Effective Family Philanthropy: The Tow Foundation

Leonard Tow and his daughter Emily Tow at a 35th anniversary celebration of the Tow Foundation

After 35 Years, the Tow Foundation Reflects on the Past and Looks to the Future

Founded by Leonard and Claire Tow, the Tow Foundation recently held a 35th anniversary event called “Past Informed, Future Focused,” which nicely sums up this unique moment in time for the Connecticut-based family foundation.

In addition to a major milestone for the foundation, Leonard Tow celebrated his 95th birthday earlier this year. Daughter Emily Tow, foundation president, calls it their “95th 35th.” It’s a time for both celebration and introspection.

For Leonard Tow, that also means remembering a pioneering career in telecommunications that landed him on the Forbes 400 at one point. Tow graduated from Brooklyn College and received his Ph.D. from Columbia University in economic geography. He went on to serve as chairman and CEO of Citizens Utilities, as well as Century Communications, which was sold to Adelphia Communications Corporation for $5.2 billion in 1999.

The family, meanwhile, can look back on decades of impactful funding throughout the New York metro area. The foundation initially focused on backing innovative projects in healthcare and education and has since evolved to support organizations working across arts and culture, higher education, civic engagement, equity and justice, and medicine and public health. Today, over 70% of grants are given in the form of multi-year, unrestricted support.

Last summer, I caught up with members of the Tow family at the Time Warner Center in Manhattan, just a few blocks away from Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center, to learn more about their interesting philanthropic story. Over the years, the foundation’s giving has shifted from the first generation to the second as daughter Emily Tow was named president. And now several grandchildren, including Hope and Benjamin Jackson, are playing unique roles at the foundation.

But rather than departing from values that were originally infused in the foundation, the Tows are looking back and looking forward, proud of the work they’ve done so far and also excited about what comes next. Here is the story of the Tow Foundation, three decades later.

Getting started

The son of two Russian immigrants, Leonard Tow was born in 1928 and raised above the family’s discount store in Brooklyn during the Great Depression. Tow attended Brooklyn College, where he met Claire, also the daughter of immigrants, and later attended Columbia University. Tow did not immediately take to business. “I was a professor for eight years before I was anything else,” Leonard Tow said.

In the mid-1960s, however, Tow rolled the dice in the emerging cable industry, working for legendary investor Irving Kahn at Teleprompter Corporation. When the company was acquired, Tow shifted gears and wrote his own business plan from his dining room table for what would become Century Communications. By the time he and Claire sold the company in 1999, it had grown to become the fifth-largest cable television company in the nation.

Tow clarified that they started giving well before the late 1980s, but he sees this moment as an important transition to formalized giving. “We realized that we accumulated a lot more than we would ever need or want, so it was time to give it back,” Tow said. The couple launched the Tow Foundation in 1988.

Within those first two years, the Tows invited their their children to join the board, including Emily Tow, who joined in 1990 after graduating from Barnard College two years earlier. Emily says she wasn’t heavily involved with the foundation at this point, and was mainly soaking up lessons from her father. She described these early years as dominated by “check-writing” rather than strategic philanthropy. “My parents’ original interests were higher education, medicine, and arts and culture,” Emily Tow said. The Tows were the first in their family to go to college, so access to education was an important early interest. Her parents were also born during the Great Depression, during a period of free healthcare, which even included dentists coming to their school, Emily said.

The foundation soon changed its name from the Leonard and Claire Tow Foundation to the Tow Foundation, which Emily said helped the second generation feel involved. “I give my parents a lot of credit. They saw right away that it could be a great thing for the family to do together. They changed the name right away so that we could be a part of it, too.”

The spirt of the second generation came further to the fore in 1995, when Emily Tow became the first foundation employee and president of the foundation, a job she continues to hold after nearly 30 years — a longer stint in philanthropy than she expected.

“When I first took the job, I did not see it as a career move. I had no idea that there was such a field as philanthropy,” she said. She recalls with a smile looking up the word “foundation” in the phone book, and found contact information for the Foundation Center. That institution sent her to what is now known as Philanthropy New York (formerly New York Regional Association of Grantmakers), where she learned as much as she could and gained confidence in her new role.

