The Grateful Activist: This Longtime Philanthropy Leader Shares Insights

Tracy Gary has played a key role in building the infrastructure of women’s philanthropy over the past 40 years.

Tracy Gary says she starts every day as a “grateful activist.” That’s a good way to approach the morning, and an attitude that infuses the 66-year old Gary’s now 40-year career as philanthropy advisor, non-profit leader, donor and consultant.

A founder of nearly two dozen non-profits, Gary heads Unleashing Generosity and Inspired Legacies, and is on the road 40 days per year working with non-profits, foundations, and donors. That’s down from the 200 days away from home she used to log, but in the last few years she has reduced her workload (which used to run to 60-80 hours per week) and dropped 100 pounds. It’s a matter of staying healthy, and staying on the planet, so that she can continue mentoring the next generation of inheritors and philanthropy professionals.

Gary spoke to me by phone from her home in Tiburon, California just north of San Francisco, and had plenty to say on matters philanthropic, political and personal. (A very short side bar: she liked Wonder Woman, go see it).

Raised in a wealthy New York family, Gary studied mythology at Sarah Lawrence College, moved to California in the 1970s, and soon became active in the philanthropy and non-profit world. She now occupies a unique position in the women’s philanthropy sphere as she wears, and has worn, so many different hats. (If she was inclined toward the flashy, a retinue of milliners would be in order).

First, Gary is a donor herself: she gave away most of the $1.3 million ($7.5 million in 2017 dollars) that she inherited when she turned 21. She also donates a third of her yearly earnings to progressive organizations and causes. Over the course of her working life, this sum has totaled about two million dollars. Second, Tracy Gary has served as a non-profit worker, founder and leader, and so knows a thing or two about starting, growing and maintaining organizations. A “serial non-profit entrepreneur,” Gary says she would start an organization, “raise that first million,” hire staff, and then move on after five to seven years. Two of her early efforts were helping establish the Women’s Foundation of California (a model for the now well over 100 women’s foundations around the country) and the Women Donors Network.

Tracy Gary’s experience as both a donor and organization builder has fueled her career as a speaker, writer, facilitator, coach and consultant. Her work has taken her to 50 states and 23 countries, and there are few who can match Gary’s depth and breadth of expertise in women’s philanthropy. “I’m here to support people,” she says of her role as a mentor to the current and next generation of philanthropists, inheritors and non-profits.

Gary is frequently invited to speak and consult with banks, foundations, social justice funds, and feminist and LGBTQ organizations. In a two-day visit, she will pack a lot in: delivering a tailored keynote to the organization hiring her, giving workshops to staff, educating development professionals on cultivating wealthy women, meeting with high-level donors, and canvassing the area for women of means to bring into the fold. If she’s not coming to your town, Gary has a series of podcasts available on the Inspired Legacies site, in which she and colleague Louis Wellmeier talk to a range of people about money and giving.

Tracy Gary has no problem staying motivated: “If someone had told me that giving money away would have provided me such a sense of community and joy,” says Gary, “I wouldn’t have believed it.” She also thinks that spreading the wealth around is a matter of survival.“Either we work for the good of all, or we will see these implosions continue around us.”

Some of these implosions are Trump-related, and, while not happy about the election, Gary is not discouraged. “A lot is breaking down, but a lot is breaking through,” she says. She sees Trump’s election as a wake-up call, the result of a combination of “falling asleep at the wheel” and most Americans getting caught in the vicious cycle of consumerism. Gary notes that increasing inequality has sown divisions.“You can’t have zero social mobility for the bottom 40 percent for 25 years and not expect a revolution.”

There is a lot of rancor and division in the country, but Gary says the only way to combat it is through love, tolerance and a focus on justice. Women are key to resisting the ever-increasing flow of money into the coffers of the 1 percent, to the detriment of the poor, and the planet. Trump did not start this trend, but Gary sees Trump’s regressive policies as accelerating it. “We have to be the counterbalance,” she says, not just in the U.S., but globally. “The UN has years of data showing that if you invest in women, you improve towns and communities.”

