Tracy Gary on Activating Donors for Gender Justice

Editor’s Note: This interview in our Feminist Giving IRL series features Tracy Gary, Philanthropic and Legacy Advisor at Unleashing Generosity.

Tracy Gary
Tracy Gary is a philanthropist, nonprofit entrepreneur, and legacy mentor who has worked tirelessly to help others experience the joy of giving charitable dollars to causes they care about. (Image Credit: Tracy Gary)

1. What do you wish you had known when you started out in your profession?

My sense of abundance and true resourcefulness has come from giving and service to the nonprofit sector. We can’t do it well without mentors.

From the time I was first exposed to my parents’ giving and their encouragement about my donating, even as a teenager it was clear to me that determining what to give to and how possibly to choose amidst issues, populations and changes needed, would take careful community listening and some wise elder guidance or partnerships.

What I found in my 20’s and 30’s was that the more I connected to community and went to see nonprofits and leaders and participated in activism, that it seemed not to really touch the systemic problems that were creating injustice. Funding direct service was not enough. Learning what policy changes were needed, media strategies or to help nonprofits grow or build their capacity and to network, seemed essential. I knew I needed a circle of elders and wise souls who could help answer my questions and to guide me.

In my twenties and for each of five decades since, I have always had younger and older mentors and mentees, guides who inspire and with whom I partner or brainstorm. Every woman in philanthropy should have mentors at every turn of our lives. If you aren’t mentoring or don’t have a mentor, set a goal to ask one to support you (and give the gift of you also supporting them!).

2. What is your current greatest professional challenge?

Inspiring donors to give and lead more is my greatest challenge, and for the unfair tax system to get fixed. I am amidst launching my 24th nonprofit, Earth Legacy Alliance, through

It is a startup, supporting donor and legacy education with activists and policy makers, about climate and species reliance, with a great next gen team. Keeping our eyes on what we can and must do, or what is truly inadequate, is key. Only 3% of American philanthropies’ money goes to the environment and animal preservation. I hope to do my part ‘til the day I die, and then my legacy gifts (which all go to community-based women’s foundations) will continue my life’s work. I’ve worked with and given 75% of all to women and girls’ nonprofits. I turn 70 in April this year.

By age 35, having given away 100% of what I luckily inherited ($ 3 million in today’s dollars,) and having been fully engaged, I have people I love or respect everywhere. Sharing wisdom, and sincerely caring is part of my resourcefulness. But raising money is harder than having it to give. Happily I enjoy bringing donors and donor advised funders and foundations to hear about and align with good leaders.

Raising money when donors have made so much (15%-45% in stocks in the past year alone!) should be easier than it is. With now 2 million nonprofits, most of which are managing with reduced efforts and budgets, this IS the time to leverage and help more get capacity and dollars. So inviting donors again and again is a moral necessity. These are my peers after all, and many are isolated, surviving and pulled in. Not having socialized or engaged with nonprofits — except by Zoom or on calls, or websites — donors don’t have our hearts moved as easily. Many truly care, but get busy or frozen.

There is nearly $1 billion sitting in nearly 1 million donor advised funds and more in foundation endowment piling up, and barely moving. We need our nonprofits to be strong and to inspire us and all donors to keep wealth earned or inherited, flowing and redistributed to what’s needed. Partnership brings hope. Too few donors have partnerships in their giving. We offer it.

I have worked in all 50 states and 23 countries and had experiences and media (Thank you, Philanthropy Women!) which has honored my teams’ work and advanced and propelled our efforts over and over again.

3. What inspires you most about your work?

The creativity, brilliance, activism, dedication and care of the next generation and aging generations of donors, activists and policy makers and nonprofit media makers is just so moving to me. Working inter-generationally is so smart. Persistence in the face of so many difficulties, instead of freezing or living in fear of not having or being able to do much, is replaced by partnership and shared values and collaborations.

Going to events or to see nonprofits became my passionate way to learn. Many can write a proposal or update a website, but to see the work in action and meet the people served by a project or nonprofit was such an honor and also helpful In discerning between nonprofits and leaders. Since I started being a donor, and starting nonprofits and engaging other donors, I have been on 1-2 site visits a week, with rare exceptions. These nonprofit 2-3 hour dialogues have given me perspective and inspiration beyond my wildest hopes.

As a philanthropic and legacy advisor and donor, I have now reviewed over 4000 nonprofits in depth, many in California but plenty in other states and some countries. This has been a tremendous honor and there is NOTHING that has sparked my dedication more. Mentors have been essential in encouraging me and helping me to learn. Online analysis is not the same as going to see the faces, minds and the hearts of those working to build a better world.

4. How does your gender identity inform your work?

For 48 years, I have identified as a feminist philanthropist, woman donor activist, organizer and leader. I am also many other pronouns. The reality is, my being a lesbian since my mid 20’s was an advantage in working with grassroots women and was a hindrance in the early 1970-2000’s in the more corporate or university professional women’s philanthropy movement. I was seen as pushy and one of “those feminists” and held back in some professional contexts or looked over nationally in the 1980-2000’s.

