The Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources visits the High Divide. Photo by Maggie Allen.

When he decided to start a foundation, one of the first things our founder Paul Brainerd did was get in his car and hit the road. He wanted to meet the people who were fighting to protect special places all over the Northwest. Traveling to communities across the region, he met with people in their offices, at their kitchen tables, and during walks in the woods. As a former journalist, Paul asked hard questions about what they were trying to accomplish and the obstacles they faced. When he got back to Seattle, he knew that it would be easy to get spread too thin. A foundation starting with $35 million working in five states and one Canadian province would need to be very thoughtful about how it focused its efforts.

How do you focus, when there are so many places threatened, and so many people who need support?

From the very beginning, we used a variety of tools—combining art and science—to guide our decisions. We turned to scientists who understood conservation biology and could help us identify the places where we could make the biggest difference. We turned to economists to understand the pressures on the people who lived there, and to local experts and elected officials to decipher the political lay of the land. After digesting all of the advice we could find, we trusted our gut and made hard choices.

With a mission to safeguard the air, land, and water of the Northwest, we focused the foundation's resources on protecting endangered ecosystems, strengthening state and provincial-level policies, and building the capacity of conservation groups in the region. We spent time on the ground, getting to know the people doing the work and understanding what they needed to be successful. And we took what Paul described as a 30,000 foot view, to see where our support could be most helpful.

The Metolius River, in Central Oregon, one of the Brainerd Foundation's place-based focus areas.

After our first decade of grantmaking, we stepped back and took stock of our efforts. We developed a theory of how change happens to sharpen our thinking about how we could assess our impact. This gave us the discipline to narrow our programmatic focus and refine our priorities. We phased out our support of some long-time grantees, not because they weren't doing good work, but because we realized that we were getting spread too thin.

As the clocked ticked toward our impending sunset in 2020, our focus narrowed even further. We set our sights on the future and considered what we could do to prepare our grantees and their partners for our exit. We helped leaders bring their organizations more fully into the 21st century, adapting their cultures, structures, and strategies to meet the demands of our rapidly changing world. Because we understood the importance of leadership, we increased our investments in emerging leaders. And finally, recognizing the funding gap that our departure would leave, we launched an initiative to strengthen the next generation of conservation philanthropists.