EPIP Member Spotlight
Tony Bowen, Director, Grants Management and Operations, Democracy Fund
Interviewed by Tom DiGenno
1. Why did you get involved with EPIP and can you share one of your most memorable or valuable experiences?
I first heard about EPIP back when I was in college in Kansas City and while there was not a formal chapter in that location, there were lots of online resources to tap into. I first got involved with EPIP even before I moved to DC when I was working at The Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF) in Baltimore. There was talk of starting a chapter in Baltimore, but a group of us at AECF ended up instead creating an internal group, Strategic Young Networking Committee, because we determined that there just weren’t enough folks under 40 working in philanthropy in Baltimore at the time. We utilized a lot of EPIP’s principles and had essentially the same mission. I joined the EPIP DC chapter as a member when I moved to DC in 2013, and joined the DC Steering Committee a year later.
My most memorable EPIP experience came in 2011 when I was working at Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) and presented at the EPIP Conference with Jessica Wechter on “What Scale Means to Philanthropy,” which was a hot topic at the time. Presenting at the conference as a young professional helped me build research and presentation skills, which was quite useful. It also tied my experience to joining EPIP DC with introducing me to a network of other great professionals and leaders within philanthropy. Since then, I’ve run into several people who I first met at the conference, which shows how helpful the networking piece is.
Another good experience was the first time I got to lead an event on the role of philanthropy in supporting election administration in 2014. This was a way to tie what we were working on in my role at the Democracy Fund to a current event. People could relate to the content with upcoming elections, and it also was helpful as a way to show the role private foundations can play in elections in a very technical way, by presenting the rules that govern such actions.
2. How did you come to be involved in philanthropy?
My first experience getting involved with the nonprofit sector was due to Hurricane Katrina, which hit two months after I started college. There was a mission trip which went down to New Orleans that I took part in, which was a very impactful experience as it was the first time I had ever left my community to go help somewhere else. That trip was sponsored by the nonprofit association on campus, and I learned that you could build a career in the nonprofit sector. So, I switched my major and realized that I wanted to tie business savvy with the opportunity to help people.
I was given the advice to go do internships as a way to figure out what I wanted to do in the sector. So, I started my first internship in philanthropy at the Cape Cod Foundation, which is a community foundation. I’m a big proponent of people getting experience at community foundations because you get to learn fundraising, grantmaking, marketing, and community needs and interests on a deeper level. I completed seven internships as an undergraduate and then went on to complete my M.A. in Philanthropic Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. There I focused on the intersection of foundations and LGBT issues. This started with learning about the roles advocacy and foundations can play in public policy, upon which I built the LGBT philanthropy piece. I was able to spend two years of the program researching and writing on that topic, which was a great opportunity to dive deep on a single issue within the broader philanthropic context. I was also working at GEO at the time, so I was able to integrate what I was working on, such as the Social Innovation Fund, into my studies.
3. What led you to your current work?
Before joining the Democracy Fund, I worked for organizations that had been open for a long time before I joined. The Democracy Fund presented the opportunity to work at a startup, which is unique in philanthropy. I felt I would be able to take what I had learned from working at all those different foundations and settings and apply it to the development of a new organization. It was also an intersection of the work I had done at AECF in administration and systems work, such as how to put in better practices and policies to support program staff and how to implement good grantmaking practices, which I had learned a lot about at GEO.
The work we do at Democracy Fund, investing in opportunities to make American democracy work better, is very important and pressing work I strongly believe in. We take a bipartisan approach to our work, something I especially appreciate after having lived, worked, and gone to school in areas of the countries with varying political and cultural viewpoints.
As the Director of Grants Management and Operations, I have three primary functions: overseeing the day-to-day operations of the Fund, including finances, HR administration, IT, and legal issues; overseeing the grants management process; and supporting our organizational growth strategy. One of my favorite parts of the work is advising the staff on grantmaking and working with program staff to help them think through what’s going to be an effective grants strategy to achieve our goals. As we’ve grown, I’ve been able to connect different teams and functions together, making sure everyone is on the same page.
4. How do you cultivate your own leadership abilities?
I believe the best way to cultivate leadership abilities is through practice. We can learn and develop the most by doing - getting experience by taking on management and leadership opportunities. We can read up as much as we want, but taking on new projects has been the most helpful for me. Taking on managing people has taught me what it means to move from being an individual contributor to being a coach and helping other people develop.
If you don’t have these opportunities at your current job, a lot of organizations have committees you can get involved with, so make sure to raise your hand and take part. Doing this can help to prove your ability to others within your organization that you may not get to spend your day-to-day time with. Getting more involved with EPIP or other volunteer committees is a great way to take on leadership that you don’t get to do at work. Joining the steering committee or helping run an event can provide outlets to hone skills.
Also it is important to learn from mentors and others who have been down in the trenches. A lot of what I do there is no blueprint for, so I try to talk to and learn from people who have been in similar organizations and have been there before. I am able to implement and tweak based on what I learn from them.
5. What's one thing people would be surprised to know about you?
Nothing particularly substantive, but something funny: In sixth grade, I wore orange every single day to class, like an orange shirt or orange polo. (Ed. Note- fits right in with EPIP branding colors!)
6. What single piece of advice or quote do you have for fellow EPIP members?
Developing your career and seeking opportunities for advancement is each individual’s responsibility- no one will do it for you. There are many people in the nonprofit sector who will take the time to mentor and coach you, and it is important to seek out those opportunities. You have to be willing to work hard and gain the knowledge you need to be successful. You also need to be patient, as this work is based on knowledge and experience which takes time to develop before you can advance.
7. What are your social media handle(s)?