Portland will never have New York’s money, DC’s clout, or London’s connections. But for a new class of idealists, organizers, doers, and innovators, humble Stumptown has become its own kind of capital city for global action.

In the fields of international aid, humanitarian relief, and socially conscious business, Portland has a few bastions of expertise. MercyCorps runs relief and aid operations in 44 countries from imposing headquarters by Skidmore Fountain. Medical Teams International and the Nike Foundation’s Girl Effect boast global heft and healthy budgets. But ambitious new efforts are popping up everywhere, often powered more by entrepreneurial passion than cash. 

New and old, big and small, the city’s international players are creating a distinctively Portland way to attack problems on the far side of the world. The major established organizations team up with tiny start-up companies. Brand-new efforts leverage creative talent and Portland’s famed DIY spirit to present slick, professional images—even while operating from a kitchen table. A tight-knit, collaborative culture helps designers, scientists, social-capitalists, and activists launch new ideas fast.

The resulting movement doesn’t draw as much attention as the latest business news or political maneuver, but maybe it should. “It’s quite remarkable,” says Doug Stamm, who keeps an eye on Portland’s philanthropic world from his post as the head of the Meyer Memorial Trust. “We don’t attract many multinational corporations, but we attract cutting-edge international aid organizations.”

On the following pages, we introduce 25 organizations, people, projects, and ideas—some established, most on the rise—that exemplify Portland’s growing global reach.


Cindy Kaplan & Spoon Foundation
Image: Joni Kabana


A Portland mom aims to revolutionize orphans’ nutrition. 

When Jadyn Kaplan’s mom coaxes him to tell a visiting reporter where he was born, the 7-year-old answers with mischievous nonsense: “The park.” A slight, sweet boy who avoids eye contact, Jadyn wasn’t born in a park, but in Kazakhstan. Malnourishment in the hospital where he spent his earliest days indelibly marked his cognitive and motor development.

“When we first met him, we thought, this doesn’t look like a healthy baby boy,” says Cindy Kaplan, who, with her husband, adopted Jadyn in 2006. “But we were in love. It was just part of what we were handed as parents.”

Beyond a son, Kaplan discovered an overlooked issue and unexpected calling. She wanted to work for an organization dedicated to improving nutrition in orphanages around the world. She couldn’t find one. So, along with another Portland mother of an adopted Kazakh child, she started one.

Six years later, Spoon Foundation runs nutrition training and feeding programs in orphanages in Kazakhstan, China, India, Haiti, and Tajikistan. After starting with Kaplan’s kitchen table as an office, the organization’s budget will approximately double from 2012 to 2013, to a projected $1.3 million. 

Spoon works to address a distinct and nuanced problem: orphanages in developing countries often have adequate food, but their staffs may lack the training to feed infants and young children in ways that allow their bodies to metabolize nutrients properly. (For example, Kaplan says, Kazakh “baby houses” often force infants to eat too quickly.) Spoon works with in-country partners to provide both food aid and, as important, training and policy to improve feeding practices. In Kazakhstan, for example, Spoon lobbied successfully for a law raising national nutrition standards for orphanages.

“We thought it would be easy—like, we’re going to just buy vitamins and send them over,” Kaplan says. “It’s complex to explain. We can’t just say, ‘A dollar will go to a meal for this child.’” 

Kaplan says that her nascent organization looks to Oregon’s cluster of international aid experts. Holt International, a highly regarded Eugene-based international adoption agency, is a partner. Executives from Portland’s MercyCorps mentored her. “The community here is more accessible than if we were in, say, DC,” Kaplan says. “The relationships come easier and feel more natural, and everybody seems to be driven by the true value of what they’re doing for other people.”

Kaplan and her husband adopted a Kazakh girl, Nevya, in 2010. Kaplan says their family feels even bigger: “People say, ‘You think you’ll have more?’ I say, ‘I think I have thousands and thousands.’” —JF



A complex collaboration takes Portland technology to the world. 

Portland State professor Evan Thomas runs the school’s SweetLab, specializing in “sustainable water, energy, and environmental technologies.” The lab develops digital sensors to monitor water filters, cookstoves, and other equipment deployed in remote communities. “We show how international aid is actually working,” the 29-year-old NASA veteran says. “Engineers often use instruments to test programs. We bring that same rigor.” Thomas’s operation also shows how one Portland effort leverages a school, major charities, for-profit companies, and global connections. —ZD 


In a cluttered lab in PSU’s engineering building, Thomas and two postgrad engineers test battery-powered monitors. “They’re low-power, but report high-quality data to the Internet over cell-phone networks,” he says. “I can sit in New York, and remotely reconfigure a sensor in India. You can be in Portland and see how well a water pump in Rwanda is working.”

The Gates Foundation
The mammoth foundation contributed $20,000 in grants to develop and deploy sensors.

Oregon BEST
A tech-development nonprofit established by the state awarded $200,000 through grants to develop and commercialize the sensor technology.

The Portland-based international aid agency granted $80,000 for sensors in Haiti and Indonesia.

Thomas’s project is tied to a grant from the State Department’s development arm through a partnership with UC Berkeley.

The Lemelson Foundation
The Portland-based charity endowed by inventor Jerome Lemelson granted $100,000 to support sensor development. 

The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
A 114-year-old UK research institution will analyze data collected in the field.

A private company is setting up a $50 million project to monitor water quality for 600,000 households in Rwanda.

Rwanda’s Ministry of Health
The government agency handles distribution and training.

A private company co-owned by PSU sells and implements monitors in 10 countries, including Haiti, Kenya, Indonesia, India, and South Africa.

A Portland company makes clean-air cookstoves and works with Thomas’s company.

Stevens Water
A 101-year-old Portland water-monitoring company contributed $500,000 worth of work.


Thomas travels frequently even as he runs the lab and teaches PSU classes. Two typical flight itineraries:

PDX > Amsterdam > Kigali, Rwanda            

PDX > Tokyo > Jakarta, Indonesia