Close Search
Feature  |  Governance

One Woman’s Journey of Philanthropy

27 March 2018 at 8:30 am
Wendy Williams
US philanthropist Sparks talks to Wendy Williams about what drew her to philanthropy and why diversity is so important.

Wendy Williams | 27 March 2018 at 8:30 am


One Woman’s Journey of Philanthropy
27 March 2018 at 8:30 am

US philanthropist Sparks talks to Wendy Williams about what drew her to philanthropy and why diversity is so important.

“You know people ask me like what is your thing, do you run? Do you play a sport and actually, my thing is either gay or philanthropy or gay philanthropy. And so that’s actually what I am very passionate about.”

Sparks is the executive director of the Masto Foundation, a small US-based family foundation rooted in the Japanese-American community.

She is deeply committed to promoting equity in the not-for-profit and for-profit social impact sectors based on her experience as a queer, multi-racial, next generation woman in the field of philanthropy.

As she told Pro Bono News, when she was in Australia to speak at The Channel Giving Circle about diverse perspectives on philanthropy, her journey has been different to that of most philanthropic leaders.

Masto Foundation executive director Sparks.

“Off the bat, my mom was Japanese, I am Japanese American, my dad is white. But I grew up in a household of contrast where my mom was wealthy but she grew up the only Asian family in an all white community, my father and his family were very poor, so even though he was white they lived on an Indian reservation,” Sparks says.

“The influences of those growing up and hearing their different stories of how they saw the world had an influence on me and really helped me to think critically and to act compassionately. And to see that giving back was really a core part of my values and of my family’s values.

“Further with that, as I developed my LGBTI identity, that made me feel even more of a pull to give back, particularly to young people.”

After graduating Sparks, who grew up in Seattle and went to university in New York, worked as a clinical social worker for foster care youth in Harlem.

She says while it was often challenging she describes her time as a “wonderful experience”.

It prompted her to get a Master’s Degree in Social Work from the University of California at Berkeley.

It was here she started to learn more about philanthropy and how it could be a lever for system change, as well as finding out more about her family’s unique history with giving.

“I started learning about my grandparents experience,” Sparks says.

“So on the Japanese side of my family, my grandparents were both born in the U.S, but as you may know, during World War Two there was the Japanese internment, where 200,000 Japanese-American citizens, on the west coast were imprisoned for three years and none of them were ever charged with a crime. And so my family was sent there, all of them.

“At the time my grandmother was pregnant with my mom and they needed people to farm for the American government, and my grandmother basically turned to my grandfather and was like ‘I’m getting out of here’. So they sent my grandma and my grandpa and a bus load of internees off to Idaho where my grandfather set up a potato plant.”

According to Sparks the marines brought in German prisoners of war, many of whom stayed in Idaho after the war ended, to work the land.

After the war her grandfather was able to buy the farm from the government.

“And he moved to Eastern Washington where he set up another potato processing plant, and he developed the process to dehydrate potatoes, and started selling his potatoes to TV dinner companies. And eventually his company was bought by Carnation foods. So the Carnation dehydrated potatoes originally came from my grandfather,” she says.

Her grandfather later sold the company and set up a foundation, but just three months afterwards he had a stroke and became paralyzed on one half of his body.

“So he lost his ability to speak,” Sparks says.

“And that was when I was three. And it was very unexpected.

“[My grandparents] had a very gendered spread of the work, my grandmother took care of that household and so everything went to her and she didn’t know do with it. We also had a culture of not talking about money in my family, especially the Japanese side. So basically between the time I was a kid to this social work school I had never talked to my family about this.”

While she was studying her Master’s Sparks visited the town in Washington, when they were dedicating a building to her grandfather.

“So this was really the first time that I got to go. [It] was a really amazing opportunity to be in the town,” she says.

“There were 65-year-old men who came up and said your grandfather paid for college for me and they were standing there with their families.

“And I learned how he had created the first funding for a local hospital, the local community college. He allowed workers to buy into the company so everybody benefited when it was sold. He created a safety net fund for the workers so they could invest, and anything that they put in this fund he would match, so you know if somebody’s house burned down or there were some disaster then workers had to be able to support each other.

