What We Do

Washington State

Strategy Overview


A family newly housed at Croft Place in West Seattle.

our goal:

to create opportunities for all children in Washington State to thrive in stable families, great schools, and strong communities.

The Challenge

At A Glance

Families with children represent nearly half of the 20,000 homeless people in Washington State. About one child in four has a family that struggles to pay for basic needs such as food and housing.

Many low-income children in the state enter kindergarten lacking basic language and behavioral skills; more than a third never graduate from high school.

The foundation has invested more than $1 billion in Washington State to ensure a quality education for all children, reduce family homelessness, and support the most vulnerable families.

One of our major education initiatives is the Road Map Project in South Seattle and South King County, where 60% of students are from minority and immigrant families and 54% are low income.

Our work in Washington State is directed by David Bley and is part of the foundation’s United States Division.

Washington State is a center of innovation and home to some of the most successful businesses in the world, yet problems of social inequity and poverty persist. More than 20,000 people are homeless on any given night in the state; families comprise almost half of this number. About one child in four has a family that struggles to pay for basic needs such as rent, food, and utilities.

Due to the unaddressed effects of adversity in their lives, many low-income children in Washington enter school with lower cognitive, social-emotional, and language skills than other children, and 35% never graduate from high school. These young people and many of their parents are not prepared to compete for the good jobs available in this state, most of which require a college degree or postsecondary certificate.

Even during better economic times, poverty and education in the state have been challenging issues. Too often, existing systems lack coordination and fail to focus sufficiently on root causes so they can try to prevent problems before they happen. The recent economic downturn and state budget crisis have underscored the need to work across systems and sectors and embrace new innovations.

The Opportunity

Local Roots, Global Impact

In addition to our efforts to improve the lives of Washington’s low-income families, we also support a number of global health and development organizations based in Washington that work around the globe—including PATH, Seattle BioMed, and Landesa—as well as research at public and private colleges and universities in the state. The $2 billion we have invested in these organizations and their programs includes funding for vaccine research and development, international family planning, support for small farmers, and many other health and development priorities. Funding is administered through our Global Health, Global Development, and Global Policy & Advocacy divisions.

There is no single solution to poverty and its challenges, yet by supporting the region’s most vulnerable families in critical ways, we can increase their chances of having stable housing, finding employment, building a secure future, and raising healthy, confident children who can succeed in school, college, and life.

Washington State has many dedicated service providers, government agencies, educational institutions, and community organizations that assist vulnerable families and low-income students. To make the most of their efforts, communities need coordinated, systematic, and mutually reinforcing approaches, the ability to innovate, reliable sources of funding, and public policies to support their work. Institutions, methods, and government policies must adapt to more effectively and efficiently serve at-risk populations, and program results must be rigorously measured and evaluated.

Through research and the use of proven approaches from across the country, we have an opportunity to make a meaningful difference in the lives of tens of thousands of children and families across the state.

Our Strategy

The work of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation spans the globe, but we have a deep commitment to improving the lives of families and children in Washington State, where the Gates family has lived for generations and the foundation makes its permanent home.

We have invested more than $1 billion to ensure a quality education for all children, reduce family homelessness, and support the most vulnerable families in our state.

Our strategy is built on partnerships with the public, private, and nonprofit sectors—including the regional and local philanthropic community—so that together we can create pathways to opportunity for all children and families in Washington.

Areas of Focus

Education Pathways

The best way to break the cycle of poverty is through education. In Washington State, we focus on promoting successful educational outcomes for all students through a holistic approach, starting at birth and culminating in a college degree or certificate. We call this effort Education Pathways because we aim to support every child on the path to success. We strive to create opportunities for students to learn more effectively through sound policies, by aligning systems that support young people, and by supporting better practice by teachers, principals, and parents. We specifically focus on enhancing opportunities for low-income students and students from diverse racial and cultural backgrounds.

We must enlist the support of parents, educators, local communities, advocates, schools, and regional and state agencies to enhance the educational opportunities for our children. We do this by providing grants that support additional investments, such as federal funding from Race to the Top, or advancing work in five key areas that will help more students succeed:

  • Improved transitions between preschool and elementary school, middle school and high school, and high school and college
  • Data-driven decision making in all programs that focus on student success
  • Quality instruction and leadership in early-learning programs and other educational institutions
  • Increased innovation to boost student achievement
  • Alignment among health, housing, and social service systems that serve students and families

Examples of our Education Pathways investments are detailed below.

Early Learning

We work with public, private, and community partners to strengthen early learning opportunities that help children enter school ready to learn and succeed. While children need support from stable families, healthy communities, and great teaching at every step along their educational pathway, high-quality pre-K can help them get off to a strong start.

Children playing at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Home Center.

Research shows that high-quality pre-K programs consistently focus on improving the interactions between teachers and children. They also share a set of features that foster high-quality instruction, support educators and young learners, and benefit from state and local policies that create a positive enabling environment. We believe that by supporting and scaling up these elements of quality, more children will enter school prepared and will achieve ongoing academic success.