Straight white women everywhere like straight white men, and others have their exclusive circles and clubs. At times being excluded was painful. But we have all gained greater respect at how much many hard working and new and eager women who are diverse, gender self-identified with pride, and Caucasian and straight leaders also have contributed. We have I think come to greater mutual respect and acceptance.

Now it is imperative that we continue the guidance and fairness proposed by the Black Lives Matter Movement and the gender identity movement, and for us all to get more comfortable with the free choice that is so central to our stronger engagement. Getting curious and caring about differences or people’s lives and stories has been central to being a better allies, leader and partner. It is now our work to extend vision and compassion. Women do this so well. Women in philanthropy do it with grace and passion and extraordinary fervor. Passion and purpose guide and support us to grow into what we are uniquely “called” to do. I am honored to be a feminist philanthropist and woman donor, woman leader and LGBTQ donor leader too.

5. Do you think your gender identity has affected your career?

I think this has been a GREAT time to be a woman and feminist. I keep my lesbian identity mostly in my friendships and partnership. My generation did not lead with our gender identity, but we are learning how important it is to name our feminism and our shared values and unity with others however different.

As stated above, bias exists even if White. I was overweight too and that kept me from “the club” of nonprofit entrepreneurs at times. But structures and systems can change. In my lifetime I could never have imagined so much progress on gender identity. But women in philanthropy and women working at home now or the front lines are challenged by the surge of economic and physical and childcare challenges. We must advocate to advance all.

6. How can philanthropy support gender equality?

People of all gender identities must promote justice, respect, dignity, caring, and equality, and speak up fully about what women — all women locally, nationally and globally — need.

COVID and our crazed democracy have placed dramatic pressures on women and families and particularly those first responders and those on the front lines. It is key that we care enough to promote the needs, rights and policy imperatives of those most adversely affected by injustice and bias.

When I began my work in the early 70’s, women and girls’ programs were getting less than 1% of all foundation dollars. It has improved but barely to now 1.6% of all giving. (What’s more, people of color-headed organizations get less than 8% of all philanthropic dollars).

We know that investing in women and girls IS the best strategy world-wide to making systems change. Why then do we not give the majority of our funding to programs run by women and women of color?

Let’s leave our legacies to women and girls and gender justice — and promote gender equality during our lifetimes, in our activism and in our bequests, in our investing, purchasing power and beyond our lifetimes. Join me in recommitting to investing in and giving to women and girls. Get boards to stop hesitating and take the best route to societal change by supporting women and girls.

7. In the next 10 years, where do you see gender equality movements taking us?

Women ARE the answer to rebalancing the woes of the world and creating a healthier way to heal the planet. Our democracy, climate resilience, business sector, education sector, government, medical sector, spiritual and cultural life will be better if we fully engage and honor women and invite men to do really do their part with kids, and de-accelerating and tending to elders.

Philanthropy must do its part to be part of the change. If we want better housing, women must be at the center of the search for greater global wisdom. As has happened with Black Lives Matter, we must be and insist on the transformation that we deserve. It is up to us each.

Women and girls and LGBTQ leadership are my investment of choice. Take a look. Are you aligned in your investments, your giving, you’re volunteering and your advocacy, voting and policy visioning? We can do this AND it takes owning our internalized sexism, and truly asking ourselves “WHY aren’t we or others truly advocating for women fully in leadership or supporting their nonprofit and for profit businesses? What more could I be doing to really commit to that path, with accountability?”

My advice: Try mentors to bounce off with, and also make a true commitment to be a strong advocate. It’s time to save the planet and our challenged communities and countries, knowing that women are hardly perfect, but it IS time for our to do our part fully. Countries that have women leading can evidence greater peace and well-being. Why not!!

I’m committed; join me! Let’s double our efforts to be catalysts to move others. The survival of our hearts and indeed many species depends on us.

About Tracy Gary: Tracy Gary is the Philanthropic & Legacy Advisor at Unleashing Generosity. She is a nonprofit entrepreneur as well as a legacy and leadership transition coach. She is a frequent contributor to Inspired Philanthropy and NCFP. Through her eighteenth start-up, a nonprofit called Inspired Legacies, she consults with a diverse range of individuals and organizations to improve and expand philanthropy and volunteerism. Tracy has worked with Social Venture Partner groups and several new digital millionaires who are transforming the giving landscape. Her latest venture is the Tipping Point Fund for which she is raising $20 million to shift poverty and the environment. She has appeared on The Today Show and Oprah Winfrey and been interviewed by The Washington Post, NPR, Time, The International Tribune, and others. Ms. Gary is the author of Inspired Philanthropy: Your Step by Step Guide to Creating a Giving Plan and Leaving a Legacy.

Author: Maggie May

Maggie May is a small business owner, author, and story-centric content strategist. A Maryland transplant by way of Florida, DC, Ireland, Philadelphia, and -- most recently -- Salt Lake City, she has a passion for finding stories and telling them the way they're meant to be told.

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