“So I started to learn about this really unique history which was really inspiring to me, given the context too that he was a Japanese American man, right after World War Two, realising how much his story had to do with luck and resilience and innovation and openness and even chance.”

Chance even played a role in the name of her family’s foundation.

“So the name of my family’s foundation is the Masto Foundation which oddly enough is not a Japanese name, but the doctor misheard it and wrote it down wrong on his birth certificate,” Sparks says.

“I heard how [my grandfather] did all of his business over the phone. There were folks that worked with him for 15 years and didn’t know he was Japanese.

“So even something as seemingly insignificant as that, created this interesting story where this family foundation was founded in a community of colour. And so that really inspired me to get involved with philanthropy.”

But after graduating from her Master’s, Sparks experienced how challenging it could be to get into the field of philanthropy.

“I had sent out over 50 resumes and I went on this crazy 28 job interviews,” she says.

“So what I did was I actually connected with Horizons Foundation which is the oldest LGBT community foundation in the country, and found a mentor there. The woman there, Jewelle Gomez, the director of grants, she was a black lesbian and really cared about getting more women and more queer folks, trans folks and people of colour into philanthropy. So she vouched for me and she really became sort of my compass as I was navigating this.

“It was through her support that I got hired by the United Way of the Bay Area, my first experience working at a foundation.”

Prior to taking on the leadership of her family’s foundation, Sparks worked in philanthropy for 12 years, first as a program officer at United Way of the Bay Area and then later at the Stuart Foundation.

She also created the emerging donors network HYPE, Horizons Young Professionals for Equality, which is now one of the largest networks of young LGBTQ donors in the US, and she is a founding member of the Funding Queerly Giving Circle which, in the last four years after granting out more than US $750,000, has fundraised and allocated more money to LGBTQ not for profits than any other US-based giving circle.  

In addition, Sparks founded a group called Queer Leaders in Philanthropy, a national network of LGBTQ-identified philanthropic professionals focused on changing the culture of philanthropy to be more empowering of LGBTQ individuals through advocacy and community building.

For the past seven years, Sparks has served on the Program Committee for Horizons Foundation, and has sat on several grant review committees for Horizons’ Community Issues Grants.

She has also served as an advisor to the Astraea Lesbians Foundation for Justice (the largest US-based public foundation for global LGBTQ grant-making), Resource Generation (a national network of young, wealthy, progressive donors), AAPIP (Asian American Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy), and the Council on Foundations.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given her family background and her track-record, Sparks says she believes diversity in philanthropy is critically important.

“When you bring people who are really different into a room together, naturally the best ideas, the most creative strategies, the most interesting approaches will come out other than if you have a homogenous group of folks in the room,” she says.

“I think in philanthropy that’s even more important because we’re talking about folks who have access to wealth, who maybe generationally have had that privilege, who are basically the furthest away from the communities that we want to serve.

“And so I believe it is all the more important to do whatever we can to open doors and bring those folks to the table in an equitable way too. Because that’s where the best source of information is of what is really going on on the ground.”

She distinguishes between inclusion and equity.

“Inclusion will say ‘who is in the room, who is not represented?’ equity will say ‘despite who’s in the room, whose voices are not being heard’, and can we have a conversation about people we haven’t thought of that might not be here. And how does that change our conversation and how can we adjust our structures, not from a normalised place where we are, but actually asking folks to create more support for the community,” Sparks says.

She says language is often used, perhaps unknowingly, to exclude people from philanthropy.

“I know my grandfather never would have called himself a philanthropist. He would have called himself a gambler or a farmer or fill in the blank, but he wouldn’t have necessarily owned that term because of the baggage that comes with it,” Sparks says.

“But at the essence of what the word means, the Latin root of philanthropy is ‘love of humanity’.

“The whole idea around giving circles is to really empower folks to invest in their community and that’s when I think philanthropy is strongest, when it is a vehicle for individual citizens to help strengthen their communities by investing in each other.”

To help change what people understand by the word philanthropy, Sparks says it is important to be open about new and innovative approaches.

She also says there is a need to remove giving away from being seen as something transactional.

“When I give, I don’t see it as, you know I’m giving a $1,000 and expect x y z in return,” she says.

“For me that implies that I have complete ownership of the money, which I might have in terms of my bank accounts, but I recognise that there are generations of individuals who contributed to me having this amazing opportunity, like my grandfather, and so I don’t necessarily see that I own the money, so in how it’s allocated I think it’s essential that it serves the public good.”

She challenges the idea that foundations should be able to exist in perpetuity.

“The last time we had philanthropy reform in the US was 1969, because there is no incentive for folks to push against philanthropies,” she says.

“So foundations exist in perpetuity so they continue to grow their asset base which I challenge because if a lot of the multi-generation wealth in the US was created on the backs of poor people and people of colour and an inequitable system, then to have those foundations exist in perpetuity is potentially perpetuating structural racism.

“I think it’s important to really recognise actually everything we have, the education privilege, the money that we have, where did that come from? So giving it back then becomes less ‘I’m giving you this and therefore I should receive that’.

“Because when it is seen as transactional that’s when, at least in US philanthropy, you run into challenges where grantmakers are asking for huge reports or jump through all these hoops or all these complicated processes and I really believe the most effective funding you can give an organisation is general operating support.”

In terms of LBGTI philanthropy she says it is important to see whose needs are not being addressed.

She says while marriage equality was a huge victory and a great vehicle to bring dollars into the space there are many people in the community for whom this will have no impact on their lives.

“Certainly in the LGBT community a big question is whose needs are not even being addressed because they’re not on our radar because we don’t even have a thermometer to read that radar,” she says.

“And to me, that is required to lift up the entire community. When you lift the boat for those who are the most underserved amongst us you lift the boat for everybody.

“With regards to philanthropy, if you want to make impact, and all philanthropists want to make impact, they want to leverage their funding and most of the time they want to know it is sustainable… if you look at those three things, with the huge disparities, like transgender women of colour in the US are 49 times more likely to acquire HIV or AIDS in their life, over two thirds of them have attempted suicide, those maybe sound like dismal statistics but I actually see them as inspiring because there’s so much opportunity for change.

“If you give a transgender woman of colour who’s running a $10,000 organisation another $10,000, she’s going to do a lot with it, and that’s because she’s resilient and because she knows how to navigate challenging systems and because she’s a creative problem solver.

“So impact, supporting sustainable leadership and leveraging very small amounts of money actually can leverage significant change.”

Sparks says there is a huge opportunity for philanthropy in Australia at the moment.

“This is a critical time in history,” she says.

“For many of us with marriage equality it was the quickest civil rights victory that some of us will ever experience in our lifetime. How amazing to be alive and… to be able to be there and to be a foundational leader, to  invest in something that will hopefully exist long after we’re gone. I think is just an amazing opportunity.

“I hope that The Channel can communicate that to folks and I hope that it will resonate.”

She says giving needs to be connected to values.

“I think the question needs to be what are your values, what is the world you want to see. What is the tapestry of our values that makes us us, and how it intersects with the efforts that are going on in the LGBT community right now,” she says.

“And so I believe possibly there’s a chance that in the future the needs and those disparities might not be there. But I believe there will always be a need to promote the values that the LGBT community embraces. And those should continue on.”

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

PB Careers
Get your biweekly dose of news, opinion and analysis to keep you up to date with what’s happening and why it matters for you, sent every Tuesday and Thursday morning.

Got a story to share?

Got a news tip or article idea for Pro Bono News? Or perhaps you would like to write an article and join a growing community of sector leaders sharing their thoughts and analysis with Pro Bono News readers? Get in touch at or download our contributor guidelines.


Panel Discussion Webinar

Get more stories like this


Your email address will not be published.


Pro Bono Australia Salary Survey sheds light on whether boards get paid

Wendy Williams

Wednesday, 8th June 2022 at 4:56 pm

Guide Dogs Victoria CEO resigns

Danielle Kutchel

Wednesday, 1st June 2022 at 12:04 pm

Charities shine bright as leaders for good

Danielle Kutchel

Monday, 30th May 2022 at 12:44 pm

The new normal for a not for profit

Clare Steele

Wednesday, 18th May 2022 at 12:39 pm

pba inverse logo
Subscribe Twitter Facebook