Road Map Project

We support the Road Map Project in South Seattle and South King County, a community-driven effort to keep students on track, both in and out of school. Seven school districts, five higher education institutions, local governments, and hundreds of community organizations, education leaders, teachers, and parents are involved in creating a system where every student has the opportunities they need to succeed. Community-driven priorities include parent and community engagement, using data to set targets and rigorously measure results, monitoring early-warning signs to make sure students do not fall through the cracks, support for English language learners, kindergarten readiness, 3rd grade reading, expansion of college access and raising completion rates, and improving science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills. The Community Center for Education Results leads and coordinates this effort.

This strong coalition helped the Road Map school districts secure a $40 million federal Race to the Top district grant in 2012, which will be used to expand early learning opportunities, enrich science and math learning, and offer support to high schools so more students can take college-prep courses and receive college advising.

Effective Teaching and School Leadership

Participants in the Rainier Scholars program for promising students of color meet with a teacher at Seattle’s Aki Kurose Middle School.

We support efforts to ensure there is a great teacher in every classroom, that every teacher gets the support they need to do their best teaching, and that there are strong instructional leaders in early learning settings and K-12 schools.  This includes support for a joint project of the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, the Washington Education Association, and Educational Service District 113 to create an online tool for managing the state’s new teacher and principal evaluation process. We have also supported the work of the Association of Washington School Principals to develop a leadership framework aimed at improving student achievement. We recognize great teaching and schools that are helping to close the achievement gap by funding KCTS public television station’s Golden Apple and Pathways of Education Excellence awards.

Homelessness and Family Stability

Homelessness has a profound impact on children’s health and education, as well as parents’ ability to find a job and stay employed. Homeless children have twice the rate of learning disabilities as children who are not homeless, and they have three times the rate of emotional and behavioral issues— including anxiety, depression, and withdrawal.

In 2000, as a first step in addressing family homelessness in our state, the foundation launched the Sound Families Initiative, an eight-year, $40 million program aimed at tripling the amount of available transitional housing—and pairing it with support services in the state’s three most populous counties: King, Pierce, and Snohomish. By its close in 2008, the initiative had spurred the creation of more than 1,400 transitional homes for families emerging from homelessness.

A family that found stable housing through the Washington Families Fund, a public-private partnership founded in 2004. 

Family homelessness has persisted, however, and our job is far from done. We have chosen to invest in a new way going forward, based on the lessons learned from our experiences and on promising practices used around the nation. We are working with Building Changes, a Seattle-based nonprofit, and the governments of King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties to more efficiently deploy existing funding and services from a broad range of sources. Building Changes works to align public and private efforts to prevent and combat homelessness. It also encourages governments at all levels, service providers, and philanthropic donors to collaborate in developing and disseminating innovative approaches and to help the various systems work in mutually reinforcing ways on behalf of families.

Meaningful reductions in family homelessness can be achieved only through a systematic, coordinated approach that provides at-risk families with the help they need, when they need it. Until recently, families who became homeless in Washington State had to contact multiple agencies for different kinds of assistance. Many languished on waiting lists for months. Those who obtained temporary housing often had to wait more than a year to get into a permanent home.

All of this is slowly beginning to change. To bring about systemic improvements, we identified five principles that have helped successfully reduce family homelessness in other U.S. communities. These principles guide our investments and the work of our community partners:

  • Prevention. We can help keep families in their homes and prevent them from becoming homeless in the first place with services such as landlord mediation, help with overdue rent and utility bills, and emergency food, clothing, childcare, and transportation assistance.
  • Coordinated entry. Having one simple way to access the system of support services—or one place to go for assistance—helps families get the help they need as quickly as possible and reduces waste and redundancy in the system.
  • Rapid housing placement. Shelters are not homes. We work to reduce the time families stay in emergency shelters with quick placements into permanent housing, often with rent subsidies tailored to each family’s specific situation.
  • Tailored programs. Flexible, coordinated support services that are tailored to each family’s specific needs are essential to helping them rebuild and maintain stability and self-sufficiency.
  • Economic opportunity. Housing stability depends on good-paying jobs and stable, long-term employment. By linking services with income assistance, education, and employment programs, we can help people find jobs and remain in their homes.

Strengthening Communities

We believe that strong communities need the capacity to solve their own problems. We work to strengthen local philanthropic institutions, such as community foundations and United Way organizations, because these partners know their local communities better than we do. These partners use their local knowledge and strong networks to address the unique needs of their communities—and in many cases they re-grant foundation funds to smaller nonprofits, local projects, and community­-building initiatives.

We also make investments aimed at strengthening the channels through which nonprofits and community leaders access knowledge and technical assistance about organizational effectiveness and strong community partnerships. By increasing the quality and availability of nonprofit technical assistance, we are better able to understand and address the needs of vulnerable families.

We know that the best ideas often come from our partners, who work directly with students and families, and we regularly seek their input. We seek ideas for community and school collaborations that can enhance educational success for low-income students both during and outside of school hours. Information about funding for such ideas can be found here.

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