Rick Steves, founder and owner of Edmonds-based Rick Steves Europe, has supported numerous local projects with donations of $1 million or more. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Rick Steves, founder and owner of Edmonds-based Rick Steves Europe, has supported numerous local projects with donations of $1 million or more. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Q&A: Rick Steves ties philanthropy to travel and faith

“We live in a world where mindless consumption is almost respected. To me it’s not a respectful thing.”

This is one of a collection of stories about philanthropy in Snohomish County.

EDMONDS — Rick Steves, 62, founded and is the owner of Rick Steves’ Europe in Edmonds. His travel shows are broadcast on Public Broadcasting Service stations nationally, including KCTS in Seattle. His travel column runs in The Daily Herald’s Venture section on Sundays.

He has made a number of major donations to local projects: a 24-unit YWCA housing project in Lynnwood valued at $4 million; a $1 million pledge to the Edmonds Center for the Arts; $2 million to replace the Edmonds Senior Center with a new community center, plus an additional $1 million match grant; and $2 million for a community center planned at Trinity Lutheran Church In Lynnwood.

Q: Philanthropy is a big part of your life now. Was giving part of your family life growing up in Edmonds?

A: We didn’t have money to give back when I was little. Being a responsible member of the community was something in my upbringing. Somebody who’s a Boy Scout leader is giving back just like a philanthropist. In my family, it was giving in that way.

Q: In the past, you’ve mentioned that faith is part of what has inspired you to make at least some of your donations. Is that still a significant part of what motivates your donations for some projects?

A: Yes. I think it’s a huge part of it. My parents raised me with a strong faith. I really believe that as a Christian, it’s important to be mindful of the needs of people who are struggling in the community.

My philanthropy is a result of my faith and my travels. When you think about it, anybody who consumes beyond the level where it doesn’t make them happier is not very thoughtful about their consumption habits. We live in a world where mindless consumption is almost respected. To me it’s not a respectful thing.

Q: Could you talk about your decision to make 10 annual gifts of $100,000 to the Edmonds Center for the Arts, part of which benefited the Cascade Symphony Orchestra?

A: One part of my philanthropy was sort of a personal protest against tax breaks for rich people. I think wealthy people should be taxed more progressively. That inspired me to give the million dollars to the Edmonds Center for the Arts. Part of that gift was also making sure that the rent was covered for our symphony … so the rent is no longer a concern for them.

Q: You choose to make many of your donations for local projects. Why did you choose Edmonds and South Snohomish County as your focus?

A: Well, it’s not my only focus. I give a lot of attention to drug policy reform and advocacy and Bread for the World nationally. I donate several millions to those organizations.

I lose a little sleep thinking I’m giving several millions to a (community) center here in Edmonds. I get a lot more bang for the philanthropic buck investing in water projects in Central America. … By funding a water project in Guatemala, you know you’re bringing water to a thirsty community.

But I want to give the community the wherewithal to have a community center they’re proud of and a symphony not struggling to pay the bills. That’s my personal joy.

I like to balance local and international.

Q: People who don’t grow up with wealth must have a moment of amazement when they realize the financial resources they suddenly have. Was there some particular moment when you understood the impact you could have?

A: You come to a place where you realize I’m having so much fun working and I’m making a fair amount of money. I’m getting paid a wage plus I’m the sole owner of a little travel business.

The consequence of that good work and focus and being lucky to have a business that’s really viable is I’m making more money than I can consume. I don’t want to just stack it up and figure out ways to consume it.

I’m inspired by the political movement called “The Future in Our Hands” by Erik Dammann. The whole idea is an enlightened community. You realize you can stop consuming and help other people. I thought about that and the Christian ethic of taking care of poor people and the joy of my life is to work hard.

For me, one of the biggest, one of the most gratifying, exciting ways to spend some of my extra money is advocacy for [fighting] world hunger through Bread For the World.

Q: You tell wonderful stories about your travels, both in local presentations and on television. What’s your favorite story about either Edmonds or Snohomish County?

A: Every morning I sit here and look out over Edmonds and see Puget Sound and see the ships coming and going and I look at the Olympic Mountains and an ocean spreading all the way to Japan. To be surrounded by Puget Sound and the mountains inspires me. When you’re as blessed to live in a community as we are, that’s a lot to be thankful for.

Q: People of limited means sometimes feel that their $10 or $20 donations really wouldn’t make much of a difference to any project. Is there anything you’d like to say to them, in the sense of it’s not the amount, it’s the spirit of sharing that matters?

A: Yes. Every time I get honored … I always feel like I’m not impressed by a rich person who gives a lot of money away. I’m impressed more by a person who carves out some of their time to contribute to their community — a coach nurtures a bunch of school children. That’s every bit as noble of a contribution as someone who gives a lot of money.

I think there’s intangible value of someone having the opportunity to write a check, even a small check, for a good cause. When you raise awareness and give people an opportunity to roll up their sleeves and contribute, they’re all beneficiaries.

Q: Do you have any upcoming philanthropy projects locally or elsewhere that you’re considering?

A: A lot of my philanthropic projects are projects I do in television production to raise awareness on things I think are important.

A few years ago, we did Palestine and Israel, and a show on fascism.

We’ve put a lot of energy into our Martin Luther and the Reformation special. We mailed the DVD to all 11,000 Lutheran churches in the U.S.

Those are the labors of love for me. For me, it’s just as important to take on a project that doesn’t make money, but contributes to society.

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or salyer@heraldnet.com.

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