SEATTLE — Paul Allen intended to give away the majority of the $20 billion-plus fortune he accumulated as Microsoft co-founder, technology investor, real estate magnate and NFL and NBA team owner.
A little more than a year after his death, the course he charted for doing so remains a closely guarded secret, its execution a complex, high-stakes work in progress. Chatter earlier this month that Jeff Bezos was interested in buying an NFL team, possibly the Seahawks — which are not for sale, according to team sources — renewed interest in the disposition of the rest of the Allen empire.
The many, wide-ranging constituencies for Allen’s endeavors — from Seattle and Portland sports fans to connoisseurs of fine art and pop culture to nonprofits, real-estate investors and academic and scientific leaders — have questions: What will be kept and what will be sold? What form will the promised philanthropy take and what will its focus be? When will it all happen?
The answer to that last one, at least, seems clear: Not yet, and probably not soon.
Estate experts say it can take years to unwind holdings such as Allen’s — an expansive collection of businesses, investments, properties, world-class art and other eclectic and valuable assets. Then there’s the process of thoughtfully and effectively giving away what could be as much as $10 billion or more.
At the helm of it all is Jody Allen, trustee, sister and, with her family, sole heir. Jody Allen “has responsibility for preserving and implementing Paul Allen’s vision for generations to come,” according to a biography on the website of Vulcan, the business they co-founded that serves as the hub of the Allen empire.
Her specific intentions are unknown outside of a tight and protective inner circle. A Vulcan representative declined interview requests, saying “there are no updates to discuss.” She added, “Vulcan remains committed to tackling the world’s toughest problems.”
The expectations are great, based in large part on Paul and Jody Allen’s long and varied record of philanthropy — he gave away some $2 billion while alive — and contributions to the business, scientific and cultural fabric of Seattle and beyond.
Shannon Halberstadt, chief executive of Artist Trust, a Seattle-based group that supports artists with grants and advocacy, called Allen’s support “transformative for the arts community in Seattle. But if there’s one thing to criticize, it would be the lack of transparency and what to expect.”
If $10 billion were to end up in a single foundation, it would be the sixth largest in the U.S. today, said Jacob Herald, executive vice president of Candid, which provides data and services to philanthropies and nonprofits.
Business as usual
Since Allen died Oct. 15, 2018, at age 65 of complications of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, some things have changed in the multitentacled Allen enterprise. But for the most part, it’s business as usual.
“I wouldn’t expect to see very much or know very much. In an estate such as this, this is still very early in the proceedings,” said Douglas Lawrence, an estate planning attorney who works with high-net worth clients at Stokes Lawrence in Seattle.
Allen’s largest mega-yacht, Octopus, was refitted and put on the market for $325 million, as was a Beverly Hills development property and an estate in Atherton, California. But another large yacht, Tatoosh, as well as the rest of Allen’s globe-spanning private residences — from a villa on the French Riviera to Georgia O’Keefe’s home in New Mexico — aren’t for sale.
Two area golf courses, Willows Run in Redmond and Druids Glen in Kent, have been sold — though Allen was considering their sale as early as 2015. The costly Stratolaunch space venture shed employees, achieved the giant rocket-launching airplane’s first flight, and then changed hands, going to an unknown buyer. The Upstream Music Fest, begun in 2017, wasn’t held this year.
Meanwhile, Allen’s multibillion-dollar investment firm opened a new office in Singapore and continues pouring capital into new ventures. Vulcan Real Estate continues buying and selling properties, in the past few years with a greater emphasis on Bellevue. Allen’s research vessel, Petrel, continues discovering historically significant shipwrecks. The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation continues issuing grants. The two research institutes Allen established in Seattle focused on artificial intelligence, brain and cell science and immunology are growing.
Perched on opposite ends of Lake Union, the institutes, with an estimated 650 employees between them, have “transformed the landscape of Seattle as a center of research in these fields, complementing existing organizations,” said Ed Lazowska, professor at the University of Washington’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering.
Vulcan Real Estate, which rebuilt South Lake Union and developed assets worth some $4.3 billion over the last two decades, is “the crown jewel of (Allen’s) business ventures,” said longtime Seattle developer Kevin Daniels.
