Debbie Killinger. Photo courtesy of Seattle Repertory Theatre
Debbie Killinger. Photo courtesy of Seattle Repertory Theatre

There is an art to giving, and as a philanthropist, Debbie Killinger has mastered it. From the time she was a young girl, she has always made a difference. Back then, she gave bones to the dogs at the pound. Now, every year, she gives to education, arts and human services — some 50 different organizations.

“Philanthropy,” she says,” has always been a part of me — with or without money. It’s my thing — it just is.”

All told, Killinger has donated more than 125 scholarships to Morehouse College, Washington State University, Bellevue College, University of Washington School of Drama and North High School in Des Moines, Iowa.

“About four times a year, I go over my charitable giving,” she said. “I was curious about what percentage I give to the arts, compared to what I give to human services and education. Surprisingly, it was almost equal.”

In fact, Killinger’s pet theory contends that the arts, human services and education are all connected.

Her two biggest human services projects are Bellevue Lifespring and, in Seattle, Bailey-Boushay House. One of her gifts enabled Bailey-Boushay to complete its kitchen.

Shortly after that, executive director Brian Knowles presented Killinger with an enormous package, saying, “I have no idea what it is.”

“Clients had fashioned a cardboard sink and painted it with a drain and fake water,” Killinger said. “It was full of little 8-inch paper plates, with messages written on each one. They used art to express their thanks to me.”

Killinger’s generosity also includes the Wing Luke Asian Museum, Seattle Men’s/Women’s Chorus, ArtsFund, Washington Women’s Foundation, the Holocaust Center for Humanity and, of course, Seattle Repertory Theatre.

Not only does she contribute to Seattle Rep, she has served on its board since 2004. On any given opening night, Killinger is making her rounds before, after and during the intermission, introducing people to one another.

A need to give

Although she is wealthy, there is no condescending attitude, no airs. She is forthright and friendly; she’s what we like to call “real” and “genuine.” And her word is golden.

She’s a talker, and she knows it. Back in school in Des Moines, Iowa, she would get in trouble for it. But in the here and now, that same trait adds to her charm.

Patti Payne, entrepreneur, radio personality and longtime columnist for the Puget Sound Business Journal, put it this way: “Debbie is one of a kind — unique, creative, thoughtful, brilliant. She makes her mark on the community in a very quiet but effective way.”

For the last nine years, Killinger has sponsored a free children’s concert performed by both Seattle’s Men’s and Women’s Choruses. It attracts as many as 2,000, from toddlers to teens.

“I wanted to expose kids to the arts,” she explained. “None of the chorus members get paid; they are all volunteers. I love the chorus. They were kind to me when I was a small donor.”

Normally, Killinger doesn’t meet the people she sponsors. “The only thing I ask for is a letter that tells me something about them. But at a Bellevue College luncheon a few years ago, this young gal comes up, taps me on the shoulder and asks, ‘Are you Debbie Killinger?’

“When I turned around, she gave me a big hug,” she continued. “She was shaking as she spoke: ‘I wouldn’t have been able to go to school without your help.’ Then she handed me this little box. She had beaded a necklace with a thank you on it. So there it is again — education, but also art.

“Some people give because they have to,” she said. “In my case, I need to. If I’m feeling crummy about something or having a bad day, I find that giving to somebody makes me happy.”

Others may ask, “What’s in it for me?” But not Killinger.

“When I give — whether it’s a thing or money or whatever — it’s not mine anymore,” she said. “It’s not for me to tell someone what to do. I’m not giving to be thanked. I’m giving because it makes me feel good. I probably get more out of giving than the person who is receiving.”

Paying it forward

As for words to live by, Killinger has her own Bartlett’s reference area: a wall in her laundry room covered with small sticky notes. One of her favorites is, “Never look down on anybody unless you’re helping them up.’’

Another Killinger favorite goes like this: “Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it’s stupid.”

And she loves, “A bit of fragrance always clings to the hand that gives a rose.”

“The only thing I hope for is that some of the people that I give to will find success and decide to give back,” Killinger said. “Not everybody will be philanthropic, but maybe somebody, sometime, will remember that someone did something for them and pay it forward.”

STARLA SMITH is a longtime Queen Anne resident. To suggest a Queen Anne/Magnolia resident to be featured in “Starla Speaks,” email To comment on this column, write to