My parents, Michael and Gail Towbes, moved to Santa Barbara County in 1957, and from the beginning, they were deeply engaged in supporting the community where they lived. Initially, they donated their time and energy as volunteers, and my sister and I often tagged along. It was just part of who we were as a family.
My parents loved Santa Barbara. Our “American Riviera” was the perfect blend between a sleepy beach town and a cosmopolitan mecca; a unique synergy between an intimate, close-knit community and a sophisticated metropolis. They believed that supporting the organizations that make this place special was our civic duty. Although my parents didn’t talk much about what motivated their philanthropy, they instilled these values in the next generation and led by example. In 1980, my parents founded the Towbes Foundation. That first year, they granted a whopping total of $500. We’ve grown a bit since then and in the past 40 years, the Towbes Foundation has granted over $20 million dollars to more than 400 organizations on the Central Coast. I grew up with philanthropy.
George Mason University economics professor, Zoltan J. Acs, author of the 2013 book Why Philanthropy Matters, notes, “Philanthropy does two things. First, it reconstitutes wealth and second it creates opportunity for others.”
Dr. Acs’s philosophy is at the core of why I have chosen to continue the work that my parents began. It’s a basic responsibility for those of us who have resources to give back to society. I believe in the social justice teachings at the heart of Judaism, embodied in the concept, Tikkun Olam, which translates to “repairing the world.” Tikkun Olam compels us to take individual and collective action to make the world a better place. Philanthropy can be an effective tool to catalyze large-scale social change, particularly when we get out of our silos and collaborate with other funders, government partners, and grantee organizations.
The Towbes Foundation has matured over the years. Historically, like many family foundations, our original giving patterns were unstructured. My parents brought their personal interests to the boardroom and let those passions lead their giving. Although my mom passed away nearly 25 years ago, my father continued the tradition of giving a little bit of money to a lot of organizations. This approach, which I call “sprinkling,” casts a wide net, but without much depth. In recent years, and with the dedication of a talented Board, we have begun to look at grantmaking more strategically.
A wise funding partner gave me some insightful advice shortly after my dad passed away in 2017. This person suggested that, given the complex and systemic nature of social problems, it helps to focus on what you know. If the target of grantmaking is lodged in an area of funder expertise, then the funder can be more of an active partner in the work. This resonated with me.
My background is in education and child mental health. I was a special education teacher before becoming a child psychologist and I maintain a busy child-and family-focused psychological services practice in Santa Barbara. Giving to organizations and collaborations that address child well-being makes sense, and there are plenty of needs here to be addressed. As a result, the Towbes Foundation is undergoing a shift from “sprinkling” and toward focusing our resources in the areas we know. Our goal is to give where we can make the greatest impact and where our investment can provide leverage.
COVID-19 has created a myriad of needs in our community.Simultaneously, the country’s racial disparities, amplified by the murder of George Floyd, have highlighted longstanding inequities.Many of these needs and injustices fall in the areas of our expertise: education, child well being, and mental health. These intertwined crisis points have led me to personally re-examine the ways in which I give.
I think it’s critical to move away from a transactional approach where the rich (and the white) donate to the poor (and the nonwhite), without really interacting or creating community. My goal moving forward is to focus on long-term systemic change through partnership and collaboration. To quote Dana Kawaoka-Chen, the Executive Director of the Bay Area Justice Funders, “For those of us in a position to redistribute resources, this is a moment in which we must urgently act with moral clarity and choose which side of history we want to be on.”
Making our little slice of paradise in Santa Barbara a better place to live for everyone is at the center of why I give. It’s meaningful work, it strengthens community, and it’s pretty fun.
– Carrie Towbes