Philanthropic Joy

By Emily Heckman   |   January 12, 2021

Sara Miller McCune has been discreetly and powerfully fueling the performing arts, education, social justice, and the Jewish community in Santa Barbara County for decades.

The renowned publishing trailblazer (she founded SAGE Publishing as a single woman in 1965 and remains Executive Chairwoman of the Board of Directors of this international scholarly publishing empire), is also the co-founder of the McCune Foundation (in 1990), a locally focused philanthropic organization whose mission is to build social capital in both Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties.

Sara, who was raised in a working-class Jewish family in Queens, New York, recalls being introduced to philanthropy early. Her family embraced the ancient Jewish tradition of Tzedakah, which in Hebrew literally means “righteous behavior.” It’s also the closest word in the Hebrew language to “philanthropy” but it encompasses so much more than just charitable giving. As she describes it, “Tzedakah” isn’t just about being generous; it’s the moral and ethical imperative for all Jews to put contributing to the greater good of one’s community at the center of one’s life.

She recalls that there was always a box set aside in her childhood home, where family members would deposit their spare change. This money would then be used as part of the family’s charitable giving – their good deeds, or mitzvot. Giving from this mindset, which values connection and mutual support above all else, taught her (and her younger brother) that when a neighbor’s social or economic burdens are lifted, everyone benefits.

“Philanthropy, when it’s done right, strengthens a local economy. It’s woven into the fabric of community life. And what could be better than that?”

-Sara Miller McCune

Philanthropy, as Sara points out, isn’t about charity: it’s about relationship building, and she learned how valuable and joy-inducing this work is at the feet of her parents.

“For me, growing up this way, I wound up discovering eventually, especially over these past few decades, that being a philanthropist makes me very happy. And I feel lucky that I get to give back.”

Sharing resources, Sara has found, releases a very unique and powerful kind of joy into a community. It’s hard to put this feeling into words, but she describes how it frees people to step into creativity and self-sufficiency and problem-solving in really unique ways.

Teach Your Children Well

And this philanthropic joy doesn’t depend on the size of your gift. Sara shares how, based on the example of former SAGE Board Member and publishing colleague Jerry Kaplan, she began the practice of giving her young grandchildren a modest amount of money at Thanksgiving. She instructed them that this money (which was separate from any holiday gifts they’d receive) was theirs to give to any cause or organization they felt passionate about. Then, come spring, during Passover, they’d tell her what they’d done with that money. 

“I loved hearing what they were excited about because it let me get to know them better and brought us closer together. One granddaughter was passionate about ferrets one year, another grandchild wanted to help save the environment, two grandkids gave to a classmate whose house had burned down, and so on. I got to see each of them experience that indescribable philanthropic joy for themselves.”

Philanthropy as an Engine for Change

Sara has become keenly aware of how vital philanthropy is for real, meaningful societal change.

Philanthropists are incredibly in tune with what’s happening in their local communities and are often able to identify problems quickly. She points out the entrepreneurial nature of philanthropy, and the smart risks philanthropists are able and willing to take in order to solve a problem before it escalates and negatively impacts the broader community. But again, this isn’t about largesse.

“People don’t realize that philanthropy provides a lot of employment and creates jobs, on both sides of the equation. Philanthropy, when it’s done right, strengthens a local economy. It’s woven into the fabric of community life. And what could be better than that?”

Finding the Right Philanthropic Partners

Miller McCune understands that strong philanthropic relationships are built on cultivating and expanding a shared passion. For instance, the Board of a performing arts organization should seek out philanthropic organizations that already have a demonstrable commitment to funding the arts: in other words, like attracts like.

“I look for good leadership within the organization,” Miller McCune shares. “Especially with regard to their treatment of staff, their fiscal clarity, and how they are achieving their mission and goals.”


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Tammy Johnson,
Vice President, Philanthropic Services


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