When Leonard and Claire Tow created the Tow Foundation in 1988, it was like many other family foundations that base their grantmaking programs on the interests of the trustees. But by the late 1990s that had changed. Seeking funding gaps in their home states, the trustees began to focus collectively in an area about which no family members were particularly knowledgeable: juvenile justice.

Today, the foundation’s staff members commit more than 50 percent of their time to advocacy and collaboration with public and private partners to improving the lives of children involved in or at risk of involvement in the Connecticut juvenile justice system.

With support from the foundation’s ally and partner, the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance (which the foundation co-founded in 2001), this strategic approach led to the 2007 passage of a state law that will raise the age at which courts treat a youth as an adult from 16 to 18. Currently, Connecticut is one of only three states in the nation that treats 16- and 17-year olds as adults, increasing the odds that these youths will be life-time criminals.

“When a private foundation steps into the public policy arena, it can really make a difference,” says Emily Tow Jackson, executive director of the Tow Foundation and the Tows’ daughter. This philosophy is what earned the Tow Foundation a 2008 Critical Impact Award from the Council on Foundations.

“This wasn’t anybody’s pet project,” Jackson explains. “We got excited about potentially having a deeper impact on the lives of a population of youth very few had sympathy for and in whom few foundations were invested in helping. And when you start seeing legislative change happen because of what you do, it’s pretty amazing.”

Jackson credits her parents for inspiring the entrepreneurial, risk-taking nature of the foundation.

“They are a real American Dream story, true pioneers in their families,” says Jackson. “They came from very humble beginnings and built a very successful business, Century Communications, in the early 1970s before cable television was a mainstream business.”

The Tows’ success in cable television and other ventures prompted an interest in philanthropy, particularly in the performing arts, higher education, and medical research.

In the arts, their work is centered mostly around new, young playwrights, artists, and musicians. In higher education, they support, among other things, public service internships to encourage the involvement of young, bright students in the nonprofit sector.

In medicine, the Tow Foundation’s focus has been on new and cutting-edge research that could not happen without private investments. They quickly discovered that even a little seed money—when granted at the right time in the right way—could leverage more public dollars to impact a greater number of patients.

“We identified some niche strategies on how to fund individual doctors’ research without funding big institutions,” says Jackson. In one instance, a doctor’s research had stalled for lack of the statistical analysis that would allow his team to apply for National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding. A grant from the Tows changed that.

After starting the Leonard and Claire Tow Foundation in 1988, her parents “very quickly brought the children onto the board and we changed the name to the Tow Foundation to reflect the whole family,” says Jackson. “In the beginning, we still largely funded a few medical research projects and other personal interests of the board.”

In 1994, the Tows came to Jackson with a request.

“‘We’re going to be putting more money into the foundation,” ‘they said,’ “and we’d like you to consider taking this on as a professional commitment,’” Jackson explains. “I didn’t have any training. I didn’t know anything about philanthropy as an industry or sector. I didn’t know anything about running a foundation—but I said, ‘Okay. I’ll give it a try.’”

At the time, Jackson had worked in the cable television industry and in graphic design, and was teaching outdoor education in New Zealand. To prepare for the new responsibility, she moved back to New York and immersed herself in the field, doing research at the Foundation Center, as well as joining the New York Regional Association of Grantmakers and the Council on Foundations.

“The learning curve was very steep,” she says. “I just called foundation executives in New York and asked if they would be willing to meet with me and share how they run their foundation. Not once did anyone refuse, and I got amazing insight into how different foundations do business and form their grantmaking strategies. I went to the Council on Foundations’ Family Foundation Conference in 1995 in San Antonio. [National Center Founder and President] Ginny Esposito [then director of the Council’s family philanthropy program] was one of the first people I met in the field. I found I was not alone, and met other people who had shaped their careers around running family foundations. That was really my introduction to philanthropy as a field.”

It was through these calls and meetings that Jackson began thinking about a more strategic approach.

As with their medical research efforts, the Tows looked for what was holding grantees back. One grantee pointed to their program for paroled kids. They had a state grant to keep clients involved for the next four months. They felt that if they could keep the program going for 12 months, then they could show their services were really helping court-involved youths turn their lives around and making this behavior change stick. Sure enough, with the Tow Foundation’s help, the program showed success, prompting more funding from state agencies.

The foundation’s board then convened a series of roundtable discussions with stakeholders in Connecticut’s juvenile justice field, asking questions and looking for gaps in funding and areas where improvements could be made. Insisting “no child is beyond help,” the foundation embarked on a program of juvenile justice reform, with goals that included fewer arrests and court referrals; fewer youth in detention and residential placement; improved family support; increased community-based mental health, academic, work-readiness, life skills and recreational services, and less punitive school and community practices.

The Tow Foundation has moved from funding only direct service program grants to supporting general operating expenses and advocacy initiatives as part of their system reform strategy. They now require all their grantees to engage in some form of advocacy on behalf of their clients, services and mission.

“This requirement —lobbying on behalf of their grantees, speaking with local government officials, testifying at legislative hearings – is essential if we are going to work together to make significant change happen in this field,” says Jackson. “The advocacy grants are an essential key to our success. Being a founding member and the first funder of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance was the single most important grant we ever made.” Tow and its foundation and nonprofit allies, both regionally and nationally, are part of a larger movement, as Jackson puts it, “to move money from the deep end of the justice system (incarceration) to the front end (prevention and early intervention).”

Even a little money invested in the right way can make a huge difference in the lives of others. The Tow Foundation’s 2007 Juvenile Justice Initiative brochure, an advocacy tool, weighs the economic and societal costs of continuing to pay for failure: an effective after-school program costs $3,800 per youth compared with $119,000 a year for one juvenile detention bed. And the cost of a high-risk youth’s life of crime is $3.8 million while a college graduate will contribute $1 million in taxes over a lifetime.

“The difference we are making is what is generating excitement on our board. For our foundation, removing everyone’s personal passion was key,” says Jackson. “The success of the shared grantmaking, building expertise in an area together, and really seeing the impact of our investments is what gets my board fired up.”

That isn’t to say that board members do not still pursue their own charitable interests. For instance, concern for the state of mainstream journalism prompted Leonard Tow to award two challenge grants totaling $8 million to Columbia University and the City University of New York to enhance the teaching and research of interactive journalism and new media with the goal of creating a population of journalists that will provide balanced news and information to future technologically savvy generations.

“What unites it all, though—the general operating support, the grants to hospitals, universities, theaters, agencies— is the thinking behind it: being strategic and innovative for the greatest good and the greatest human gain,” says Jackson. “We are determined to make a difference together, as a family.”

For more information on the Tow Foundation and its work, visit its website.

Get Involved

Search Knowledge Center for Resources!

We’re here to help you on your philanthropic journey. Contact NCFP for support!

Get Assistance

Keep up with trends in family philanthropy. Subscribe to our newsletter!


Family philanthropy improves the quality of life for all. Join our family!

Join Now