Blank Foundation’s Fay Twersky: ‘I’m a crazy optimist’
By Maria Saporta
Six months into becoming president of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, Fay Twersky said moving to Atlanta “has been a jolt in the arm professionally.”
Twersky, a native of Philadelphia who has spent much of her life on the West Coast, the Northeast and Israel, also embraced the idea of living in Atlanta. She previously served as vice president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in San Francisco where she had spent nine years.
In her first exclusive Atlanta interview, Twersky began by saying she was drawn to head the Blank Foundation partly because it was in Atlanta and in the South – an area where she believes national philanthropy should be more invested.
“We love Atlanta,” said Twersky, referring to herself and her wife, Jill. “That really was a draw.”
The greatest draw, however, was the Blank Foundation’s strategic priorities as well as sharing the values of Arthur Blank and his family.
Twersky succeeded Penny McPhee, who was president of the Blank Foundation for 17 years, until this past February. Before selecting a new president, the foundation embarked on a strategic planning process to determine where it should focus its giving. The board narrowed in on three areas: democracy, the environment and youth development.
“They are the existential issues of our day,” Twersky said. “Democracy includes voting access, journalism, and civic participation. Our democracy is in crisis, here and around the world. The environment includes conservation and climate change. Youth development is helping young people and preparing the work force.”
It also is a pivotal time for the Blank Foundation, which anticipates increasing its annual giving. Since its inception more than 25 years ago, the foundation has invested more than $800 million. It estimates that it will give away about $75 million this year.
“We are going to put a stake in the ground in having a big impact in these three areas. We are going to put serious resources behind them,” said Twersky, who anticipates the foundation’s giving in the coming years will grow considerably. “Arthur wants to increase his giving, and it’s his great joy to do that with his children. Arthur says: ‘Giving while living.’”
Blank, 78, is a co-founder of the Home Depot and owner of the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United soccer team as well as other entities in the Blank Family of Businesses – the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, PGA TOUR Superstore, Mountain Sky Guest Ranch, West Creek Ranch and Paradise Valley Ranch.
“We are a big complex organization,” said Twersky, who also serves on the executive team of the private businesses. “Another thing that drew me here was Arthur’s commitment to leverage the business platform and align that with the foundation. That’s unique in the foundation world.”
For Twersky, it’s all about impact.
After serving as a director and working on the leadership team of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Twersky joined the Hewlett Foundation, where she launched and led its Effective Philanthropy Group, an internal team dedicated to organizational effectiveness.
“I got to create my job at Hewlett, and I had built a great team with great colleagues,” said Twersky, adding that when she decided to move to Atlanta. “I wasn’t running away from anything.”
All her life, Twersky, 57, has been zeroing in on how she can help make a difference.
She grew up in Philadelphia as part of an orthodox Jewish home with lots of rabbis in the family.
“I still have that in my blood,” said Twersky, who is drawn to the belief of bring joy. But as a teenager, Twersky began “grappling” with her own identity.
At 18, she moved to Jerusalem to attend Hebrew University, where she stayed for about nine months.
“I was coming out. At that time, Israel wasn’t hospitable to me being gay,” Twersky said. “Everything was waking up in me – politically, intellectually and sexually. I didn’t want to stay in school.”
So, she took a year off and joined a kibbutz before moving to Berkley. “I felt like a kid in a candy story,” she said. “I loved the variety, the openness and the diversity.”
Twersky also began working with the American Red Cross, where she was involved with emergency services, the homeless and military families who were in crisis, referring to that as her “other education.”
After four years at the Red Cross, she grew to appreciate the importance of philanthropy and the need to take a systems approach.
“That led me to urban planning,” Twersky said of her time at MIT in Cambridge in the late 1980s. “I ended up getting really interested in public health and doing a blend of urban planning and public health.”
When she moved back to California, she worked with nonprofits, county governments and consulting – always focused on “problem-solving” and greater impact.
“Even though I don’t practice as an orthodox Jew, I continue to follow the values – to heal and repair the world,” Twersky said. “I’m a crazy optimist. I do believe there’s still hope.”
She also credits her upbringing for the value of family and the value of learning and inquiry.
“Who has different ideas?” she said. “How can we come up with bold solutions to problems?”
While in California, she started a consulting firm with two friends, one of whom became her wife. They decided to start a family and had two children.
“I really wanted our kids to know their father,” Twersky said. “I had a friend from high school, a really good guy. He’s an artist, and he makes hand-made guitars. He didn’t want to have kids.”
But he was willing to be the biological father, and Twersky is the biological mother. They celebrate Jewish holidays together, and the children have a relationship with their biological father. Jaz, 24, will begin Rabbinical School at Hebrew College this fall; and David Nathan, 20, is a rising third-year student at the University of Chicago, studying biology and aiming for a career in medical research.
“We were empty nesters,” Twersky said. “Jill was very open to coming to Atlanta. She was very involved in AmeriCorps and service. We both believe in aisle-crossing. Good ideas can come from everywhere.”
And she is energized by working with a family foundation with values that are so aligned with her own.
“We are living in such a polarized society,” said Twersky, mentioning how even vaccinations have become politicized. “How do we lift up different voices?”
Although the Blank Foundation is not endowed, Blank has pledged to have most of his wealth go towards philanthropic giving, which is good news for Atlanta.
“The foundation is very connected to Atlanta,” Twersky said. “Arthur, the family and the board are committed to working in Georgia, with a focus on Atlanta, as well as Montana – with an eye towards national influence.”
An area of concern is the lack of economic mobility in Atlanta, but Twersky’s optimism comes through when she quickly adds: “There are things we can do.”
When asked about how long she plans to stay in Atlanta, she responded: “I’m here” – implying that she’s not going anywhere.
“I feel like everything in my life and my career has prepared me for this moment,” Twersky said. “It’s hard to give away money well. It’s a total privilege. But to do it well in a way that has enduring impact, takes strategic clarity, a willingness to take risks, swing for the fences, measure our progress and adapt as we learn.”
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