A Match Made in Philanthropy


Megan McTiernan has been executive director of Thomson Family Foundation since its inception in 2007. The Thomson family (Cliff, Bonnie, their son, and his wife) didn’t intend to establish a large foundation to last in perpetuity but, rather, a small one that would have impact during their lifetimes. They also wanted a narrow mission they could learn about as a family and that would be relevant to the two cities family members call home: Dallas and San Francisco.

A conversation about shared values and key community issues, conversations with community leaders, a scan of academic research, and exchanges with experienced foundations led to the following foundation mission statement: “Our goal is to foster opportunities for families to increase their economic success and security by supporting community-based initiatives that improve access to education and asset-building resources and services.”

In the end, the Thomsons came to believe that a family’s economic security could translate into benefits throughout a community, particularly for children raised in homes with greater financial stability. McTiernan’s nonprofit background working for various educational and workforce development organizations—as well as her passion for these issues—made her uniquely suited to help the Thomson Family Foundation get up and running.

Since 2007, the foundation has funded job training initiatives, home ownership projects, small businesses incubators, and a citywide initiative that supports access to free tax services for low-income families. The foundation also supports a citywide initiative for children’s savings accounts and the corresponding financial education.

Getting to Impact Through Collaboration

Thomson Family Foundation hasn’t taken on this work alone. Relatively young and small, the foundation has established a diverse set of partnerships with funders and other collaborative groups to explore best practices, identify opportunities for systemic change, pool resources, and leverage assets to achieve lasting impact.

“Any chance for funders to come together and approach issues is incredibly valuable,” says McTiernan. “Funder collaborations provide tremendous opportunities to deepen our understanding of issues, build capacity with our grantmaking communities, and support organizations that are doing great work.”

In conjunction with a Dallas area community foundation, Thomson Family Foundation is close to releasing a research report that highlights the economic instability of different communities in the Dallas area. The hope is that funders use the report’s data to build their capacity and adjust their grantmaking to target the areas of greatest need.

Thomson Family Foundation continues to learn from its experienced partners and from its grantees. “We’re achieving something that we couldn’t do alone with smaller grants,” says McTiernan.

Making Connections Through Exponent Philanthropy

McTiernan is also a very active Exponent Philanthropy volunteer. She first became involved in Exponent Philanthropy because she valued the opportunity to connect with others in her shoes, “people from an office of one or less than one who are taking on the work of grantmaking,” she says.

McTiernan is a founding member of Exponent Philanthropy’s Impact Working Group that now numbers nearly 70 Exponent Philanthropy members. All are committed to learning more about ways to make a difference and sharing their experience and insights with fellow members. In addition, McTiernan is active on the host committee for Exponent Philanthropy’s 2012 National Conference, taking place October 7–9 in her hometown of San Francisco.

To acknowledge the foundation’s excitement about hosting Exponent Philanthropy in San Francisco, the Thomson Family Foundation made a grant to support the National Conference.

“We also wanted to acknowledge the great value our foundation has received from Exponent Philanthropy,” says McTiernan. “Exponent Philanthropy helped me build an infrastructure in the foundation’s early years and enabled me to do a better job with the organizations we are trying to support.”