Through this association, she ended up at the Council on Foundations’ first family foundation conference, noting a time in the mid-1990s when family philanthropy was suddenly becoming a bigger phenomenon. At the helm, she and her brothers also did an evaluation of what was really important to the second generation, leading to more of an emphasis on things like disadvantaged youth and families, and social justice, causes which gained increasing importance through the years.

From the second to the third generation

“Because I’m staff, it’s a little tricky when you’re trying to get your own children, nieces and nephews involved,” Emily Tow began, as she started to explain the next generation’s involvement in the Tow Foundation.

In order to navigate this process, she enlisted the help of her chief of staff to create a clear pathway for Tow family members to become eligible to join the board. The foundation ultimately settled on a number of criteria, including that family members have to attend board meetings regularly for two years, go on site visits and attend events. Then, once family members hit 21 years of age or older, they can be elected to the board.

Hope Tow Jackson graduated with a history degree from NYU in 2023. But she began sitting in on board meetings and preparing for membership during her freshman year, ultimately joining the board in 2021. Hope also spent summers on staff at the Tow Foundation, working in the communications department.

“I wanted to be on the board since I was a teenager. We all grew up going to a lot of foundation activities, including site visits. So we got a lot of early exposure to a lot of what the foundation does. As early as I could be on the board, I was,” Hope told me.

Her brother Ben, on the other hand, did not initially have plans to join the foundation so soon. He studied mathematics at Hunter College and did postgraduate studies at the Flatiron School in software engineering. “I was planning on forging my own career and then kind of coming back to this later when I had more experience and felt like I could offer more to the board on that level,” Ben said. However, it increasingly became clear to him that his skills as a software engineer could be useful to the Tow Foundation. He started working at the foundation part time and is now working full time as an information systems developer, with expertise in Salesforce.

Interested in working at the intersection of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) and technology, Ben has been looking at ways of making grantee portals more equitable, including for those hard of hearing and facing language barriers.

To date, all of the family foundations that we’ve profiled, from the Perez family of Miami to the Sobrato family of Silicon Valley, have involved next-generation family members working on the program side. But for Hope and Ben, it’s worth emphasizing that they’ve found space at the Tow Foundation working on the operational side, where they’ve used their skills and experiences to best serve the foundation.

An Innovation Fund and managing the board

Currently, each second-generation family member has one child on the board, and as Emily Tow has been engaging the third-generation, she has also been looking at ways to better engage the family board overall. At a board meeting a few years ago, she suggested creating an Innovation Fund to bring the Tow Foundation back to some of its startup roots, while engaging the family in collective giving. Her brother Frank and her cousin Amy matched her interest, and together, they had a couple of meetings with Leonard, leading to the hiring of an outside consultant to hammer home a plan. After that, Emily handed over the reins to others, keen on getting other second- and third-generation family members involved.

“I said to my father, ‘OK, now you and I are going to leave,’” Emily said. Her brother Frank chairs the Innovation Fund and recruited Hope and cousins Molly and Olivia to round out the committee. Collectively, the fund allows them to explore issues outside of their traditional focus areas, including early childhood intervention and gun control. Hope adds that it’s been a fantastic hands-on experience, in which she even got the experience of creating and reviewing applications and meeting grantees.

“The Innovation Fund has been my favorite part of being a board member so far. I think the reason why it connected with me and my cousins so much is, I think, the same reason why, when the second generation was becoming involved with the board, they [the second generation] took a step back to see where everyone’s interests lied,” Hope said.

In 2021, Tow Foundation gave a $100,000 grant to California School-Based Health Alliance in Oakland, California, a peer mentoring program that trains older adolescents in physical and mental healthcare to supplement in-school health centers. Through the years, the Tow family has expanded beyond their New York City metro locus to states like California and North and South Carolina. So the foundation’s Innovation Fund also allows these board members to explore not only new causes, but new geographic regions that reflect the communities in which they live. Emily acknowledges that her father Leonard wasn’t always keen on these ideas. But seeing how engaged other family members were eventually tipped the scales.

In terms of weighing all of those different voices in the room, Leonard Tow said there has never been an “unpleasant moment” in the board room. “I don’t recall any circumstance where there was any conflict. And more importantly, we’ve opened up avenues for the younger generation,” Leonard Tow added.