Daniels and other real estate watchers aren’t anticipating a mass liquidation or diminished activity.
“It’s not a plaything. It’s not a toy,” he said of Vulcan Real Estate’s substantial holdings. “They’re a formidable competitor. I stay out of their way.”
The sale of cash-consuming assets, such as yachts or space ventures, is a standard part of cleaning up an estate “so that when the time is right, you can distribute cash, cash equivalents and other what I would call useful assets,” Lawrence said.
But that typically takes years for estates of this size. Estates have up to 15 months from the date of death, including extensions, to file estate tax returns. The executor must pay estimated taxes, which can run to 52% of assets not passing to charity. As a practical matter, major distributions often have to wait until after state and federal tax officials sign off, he said.
Allen’s will gives most of his estate to a living trust he established in 1993, with Jody Allen as trustee. Its provisions would spell out any specific philanthropic plans Allen made and could also potentially create additional trusts, direct any distributions to individuals and handle taxation.
“It all depends what that trust says,” Lawrence said.
In life, Paul Allen’s philanthropy was many-faceted and deep. He funded research institutes and tiny preschools, museums and housing, ocean surveys and responses to Ebola outbreaks.
He was among the first to take the Giving Pledge in 2010 — a billionaires’ pact to donate most of their wealth — but had planned to do so long before. People who worked with him said he would view investment decisions in part through the lens of whether he’d have more or less to give away at the end. They also said he sometimes made contributions anonymously.
One of the main channels for philanthropy is the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, set up by Paul and Jody Allen in 1988. It has since given away at least $575 million.
Philanthropy-watchers wonder whether Allen’s wealth will ultimately be placed in that foundation, a new one, or in some other structure. Several tech industry fortunes in recent years have been pledged for philanthropic purposes through limited liability companies rather than private foundations, among them the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan, and Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective.
“The big tech donors over the last decade or so have tended to put their money into a more complex structure,” said Herald, the Candid executive.
This structure provides wealthy donors with more flexibility to make investments, political contributions and otherwise engage in advocacy, as well as making charitable grants.
“Another interpretation is that they’re an attempt to avoid transparency,” he said. “There’s some truth to both of those.”
Beyond its structure, big philanthropy is coming under increasing criticism “as a product of inequality, which it clearly is, kind of by definition,” he said.
The Allen Family Foundation’s recent giving could be a window into its future, or it could be a mere snapshot of a philanthropy in transition.
At the end of 2018, the foundation had assets worth more than $931 million and made more than $48 million in contributions. Foundations must distribute 5% of their assets each year, on average.
Recipients range from a handful individuals given $200 for educational projects to $2.6 million for the UW’s Allen Discovery Center for Cell Lineage Tracing, according to federal tax filings. The majority of the largest grants went to fund scientific and medical research at preeminent institutions, and to environmental causes, such as combating illegal ivory trafficking, inventorying sea life around the globe and developing climate models.
The foundation also funded Allen’s museums devoted to the histories of computers, military armor and aviation; a “smart city” program in Columbus, Ohio; improvements to a hospital cafeteria in Yreka, California; Mercy Housing Northwest’s construction of apartments for homeless families; and community development near a safari lodge in Zambia. (The foundation is also a funder of The Seattle Times’ reporting on homelessness.)
Some in the local arts community said the foundation’s giving has diminished since 2014, and hope it will again be a priority.
“That support before 2014 was major – it was one of the biggest grants we got in this region,” said Sharon Williams, chief executive of the Central District Forum for Arts & Ideas, adding that the organization hasn’t been invited back for funding since.
In addition to supporting artists, Allen had a seldom-seen personal art collection that is considered world class.
“In terms of buying art, Paul was extraordinarily well advised and had an extraordinary eye for some of the greatest works of art that have ever been made,” said Benedict Heywood, who led a short-lived private museum, Pivot Art + Culture, that displayed some of Allen’s collection. He referred to a Lucian Freud painting in Allen’s collection that was “literally one of the most important pieces of portrait painting in the 20th century, in my opinion. … One can infer that the rest of his collection was equally great.”
Will those great works find their way to public display or be auctioned off to fund other initiatives? As with the rest of the Allen estate, that remains to be seen.