campbell began her banking career straight out of college as a management trainee with Old National Bank in Spokane. She ended that career in 2001, when she stepped down as president of U.S. Bank in Washington. Explaining her intention at the time, she told The Seattle Times that she “wanted to try my hand at something else.”
That “something else” turned out to be applying her business acumen to philanthropy.
In 2003, Campbell became president and CEO of the Seattle Foundation. The largest community foundation in the region, the Seattle Foundation awarded more than $49 million in grants last year. It is a considerably different institution than it was when it was established in 1946, and not just in the amount of funds it directs.
“The old paradigm for philanthropy, checkbook philanthropy, was just write checks and trust the organization to do the right thing,” says Campbell. “Some of that is still important. But the new model focuses more on strategy and results.
“In the end, how does this change people’s lives in a healthy community framework?”
She cites the area food bank as an example. “What causes people to stand in line at the food banks?” she asks. What is the root cause of hunger?
“That’s the kind of thinking we encourage.”
Directing an organization such as the Seattle Foundation gives Campbell a unique perspective on the health of her community. As with any situation, she says, there is great news and not-so-great news.
“It’s a tale of two regions in some ways,” she says. Overall, the greater Seattle area is doing very well economically. “We have an economy that’s really vital and continues to show up in the top 10 regions in just about any national survey.”
“On the other hand, you see communities . . . not doing so well, a lot of poverty, a lot of in-migration.”
She also points to some tremendous disparities. According to the Seattle Foundation annual report, for example, each year at least one in 10 King County adults runs out of money for food. Among Latinos that rate is one in three. And among people without high-school diplomas, 50 percent run out of food money—and lack health insurance—at 10 times the rate of college graduates.
The funding strategy with which the Seattle Foundation addresses the situation involves creating community gardens, educating people about eligibility for programs such as food stamps, and expanding coordination among support agencies.
Campbell’s attitude and strategy are bolstered by those of the Seattle community itself. For example, United Way of King County has the highest per-capita giving of any United Way in the country, and 54 percent of the region’s citizens engage in at least one volunteer activity.
She also extols the work of the Gates Foundation as an example for the region.
“Bill and Melinda are very strategic,” she says, referring to benchmarks the Gateses require for performance and change.
“Our primary focus,” says Campbell of the Seattle Foundation, “is what you can do about it. First we point out in our report what’s working. Part of our value to our donors and community is to research what works and to highlight promising strategies.
Although she allows she misses some of the relationships of her banking career and “various other things that made business fun for me,” Campbell considers her current role as a marriage of passion with her core career.
“The thing I don’t miss is being driven by the short-term, quarterly earnings”-and not having the luxury, she says, of looking at the long term.
“Being in a community foundation, we are about forever. How can we make a difference generations out? What are the things we can put in place now that, hopefully, two generations hence will benefit from [our] actions?
“That’s a luxury of this job that I didn’t have in the business world.”
In spite of continuing social, economic, and environmental challenges to the Seattle area, Campbell is resolutely upbeat.
“I have to be,” she says, laughing.
“I can’t accept the fact that disparities will always be there, or that because we have so many immigrants, they’ll always have a life less than other folks in the community.
“Hope and optimism,” she says, assessing not only her outlook, but that of the donors upon whom her calling depends. “Otherwise, why would they give their money?”