An Act of Trust
Marta Drury grew up working class. Her parents started a company that they ran out of their bedroom, and from the age of six Marta and her siblings worked in it. Having grown up during the Depression, her parents’ most important values were hard work and thrift. They always told their kids “it doesn’t matter what kind of work you do – just do your best. If you take care of the pennies, the dollars will take care of themselves.”
Marta was single and in her 30s when she decided to have a child. This was very shocking for her Minnesota family and when she asked for help, her family refused – as she expected they would. She decided to go on welfare because she felt it was important to stay home and raise her daughter for the first 3 years rather than putting her in daycare. “The experience of being a welfare mother definitely shaped how I give money away. It was very demeaning even though I was white and educated. It was a huge stigma.”
Marta had a Master’s degree in Special Education but when she returned to work she found it too draining to be a single mother and work in Special Ed. So she pieced together a living: managing a bookstore, part-time jobs at a newspaper and selling things. Eventually she started her own business called “Leave it to Marta”. She explains, “I’m a good networker – I know how to put people together. I had my fingers on the pulse of the community and knew who was looking for what.” Then “Leave it to Marta” turned into a catering business. Marta also bought a hot tub spa in Marin and eventually moved to Palo Alto where she started a toy store.
Meanwhile, her parents’ company went international and became very successful. But then both Marta’s parents died within a couple of months of each other. Marta inherited money about 3 years before her parents died and then again after they died.
“It was a blessing to inherit while they were alive”, Marta says. “I knew my father loved me, but he didn’t respect me. So when I decided to manage the money myself, I learned about the stock market and invested well. When I told my father, he was so proud that I had made money. He even bragged about me to other people. It was a sweetness in our relationship at the end of his life.” But, she adds, “I didn’t tell my parents about giving money away. My family had no history with philanthropy. They would have been horrified. They gave $100 a year to their church and $100 to the Salvation Army.”
Marta had clipped an article from Ms magazine about Managing Inherited Wealth (MIW), a nonprofit started by Tracy Gary to provide financial education and emotional support to wealthy women. When Marta inherited, she called Tracy on the phone the next day. She signed up for every MIW meeting they had. “But I was so nervous about going to a meeting with rich women, I gave my best friend $100,000 so she could go with me. I wanted an ally.”
Marta describes how valuable MIW was for her: “If you have radical politics and your friends regard money as the enemy, inheriting is very complicated. Nobody but MIW was creating a safe space for women to talk about the emotional aspects of having money. It was a comfortable place to talk about where the money came from and especially how you felt if it came from things you disapprove of. How do you live with this money if it’s tainted? I certainly couldn’t talk to my friends who were struggling to pay the rent.”
“Managing Inherited Wealth had an overt mission to get women really comfortable with the power of their money and to go back into the community to share that resource. Tracy was so passionate and articulate about giving away money. That was exactly what I was looking for in my own life. I saw myself basically as a pass-through for my inherited money to be distributed. MIW was exactly what I hoped it would be.”
On the practical side, MIW had trainings about investing, different mechanisms for giving money, and how to be effective in funding non-profits. Within a very short time Marta started volunteering in the office at the Women’s Building in the middle of the Mission District in San Francisco. She says, “This was a whole education in itself. I’m a survivor of many different things so I’m totally alert to my environment. I can clearly see what women’s needs are.”
“The biggest decision I made was to give away the money I inherited. It was an exciting challenge to find mechanisms to give it away that were out of the box. For example, I started a scholarship fund for girls in East Palo Alto who were graduating from high school. It was not for girls who excelled, but for girls who barely got through yet showed smarts and determination.” She also bought a beautiful piece of land and built a house that could be used as a retreat center by grassroots groups and non-profits.
Managing Inherited Wealth evolved into Resourceful Women, another nonprofit that Tracy founded to help educate women about giving away money – particularly to support projects to benefit women and girls. Resourceful Women also launched a project called Women Donors Network (WDN) which became an independent organization in 1990. WDN now has 180 members who each give a minimum of $25,000 per year to social justice causes. Marta was involved in developing both organizations. For example, she wanted to break the isolation of rich women writing checks so she founded the Resourceful Women Awards and structured it as a giving circle. Each RW Giving Circle consisted of a ratio of one donor to three community women. Together the members of the giving circle made decisions about funding grassroots women leaders. Marta endowed it with $200,000, as well as raising money from other donors.
In 1999 Marta started the Heart & Hand Fund to give grants to women’s groups in the Balkans. “I just happened to be in right place at right time”, she says. “I got an emotional phone call in the middle of the night from my friend in Pristina, Kosova as she was being put in a boxcar and sent somewhere – she had no idea where she was going and whether she would survive.” Marta sent a letter about the situation for women in Kosova to her friends in the Women Donors Network and a few other listserves. People donated $200,000 in response to this letter. To her amazement she realized, “I have a fund here!”
Marta began visiting the Balkans in order to learn more about the situation and to be able to make more strategic gifts to the communities that were devastated and poverty-stricken after 10 years of war. She explains, “This became another giving circle. Small things slip through the cracks, so I started giving money directly to individual activists who were on the ground so that they could give grants as they saw the needs. They were in the best position to recognize the impact of small grants.”
“What I really got from my years involvement with MIW and WDN is ‘listen to what your grantees want’. I don’t go in with my agenda. I may want to see the garbage picked up, but that’s not their priority. Making unrestricted gifts is an act of trust. My decision-making comes with whom I give it to. Then I let them make the decisions about how the money is spent.”
“Another very important aspect of my time in Managing Inherited Wealth, Resourceful Women and Women Donors Network is that I have made dear personal friends, as well as having valued colleagues in the philanthropic world.” Marta also wanted her daughter to understand what she is doing with her philanthropy. Her daughter was 12 years old when Marta inherited. “As a teenager she thought the whole thing was pretty weird. My attempts to explain my philanthropy didn’t pay off for a long time, but in her 20s my daughter got politicized. She became a youth organizer, started non-profits, and began to organize young donors. Marta adds, “My daughter won’t inherit enough money not to work – but I also think it’s important for her to know that she could discover her own talents and take care of herself.”
Today Marta’s funding is done together with her partner, and the priority remains women’s projects, with special emphasis on women of color. Marta also still raises money for the Heart & Hand Fund. In 2005, she was nominated along with 998 other women around the world for the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in the Balkans.
She reflects, “An important issue these days is the fact that after 25 years of being self-defined as a donor/activist, I’m having to reduce the size of my donations. This is partly because I’ve given away most of my inheritance and partly due to the world’s economic crisis. It’s not a totally comfortable process because so much of my self-identity is wrapped up in the word ‘donor/activist’ and it’s also how I’m seen by others in the community. It’s a new challenge and an ongoing conversation with myself…”
When asked what adjectives she hopes will describe her legacy, Marta answers without missing a beat: “Made a difference”.