Emily Tow: The True Measure of Success


Photo by Len Rubenstein

Without authentically engaging the people who are going to be most affected, philanthropy cannot influence lasting change.

Emily Tow

When people think about philanthropy, they often picture someone writing a check to support a cause. They might not think about the underlying desire, drive, and real effort that it takes to do this work.

I was probably fairly naive when I first started down this path, but my experience has taught me that philanthropy isn’t any one thing. It’s about finding where we can have the most impact and then becoming passionate about those issues as we learn more. It’s continuous learning, listening, and adjusting.

We have a vision at the foundation: to offer people the opportunity to experience joy, to be healthy, and to have a voice in their own community. We want to enrich people’s lives and, in turn, enrich society. That’s how The Tow Foundation originally got into funding juvenile justice. We started doing deep research and inviting people in from all different areas of this very complex, intertwined system.

All of our philanthropy is grounded in that same vision. Are people hopeful? Do they see a future? Do they have the opportunity to enjoy culture, to become educated, and to feel secure in their physical and mental health? Do they have a forum to speak up and participate in their community in a way that makes them feel valued? If the answer is positive, then we know we have been successful.

When The University of New Haven worked with us to establish the Tow Youth Justice Institute (TYJI), its leadership showed dedication to becoming a hub for youth justice, policy practice, and leadership development. When I visit campus, I see this in real time. I was granted an honorary doctorate from the University in 2017, and I was blown away by the intellect, the enthusiasm, and the diversity of the graduating class. I also had the opportunity the prior year, as a presenter in the Bartels Lecture Series, to address an audience of students, faculty, administration, staff, and community members on the power of philanthropy to impact system change. I was impressed both by the questions they asked and by their different interests. I was excited in each of these instances to learn that these students were going to enter the field and become the leaders of tomorrow.

My advice for anyone striving to make a difference is to approach problems with curiosity and an open mind. Let go of your preconceived notions. Create opportunity for those doing the work to speak truthfully and listen to what they say. Without authentically engaging the people who are going to be most affected, philanthropy cannot influence lasting change.

Emily Tow is the president of The Tow Foundation, a charitable organization that supports work in the areas of justice reform, medical research, higher education, and the arts. The foundation is the primary funder for the Tow Youth Justice Institute (TYJI) at the Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences at the University of New Haven. TYJI is a resource to prepare the next generation of change agents through experiential education and leadership development, and to advise policy-makers and service providers through its role as the research partner to the State of Connecticut’s Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee.