a light brown dog sitting down and looking over a lush field of flowers

Giving Back Purposefully

Giving Back Purposefully

At the beginning of the Covid pandemic, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Over the years I lost half my family to different varieties of cancer, so when my turn came it wasn’t a total shock. Still, I was disoriented by all of the information and advice amidst the global chaos, and I felt like I was surrounded by fun house mirrors. I also grappled with a constant nagging sense of failure—that somehow I was responsible for my diagnosis.

a field with tall purple flowers and a small pond with mountains in the distance
Isa Catto’s ’87 garden in Woody Creek, Colo., where she maintains an acre of perennials and a half-acre of vegetables. Photo courtesy of the author.

Other than doctors and nurses, I saw very few people aside from family and work until the vaccine surfaced. I spent a great deal of time in my gardens and kept two photos as my screensavers to remind me of the healing power of place. I now crave connection and authenticity more than ever. So in late January I joined an online discussion about passion philanthropy hosted by Williams’ WE Lead: Women’s Equity in Leadership program, whose mission is “inspiring a new generation of alumnae to lead through their philanthropy.”

Until I saw the Zoom invitation, I had never heard of passion philanthropy as a stand-alone term. When you style your giving in response to broader needs, reinforced by your values and philosophy without personal expectation, then you are giving from a place of passion. Giving with an agenda (like getting your child into a top-tier college or prep school or gaining social status or to be seen at galas) is another style of “philanthropy” altogether.

The Williams talk was moderated by physician Rebekah Timin Mannix ’90, whose husband, James Mannix ’89, was diagnosed with metastatic pancreatic cancer 12 years ago. Four years later, their goddaughter died from a rare form of cancer. Though Mannix told us her family was “swallowed up by grief and fear,” they slowly began to focus outward, including on philanthropy. Also participating in the discussion were Wendy Brown ’82, founder of the Twinkle Foundation, and museum director Louisa Gloger ’00, who helped start Triple Step Toward the Cure in 2010.

These women are a perfect example of passion philanthropy—and paying it forward. They took their experiences with cancer and flipped them into service. Fighting cancer can be a full-time job; it takes dedication and energy to step out of yourself, to pull back and take a wider view.

Wendy, a two-time cancer survivor whose mother died from the disease, recognized the dearth of information about the links between the environment and breast cancer. The Twinkle Foundation, which works closely with the Silent Spring Institute and Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, has since compiled an invaluable research database.

Meanwhile, as an undergraduate, Louisa lost her mother to breast cancer. Years later, a new mom herself, Louisa was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer, which disproportionately affects younger women and women of color. She recalled telling her doctor, “I’m super scared that I’m not going to make it.” The doctor, a Black woman, replied, “You will make it, but a large part of that is a socioeconomic difference.” Louisa’s cancer passage motivated her to co-found Triple Step, focused on providing financial and emotional support to women going through treatment. She stepped away from the organization after five years to focus on her passion for the arts.

Brown, Gloger and Mannix all kept moving despite the temptation to feel helpless. The three emphasized the importance of positivity and a pioneering spirit. Their antidotes for feeling out of control? Curiosity and more giving.

All three are in step with sweeping change in the philanthropic sector. Kathleen Loehr, a philanthropy expert and author of Gender Matters, makes this observation about how women are giving:

“If we agree that social change is a good thing, and women philanthropists are a key lever of change, we would be silly not to pay attention to the unique ways that women give.”

Loehr points to MacKenzie Scott’s “transformational gifts.” Scott used her vast Amazon fortune (Jeff Bezos is her ex-husband) to give without fanfare or a formal procedure in place or even a foundation. Her unorthodox methods have attracted praise and criticism, but she distributes her grants without delay or administrative red tape and donor stipulations. She just gives.

“Her rigorous research with a streamlined team, the commitment to tackle systemic inequalities, the choice of organizations that are operationally strong yet rarely the normal recipients of large gifts, and the swiftness of her funding create a new model for philanthropy,” Mensch writes. “She has broken the mold of placing one’s largess into a family foundation and giving it away slowly. This woman philanthropist is leading us to reconsider how major philanthropists might address long-standing inequities in our country differently.”

I hope that my cancer journey is in the rearview mirror. That said, I am just beginning to understand how much I’ve changed and how I want to move through the rest of this life. I am determined to give more, and it felt great to link virtual arms with other Williams women on the passion philanthropy panel who have done just that.

Another silver lining? I’ve also found an inspiring community of patients and survivors. As Mannix put it during the conversation: “Joy is the best anti-inflammatory.”


Isa Catto ’87 is creative director of Isa Catto Studio and executive director of the Catto Shaw Foundation. She writes a regular column for The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Top photo courtesy of the author.