Celebrating 40 years of championing the Library

The Seattle Public Library Foundation was a novel idea when it began in 1980 – it was the first library foundation in the Pacific Northwest.

Nov. 25 marks The Seattle Public Library Foundation’s 40th birthday – and while 2020 has thrown so many challenges our way, our decades of uplifting our beloved Library give us so much to celebrate.

Most importantly, we extend our gratitude to the people who make the Library the community cornerstone it is: You, our donors, volunteers, supporters, and Library staff.

From our humble beginnings as a band of volunteers in 1980, we’ve grown to become the largest library foundation in the United States in assets under management and have acted as pioneers in the world of library philanthropy.

Let’s take a quick look at our journey:


Virginia Burnside, SPLF founder

-Retiring from the Library Board of Trustees, Virginia Burnside recruits members of her book club to establish The Seattle Public Library Foundation. Its mission was twofold: to raise money for the Library and to showcase the Library’s materials and services. It was the first library foundation to exist in the Pacific Northwest.

-Early fundraising accomplishments included supporting new carpeting and furnishings for renovated Carnegie-era branches, new Bookmobiles, and equipment for low-vision readers at the Library Equal Access Program lab.

-The Foundation’s first staff member was fundraiser Terry Collings, who would later become the Foundation’s first executive director. Before he was hired, the Foundation’s average annual fundraising amounted to $33,732. In 1991 – his third year on the job – the Foundation raised $503,604.


-The Foundation supported the hiring of Library staff for the first time with a literacy program coordinator and English language learner coordinator.

-Perhaps the Foundation’s most famous Board member, Faye Allen (mother of Paul Allen), served on the Foundation’s Board from 1993 to 2005. She served on the Emeritus Board from 2005 until her passing in 2012.

-In 1998, Seattle voters approved the largest library bond measure in American history, with the $196.4 million Libraries for All measure, which led to the construction of the current Central Library and the renovation of branches across the city. Initially, the Foundation pledged to support the effort with $40 million. By 2005, it raised $83 million in capital and collections support.


Central Library opened in 2004.

-Central Library re-opened in 2004, with 25,000 people flocking to tour the building on opening day.

-More than a dozen branch libraries were renovated and reopened to the public thanks to the bond measure advocated by the Foundation and the additional millions it raised from private donors for the effort.

-Terry Collings retired in 2007 and Jonna Ward became executive director of the Foundation in 2008. She has since become CEO.


-Seattle Foundation launched GiveBIG, a regional day of giving, in 2011. SPLF was a top finisher that year and continues to participate every May.

-The Foundation secured the first gift from Google for a Wi-Fi hotspot pilot in 2014. Wi-Fi hotspots would become the Library’s most-circulated item.

-That same year, the Foundation launched the 10-year commitment to the Stim Bullitt Civic Courage Scholarship, with the estate gift from Stim Bullitt.

-Fresh Start began in 2018 to help restore library accounts to teens with suspended access to the Library.

-The Foundation established Library Giving Day, an annual day of library philanthropy, in 2019. That first year, about 192 libraries across North America participated, raising $737,000 for libraries — 27 percent more than projected.

So much of what you love about the Library is credited to donor and volunteer support: the thousands of free programs that educate and inspire us; the volume of collections, including e-books, audiobooks, and our historical archives in Special Collections; and the innovative ways the Library seeks to deliver more equitable service, such as community resource specialists and Wi-Fi hotspot circulation.

Because of your generosity, the Library can adapt with changing technology, provide innovative programs, and enhance its services. During this year’s pandemic, Foundation support has helped the Library pivot to online programs and reach families with the greatest barriers to access and technology.

Collectively, the Foundation has provided more than $203 million in private support and it has helped advocate for $567 million in public funding to support the Library our neighbors love and rely on.

For 40 years of outstanding work uplifting our Library, we thank you!

The Foundation Board of Directors – taken in 2019. (Photo by Elizabeth Carpenter)