2020: A Year Without Equal

Without a doubt, 2020 will go down as one of the most challenging years in modern times. It was marked by much pain, suffering, and tragic loss. However, even in the middle of all the hurt, hope and encouragement can still be found. And because we believe so strongly in the transformational power of science, knowledge, and the human spirit, we hold fast to the anticipation of brighter days ahead as we draw upon the lessons learned during 2020.

We have spent a good deal of time reflecting on exactly what those lessons are and how both Vulcan and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation (PGAFF) have tried to live those lessons with their respective responses. We share them with you in hopes that you are as encouraged as we are at the progress being made.

Lesson one: Make a positive difference locally.

For change to happen on a global scale, it must first take root at home. We’re proud to live in the Pacific Northwest, so we take seriously our responsibility of being a good neighbor, helping as many as we can, and caring for the environment.

For example, when COVID-19 hit, we responded quickly and decisively by drawing on knowledge gained from our Ebola work in Africa. We mobilized to offset financial and health effects by supporting local residents disproportionately impacted — we funded testing, sourced and donated personal protective equipment (PPE), and invested in regional recovery efforts.

We also supported local businesses and families that were financially devastated, by contributing to the Chinatown-International District Restaurant and Small Business Relief Fund, the Plate Fund, as well as the Washington Food Fund.

In addition, we worked to remove both the Nooksack and Pilchuck dams after learning that some salmon populations have dropped to 10% of their historic levels which, in turn, is devastating orca whales because they’re quite literally starving to death. 

Lesson two: Stay nimble and keep innovating.

As the world evolves around us, it’s critical we adjust our thinking and take action in real time. When the impacts of COVID-19 became known, we evolved how we deliver products and solutions. In our grantmaking, we pivoted to provide both quick funds for urgent needs as well as money for sustained, on-going, pandemic-related relief efforts. This included funding ongoing research with Fred Hutch and UW Medicine. 

And, as swarms of locusts began to plague regions in East Africa, we repurposed our EarthRanger technology (a robust software solution that alerts protected area managers of threats to endangered species) to help combat the infestations. Similarly, we also added new functionality to EarthRanger so it could track recent deforestation activity and alert authorities of illegal fires being set in sensitive areas. EarthRanger is also being utilized to track species across wide-ranging landscapes, including migration corridors, so ecologists and biologists can study wildlife and advocate for their protection. 

Sadly, 2020 has been yet another ruinous year for the world’s coral reefs. However, our Allen Coral Atlas (which first launched in March 2018) has continued to make great strides in documenting devastation and helping scientists understand how to respond by producing coral reef maps based on high-resolution satellite imagery with the help of machine learning to further advance the project’s capabilities. 

Lesson three: Foster and develop key partnerships

If ever there were a year that makes it clear the challenges our world faces are too large to tackle alone, 2020 is it. We’re grateful to be working with some of the smartest and most talented partner organizations on the planet.  

For example, during 2020, our Global FinPrint project — the world’s first-ever benchmark study on reef shark populations — revealed discouraging findings: Reef sharks were absent in nearly 20% of the areas surveyed. That means they are functionally extinct in many of the planet’s reefs. As disheartening as this was to discover, it resulted in urgent conservation efforts, none of which would have been possible without the teams at Florida International University, The Australian Institute of Marine Science, Curtin University, Dalhousie University, and James Cook University. 

Our Skylight project also continues to have a measurable impact on illegal fishing. This unique technology empowers maritime analysts to spot suspicious vessel behavior and alert authorities to take action. It’s currently being used in 19 different countries, covers more than 9.9 million square kilometers of ocean, and is successful largely thanks to the partners listed in the project recap below. 

And, as another year has proven the dramatic impact climate change has on our daily lives, we’re thankful for our partnerships with California Institute of Technology, the University of Washington, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory Columbia University, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Together we continue to identify gaps in climate modeling through the Vulcan Climate Modeling Program, which takes advantages of the latest computer programming languages, machine learning, and supercomputing platforms to build models that are stronger, faster, and contain an unprecedented level of detail. 


As we compiled the examples contained in this report, a revelation soon surfaced: the things we learned during 2020 have ramifications that extend well beyond the year itself. In fact, they can apply to the past decade of our work, too. That shouldn’t really be surprising, because if there’s one thing a year like 2020 can teach us, it’s that if humanity wants to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, we need to view history’s lessons with hindsight that’s also 20/20. 

As we have worked over the years to fulfill our mission to “make and leave the world a better place,” we organized our storytelling for this report within five different areas of emphasis, or themes. What follows are summaries of twenty projects, categorized by theme.

Fuel Innovation While Leveraging Technology

Technology solves problems and improves lives. That’s why Vulcan and PGAFF create philanthropic tools for conservation and action — often unlike any the world has seen — to protect endangered species, heal the environment, and find a better way. 

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Partner with Leading Experts

The challenges before us are too big for any one organization to solve alone. So we partner with public entities, private companies, non-profits, tribes, and academia to maximize impact. Because together we’re not just stronger, we’re measurably more effective. 

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Gather the Data, Work for Change

Before an issue can be addressed, specific details associated with it need to be quantified, so first we work to understand the gaps. Then we move forward, monitoring as we go to measure impact and, when appropriate, leveraging the data gleaned to advocate for policy reform. 

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Focus on the People

No one understands the obstacles that need to be overcome more than those we serve. So while we rely heavily on experts, we also lean on the insights of people most affected. Then, as projects evolve and progress, we depend on their input to help measure effectiveness and improve our collaboration. 

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Address Challenges by Thinking Differently

Outside the box is where we do our best work. It’s where the answers to complex problems lie. It’s also a place that requires nimble thinking which, we’ve found, is key to achieving diverse solutions fueled by ongoing learning. 

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