Changing times and youth justice

At the end of 2021, Leonard Tow made what Emily calls a “very large gift” to the foundation, which ended up doubling the size of the endowment. According to tax records, that gift amounted to nearly $206 million. Emily sees this gesture as being in lockstep with many of the other changes at the foundation, from more third-generation family members joining the board to the new Innovation Fund.

“It was an indicator that the foundation was going to have a wonderful future beyond him. He’s never wanted to rule from the grave,” Emily said, adding that her father has been very resistant to any kind of donor intent around program areas, as well. “He knows the world is going to change. We never knew we were going to be funding in justice, but here we are… So I do give my parents a lot of credit for the letting go.”

On that note, in 2014, the family established the Tow Youth Justice Institute (TYJI) at the University of New Haven, a university, state and private partnership which works for juvenile justice reform. “They have been a godsend in the state of Connecticut for juvenile justice,” said William Carbone, executive director of justice programs and the Tow Youth Justice Institute at University of New Haven. According to Carbone, the Tows began funding studies on the conditions in juvenile detention centers back in the 1990s and funded a number of pilot programs aimed at removing kids from the system and giving them treatment and other support to reduce recidivism.

By the mid-2000s, the Tow Foundation brought in experts to meet with the Connecticut State Legislature about the realities of youth brain development. At that time, Connecticut was one of three states where the age of juvenile jurisdiction was 16, while most other states set that age at 18. On the heels of this work, in 2010, the age was raised to 17 and then, in 2012, to 18.

“They have had a profound influence on public policy in our state,” Carbone said, adding that the Tow family’s strategy has been collaborative, giving donations but also encouraging the Tow Youth Justice Institute to seek out support from other foundations and from the government, including the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. “I would have to say they’re very respected at the federal level, too.”

Looking back and looking forward

Every Tow Foundation board meeting starts with a round robin of discussion about things each board member is doing in their personal life, as well as their favorite discretionary grant — drawn from $25,000 per year that each board member can devote to causes personal to them. For Olivia Tow, Emily’s niece, that personal interest has been gun violence prevention. She asked a foundation staff member to reach out to the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, a Tow grantee, to see if she could explore a gun violence prevention project. Ultimately, she was introduced to SURGE, a cross-disciplinary public health collaborative focused on gun violence prevention, and gave them a discretionary grant of $5,000.

To celebrate Leonard Tow’s 95th and the foundation’s 35th birthday, the Tow family is also giving a multigenerational grant in which all three generations will come together and give a large sum to a cause that’s important to them. Combined, these exceptional grants form a good illustration of the way the family members — and the three generations — manage to work together, but also leverage their own strengths in order to move forward.

At the helm of the foundation for nearly three decades, Emily is looking back and knows she does not want to be president of the Tow Foundation forever. But she’s also proud of the way members of the next generation have found their own roles at the foundation.

Emily is also looking to continue to move money out the door. For many years, she says the foundation was giving twice the required annual distribution at 10%. And when the foundation doubled its endowment at the end of 2021, she started looking for new opportunities to grow their giving in the next half-decade or so to get back up to that 10% giving level. “My instinct is to increase the amount we give to our current grantees. We don’t want to grow larger staff-wise. Our grantees are chronically underfunded.”

One final thing Emily mentioned was that she wants to look at the intersection between grantmaking areas, noting that many of the organizations they support don’t neatly fit into one area, and are unfortunately left behind by many foundations. Tow Foundation recently made a grant to Medical Justice Alliance, run by two emergency physicians who help to provide medical testimony for incarcerated people hoping to get compassionate release. Is this a public health grant or a criminal justice grant? These are the kinds of unique nonprofits that Tow wants to continue to support.

Leonard Tow, 2019 Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy awardee, was reluctant to speak too much about his own legacy. He’s proud of the work he did alongside his wife Claire for many years (she passed away last decade from ALS). “My wife and I were a team for 60-odd years. Whatever she wanted to do, we did,” he said.

Besides the Claire Tow Theater, a gift he made in memory of his late wife, he’s avoided putting his name all over recipient institutions. The rest of his legacy he will leave up to the next generation.

“I don’t even know if I want to be remembered. I’m not trying to make a mark for myself. We do our thing quietly. It makes me feel good. I hope that’s how people remember me,” Tow said.