One of Gary’s early philanthropic efforts was giving to and volunteering for a battered women’s shelter. An insight she gained from this time was that while work in the field is valuable and necessary, system-level reform is needed. “In order to change the conditions of violence, we had to change the laws and attitudes in place.” Increasingly, Gary says, the big picture is getting clearer. “A lot of funders and donors are realizing what advocacy and policy is,” she says. Once again, the 2016 presidential election has been a wake-up call, and Gary would like to see more women run for office. A significant barrier she notes is that women perform the lion’s share of child and elder care.

Of late, Gary has been concerned with tax policy, specifically the way the tax code favors the very wealthy. She is tough on the rich, decrying the rotting fruits of “run-away capitalism” and noting that, “Too much money in the hands of wealthy people is not good.”

Gary would like to see donors be “intentional” in trying to decrease inequality in society. “Giving to the elite schools your kids attend is race and class self-interest,” she says, and further notes that some of what passes for philanthropy supports “things that are counter to democracy.” Gary would like nothing more than to free the rich from the burden of their great assets. “I’ve seen what too much wealth can do,” she says, and notes the isolation, stress and joylessness of the super-rich as they become prisoners of their multiple houses and jet-setting accoutrements.

Her message to the wealthy is presented with love, but with a point: “You can give much more than you already are.” To this end, over the last 40 years Gary has sought to build an infrastructure of giving, particularly for women’s philanthropy. One of her chief aims is get donors into the community, to make them less passive. “I try to bring wealthy people out of their cocoons,” she says.

Gary is also dedicated to bringing women together, noting that wealthy women can act as powerful role models for one another in furthering female-centered giving. “A lot of women have not shown up to say how they want their family’s money invested,” she says. Another piece of the puzzle is working with women (and men) on “aligning their values with their philanthropy.” In other words, if social and environmental justice are important to a person, then their giving should reflect that, something that is not always the case when money is shoveled into a donor-advised fund with little investigation or reflection. She would also like donors to become activists themselves, to use their wealth and power to advance progressive causes and engage politically, finding it unconscionable that big guns like Gates and Buffett are silent on issues like the Flint water crisis and the repeal of Obamacare.

It’s not just the wealthy who can do and give a little more; Gary argues that the middle class can step up its game as well. Her book Inspired Philanthropy: Your Step-by-Step Guide to Creating a Giving Plan and Leaving a Legacy gets into some of the nitty gritty of giving money away. While she often meets one-on-one with wealthy donors, providing advice on how and where to give, the idea behind the book was to discuss strategies that are “just as useful for a family giving $2,000 a year as one giving $200,000 or two million.”

Tracy Gary left me with lots to chew on, as well as one specific piece of advice (in addition to seeing Wonder Woman): give to the organizations you support before summer kicks in, as these are typically lean months for donations in the non-profit world.

Author: Tim Lehnert

Tim Lehnert is a writer and editor who lives in Cranston, Rhode Island. His articles and essays have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Providence Journal, Rhode Island Monthly, the Boston Herald, the Christian Science Monitor, and elsewhere. He is the author of the book Rhode Island 101, and has published short fiction for kids and adults in a number of literary journals and magazines. He received an M.A. in Political Science from McGill University, and an M.A. in English from California State University, Northridge.

2 thoughts on “The Grateful Activist: This Longtime Philanthropy Leader Shares Insights”

  1. The world’s a better place, thanks to Tracy Gary! She’s the real deal! . . . grounded in the nuts and bolts of getting a tough job done; especially gifted in showing how to soar higher with imagination, courage and optimism.

    1. This is a wonderful article about Tracy Gary. Accolades could be sung a bit higher, but overall it captures her spirit beautifully. Thank you for the article and deep thanks to Tracy for the spirited contributions she makes every day to advance Human Rights,
      Social Justice, and Inclusiveness. She is truly AMAZING!

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