In conversation with Tammy Crown
Magnify Community recently sat down with Pledger Tammy Crown to discuss her approach to philanthropy and how giving in community makes the work more strategic, impactful, and joyful.
Can you give us an overview of your philanthropic journey over the past 15 years?
There’s a deep culture of giving in my husband Bill’s family, so we have always given since the day we got married. When Bill’s father passed away, Bill decided to use the estate to catalyze personal giving from each of the surviving family members by giving each family member a certain amount to give away for a period of years. The expectation was built that every member would give away as much as they personally could, even after those estate funds were exhausted. It was a great way to build the philanthropic muscle and helped us realize that we could be giving away a lot more and that we could do that in a strategic and effective way.
We don’t operate a foundation and just recently funded a DAF to smooth out our giving over time and facilitate multi-year grants. That said, a few years ago I began to realize we were giving away as much as many foundations, and that I should be devoting more of my time to this endeavor. We haven’t added staff, partially because I enjoy doing the due diligence myself so that I have a deeper understanding of the underlying issues in a space and can develop a relationship with an executive director. It is also because I feel I can leverage the due diligence that other foundations are already doing on nonprofits in an area of interest; I don’t feel that it's necessary to duplicate their work.
Now that my children are a bit older, I have more time to invest in the organizations we’re supporting. I have a strong sense of accountability to what we’re trying to solve. That requires work: to understand the issues, along with the players; who’s making a difference. Over the past few years, I’ve really invested in building strong relationships with executive directors and staff.
What are your philanthropic priorities?
We invest primarily in the environment, K-12 education, and basic needs to address poverty and inequality and homelessness issues. We tripled our local giving to basic needs last year, and we know that need isn’t going to go away in the foreseeable future. Even if we’re not funding direct aid to address pandemic-related impacts, we’ll be funding work addressing underlying root causes of poverty and inequality, because organizations have the insight and will but woefully lack the capacity and resources to focus on systemic root causes and solutions.
‘Trust-based philanthropy’ is in vogue these days, but you’ve been doing it for a long time.
I got into philanthropy at a time when everyone wanted to apply the venture capital model to philanthropy: tracking impact and ROI, on the premise that so many nonprofits were wasting money, not being strategic, and not collaborating. And that made sense to me as a business person. But I discovered that when you’re looking at entrenched problems that have never been solved by government or private money, and when you’re in the business of caring for people, you often can’t take a venture capital approach. Plus, a venture approach is time-consuming for both the nonprofit and the funder and often isn’t that insightful at the end of the day. That time could be put to much more productive use. Ultimately, giving people the boost they need to live their best lives can’t all be measured. I believe in investing in leadership and people, not specific projects, and really trusting those leaders.
I try to learn as much as I can on my own before asking an organization for metrics, because nonprofits are already so under-resourced. That usually involves reading their financial statements and annual reports, reviewing their websites, and talking with other funders. After this pre-vetting, I’ll have a conversation with the executive director to understand their own view of their organization, their impact, their goals, and their risks, and to assess whether we can have an honest and open relationship.
I guess you would say I take a trust-based approach to philanthropy: no proposals, no grant agreements, all unrestricted giving.
What do you wish you had known when starting out on your philanthropic journey?
I wish I had reached out to find community sooner. Philanthropy can be a lonely journey; I wish I’d taken the leap of faith to join an organization that could have provided more camaraderie earlier on. Developing this community sooner would have helped me give more strategically and impactfully from the beginning and encouraged me to be less conservative in my approaches and grant sizes. I definitely wish I’d made bigger, bolder grants sooner.
I’d advise someone starting out not to be afraid of not knowing much about a subject or questioning what you bring to the table. Join Magnify Community or SV2 or reach out to friends to open up a conversation about giving in a non-threatening way. Talking to people who are doing this work, learning from their ideas, and sharing resources and funding opportunities makes the work so much more joyful. Another way to get to know an issue deeply and cultivate community is to join a board or volunteer at an organization doing work in a cause you care about.
I also wish I had made more time to have conversations with nonprofit leaders sooner. Getting to know executive directors and building those relationships is the most gratifying aspect of philanthropy for me. When you develop deep trust, they can share what’s going well and what isn’t, as well as where they need help; you feel the camaraderie in this work.
How has being in community impacted your philanthropy?
Conversations I had with other Magnify Pledgers, both individuals and foundation staff, helped me gain the confidence this last year to give to organizations with whom I hadn’t had a conversation. Given the overwhelming need we saw, I trusted my peers’ validation that those organizations were doing good work and made significant donations to organizations I hadn’t supported before. I’m having conversations with those organizations now, and I haven’t been disappointed yet—in fact, I’ve been even more impressed. The strategy paid off to give big to meet the moment and validate later.
How do you broach conversations about philanthropy?
I’m very cognizant of the fact that people have different capacities to give, so what one person considers a big gift might not be for another person, but it doesn’t make it any less worthy; it’s valuable, whatever the amount. I find it’s more productive to focus on what causes you’re interested in, what organizations are doing great work in those spaces, and what impact they’re having.
With friends who are newer on their philanthropic journeys, I advise them to just get started. Pick one area you’re somewhat passionate about, find two or three nonprofits who are doing good work in that space, and just give to them. Then have conversations with the executive directors and ask them who else is doing great work in that nonprofit sector—not competitors necessarily, but other great nonprofit leaders. That’s how you expand your network. Leverage other people’s research and opinions: look at the organizations being funded (and vetted) by the big foundations; you might miss effective smaller nonprofits, but it’s a starting point. Look at Charity Navigator and other rating sites. Don’t worry about making mistakes—you might occasionally miss the mark on what you wanted to accomplish, but that’s how you learn. You can’t worry too much about whether everything’s perfect...you have to start somewhere.
Photo caption: The Crown Family