Carrie Towbes, Ph.D.
It has been both an honor and a challenge to lead the Towbes Foundation as President since my father, Michael Towbes, passed away in 2017. Over these past few years, not only has the Towbes Foundation morphed in dramatic ways, but the world around us is a different universe.
Internally, we have grappled with numerous changes, not the least of which has been the transition of our source of funding from cash and traditional investments to commercial real estate. Our response has been to professionalize the Towbes Foundation, shifting from a true mom-and-pop shop to a more strategically focused and professionally led organization. We have our first full-time Executive Director, Kristen Sullivan, Ph.D., our first physical office, four new board members with broad expertise, and the website you are currently looking at. We have engaged in strategic planning, partnered with a sophisticated legal, investment, and accounting team, and strengthened our board governance.
Meanwhile, our community has been altered in truly unimaginable ways. Santa Barbarians suffered through the Thomas Fire and the Montecito Debris Flow in 2018 and 2019, leading us to recognize the need for community collaboration and rapid philanthropic response. Then in 2020, we were faced with the COVID-19 pandemic and its far-reaching impact on our economy, health care system, and schools. Everyone in the community was affected, but the most vulnerable among us were hit the hardest, intensifying the need for thoughtful and organized giving. Simultaneously, the country’s racial disparities, amplified by the murder of George Floyd, have highlighted longstanding inequities. These intertwined crisis points have led the Towbes Foundation, and me personally, to re-examine the ways in which we give. 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. 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. Our 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.”
The Towbes Foundation has gained strength internally, running a tighter ship; simultaneously, we are taking a critical look at our role as funders through a lens that is more aware of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice issues which lie at the core of many societal challenges. Our third big change is that we have narrowed our philanthropic focus. Early in the transition following my father’s death, I received some insightful advice from a wise funding partner. 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.
Making our little slice of paradise in Santa Barbara a better place to live is at the center of why I give. It’s meaningful work, it strengthens community, and it’s pretty fun.
Carrie Towbes, Ph.D.