Playing to Strengths: How Alaska Airlines Ties Giving to the Power of Flight

Photo: Png Studio Photography/Shutterstock

Photo: Png Studio Photography/Shutterstock

Alaska Airlines has been engaged in corporate philanthropy for over 35 years in communities where “a significant number” of its employees live or work, namely Alaska, Hawaii and Washington. Its related but independent nonprofit, the Alaska Airlines Foundation, has been up and running for nearly 20 years.

The airline organizes much of its funding into the overarching areas of youth mentoring and education (often in STEM fields), aviation workforce development, and community outreach. The contributions include employee service and charity flights. Many of its programs are tied in some way to aviation and the related fields of science, technology, engineering and math/STEM, and in building community connections and support around these areas. This makes Alaska Airlines an interesting example of a corporate funder drawing on its own strengths and existing structures to center and guide much of its philanthropy.

Many other philanthropists are also embracing STEM education and undertakings related to high-altitude travel these days, whether through backing tech trainings for young women, commercial and recreational space flight endeavors, or science projects on the International Space Station. But Alaska Airlines’ interest perhaps comes more naturally than most.


In its philanthropy, Alaska Airlines relies on two primary avenues: corporate giving and grants from the foundation. Below, we look at how the airline’s giving plays out in both of these arenas. It’s a good opportunity to see how a single funder can advance a multifaceted philanthropy portfolio.

Supporting both education and workforce development.

Alaska Airlines funnels its corporate giving into three areas: youth and education, medical–assist flights, and community outreach in the form of other charity flights and employee community service initiatives.

A recent, high-profile example of this corporate funder’s backing for youth and education was its gift of $1.5 million in early 2018 (along with contributions from eight other airlines, for a total of $28 million) to remodel the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. This funding will support the revamping of the “America by Air” gallery as the museum’s entire flagship building is upgraded. In this portion of the museum, generations of aircraft and artifacts from the evolution of flight—uniforms, models, engines, and so on—document the history of U.S. commercial aviation. To the airline, this gift supports education and aviation workforce development.

“Alaska Airlines is committed to working in our communities to introduce young people—especially those most at risk—to job opportunities in aviation and beyond, to set them up for success in future career options,” said Diana Birkett Rakow, vice president of external relations, on the company website.

Alaska Airlines also funds STEM education and career preparation through community-specific programs like the Alaska Airlines Scholarship for Highline Public School students in Washington. In 2018, four scholarships were awarded to students preparing to study in STEM fields including computer science and computer and civil engineering.

In terms of medical causes, the airline partners with groups such as Angel Flight West and the Shriners Hospital to provide over 1,700 free seats each year to people who need to travel for treatment. This is especially important within the large and rugged state of Alaska, where transportation difficulties can limit access to medical care.

Along with medical-assist flights, Alaska Airlines conducts community outreach work by donating flights to help charities achieve their missions and meet their business travel needs. It offers its “Mileage Plan” members the opportunity to donate miles and support charitable organizations such as the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Special Olympics, and the Dream Foundation.

That last one, the Dream Foundation, is a 20-year partner in philanthropy with Alaska Airlines. Dream Foundation helps terminally ill adults and their families achieve end-of-life dreams of their design. The airline has donated over 1,000 round-trip flights, helping this foundation fulfill over 400 dreams. And Alaska Airlines passengers have donated over 5.4 million of their own miles to the Dream Foundation.

“When Alaska Airlines donates the flights for a dream, that means that gifts from our supporters can be put to all of the other costs and other dreams, so we can fulfill far more dreams across the nation every year,” Kisa Heyer, CEO of Dream Foundation, said.

Alaska Airlines’ corporate community outreach also supports employee service as board members with nonprofits, volunteering locally and participating in fundraisers. It has a matching gift program for its employees, as well.

The Alaska Airlines Foundation

This Alaska Airlines Foundation supplements the company’s “overall corporate giving program by providing direct cash grants to public charities.” It funds groups providing educational and workforce development in Alaska, Hawaii and Washington, with grants typically of $5,000 to $15,000 each. Throughout the Northwest, general corporate grantmaking has increased in recent years, and this foundation seems to be following suit—in 2016, it awarded an unprecedented $307,500 to 27 organizations, a considerable jump over its 2015 record of $250,000 to 20 nonprofits.

If we take a look at one mid-2017 round of grants from the Alaska Airlines Foundation, when it gave a total of $161,500 to 15 nonprofits, we see it staying true to core causes of STEM education, and youth and workforce development. Recipients included the Alaska Challenger Center for Space Science Technology, Inc., which provides STEM education; Community for Youth, which runs mentor programs for high-schoolers in Seattle; and El Centro de la Raza, which provides a variety of youth and social services for Seattle’s Latino community.

Then, in late 2017, the Alaska Airlines Foundation gave $100,000 to 10 nonprofits in Hawaii to “celebrate 10 years of flying to the Islands.” Grantees included Big Brothers Big Sisters Hawaii, Friends of Hawaii Robotics, Islander Scholars, and Make-A-Wish Hawaii.

If you are interested in receiving funds from this foundation, apply online and focus on youth education and workforce development. Get your application in before April 15 to be considered for funding midyear and by September 15 for funding before the end of the calendar year. The same application can be used to ask for corporate contributions like fundraisers and sponsorships, or to request an Alaska Airlines executive for a speaking engagement. Over the past five years, Alaska Airlines, as a whole, has invested $45 million in cash or in-kind donations.

Of course, not all corporate givers tie their philanthropy as closely to their fields of business as does Alaska Airlines. Some have simply selected causes they wish to support. But for grantseekers looking at major companies based in their states and communities, Alaska Airline’s example may still be instructive. It may be productive to craft grant proposals that appeal to a company’s core business and expertise.