Big Fish Q&A with Baltimore Community Foundation President and CEO Tom Wilcox

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Since Tom Wilcox arrived here in 2000 to become president and CEO of the Baltimore Community Foundation (BCF), the city has witnessed a now-you-see-‘em/now-you-don’t burlesque of changes among its top officials – at City Hall, the police department, fire department, health department, public schools – that includes a mayor and a police commissioner convicted of low crimes and misdemeanors.  Simultaneously, the city, sometimes by accident and sometimes by design, also has witnessed dramatic improvements: notably, a decreased crime rate, increased student test scores, and, probably thanks to the Internet, greater transparency at various government agencies. Partial credit, certainly, goes to a handful of forward-thinking municipal administrators, who, given a forum, loudly declaim their achievements. More quietly, the progressive policies of the BCF and its nonprofit brethren – true “BELIEVE” types – have just as demonstrably enhanced Baltimoreans’ lives.

As head of the BCF, now in its 40th year, Wilcox rides herd on 600-plus varied philanthropic funds, organizing “grants, initiatives, and advocacy around a vision of a Baltimore with a growing economy,” according to the foundation’s website. Last year, the BCF dispensed more than $20 million in grants to hundreds of local, regional, and national nonprofits. Specific to the metro area, its Invest in Baltimore agenda, co-crafted by Wilcox, “encompasses and measures coordinated efforts to reduce poverty, stimulate economic growth, and assure a high quality of life in Greater Baltimore.” In essence, BCF shepherds donors’ charitable giving by matching benefactors to their particular areas of interest: neighborhoods, education (including scholarships), health, and the arts.

Born and raised in New York City (his mother grew up in Baltimore), Wilcox earned his undergraduate degree in political science at Colorado College in 1970, followed by a master’s in education from Harvard University in 1981. He has worked as a teacher and administrator at schools in both the U.S. and Europe, and, before signing on with the BCF, spent 19 years — 1981 to 2000 — as headmaster of Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. Additionally, in 1976, he founded the Association of Boarding Schools, serving as the organization’s first director.

Now 64, Wilcox lives in Tuscany-Canterbury with his wife, Elizabeth Whitney “Whitty” Ransome, the co-founder of the National Coalition of Girls Schools and current executive director of the James Center at Garrison Forest School. They have two adult children: Kate, 29, and Christopher, 25.

 

Sum up your life philosophy in one sentence.

Love unconditionally; think creatively; act passionately; engage openly; reflect constantly; dream realistically; plan prudently.

When did you define your most important goals, and what are they?

Growing up in the turbulent 1960s, I committed myself to working within the free enterprise system to build understanding and effect change around social justice issues, specifically educational opportunity and racial equity.

What is the best advice you ever got that you followed?

Work hard to understand all sides of an issue.

The worst advice, and did you follow it? Or how did you muffle it?

I was told to recognize the limitations of my speech impediment and talk less. To everyone’s horror, I did the opposite!

What are the three most significant truths you’ve discovered in your lifetime?

1) Relationships are paramount.

2) Every day is an opportunity to learn and grow.

3) Capitalism and social justice don’t have to be opposing forces.

What is the best moment of your day? 

Breakfast with my wife when we talk about our kids.

What is on your bedside table?

The Baltimore Sun, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, and The Economist — all contribute to my search for the elusive middle.

What is your favorite local charity?

I’m prejudiced: the Baltimore Community Foundation. We’re there for Baltimore.

What advice would you give a young person who aspires to do what you are doing?

Deal with the agonizing and challenging issues — and the dirty work — involved in making a nonprofit successful before presuming to judge which ones deserve philanthropic support.

Why are you successful?

Unlike so many people in Baltimore, I have been given every opportunity to succeed; someone was always there to straighten me out when I struggled or made bad decisions.  I have also had the great fortune of having work I believe in passionately and being surrounded by wonderful people who can make it successful.

What were your preconceived notions of Baltimore before you relocated here in 2000 — and on what were those notions based? How have your impressions of the city changed during your years here?

That Baltimore, like many post-industrial American cities, had lost its way. I sensed that it was plagued by an inferiority complex and didn’t recognize its inherent strengths. I now believe that we have a viable economic future through the “eds, the feds, and the meds,” and that if we can support the people who are transforming Baltimore school by school, neighbor by neighbor, neighborhood by neighborhood, then we can, as the BCF vision prescribes, “boast a growing economy where all have the opportunity to thrive.”

How does the BCF’s Invest in Baltimore initiative specifically benefit the city?

BCF and its donors have played a role in revitalizing our neighborhoods and strengthening our schools, and we now believe that there is enough momentum to create a city where every child has the opportunity to thrive and where neighborhoods can be safe, clean, green, and vibrant. We want to invest in strategies to strengthen the region, and we want to build a civic endowment to be able to be there for Baltimore — forever.

Where do you go — or in which activity do you engage — when you experience a Calgon-take-me-away-from-my-job moment?

My family goes to a cabin on a piece of land that my grandfather purchased 110 years ago on Baltimore Bay and Lake Massawippi in the Province of Quebec where there is still no road and no electricity. Its beauty is beyond comparison; everyone should have such a place.

 



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  1. As long as I have known Tom Wilcox, he has remained steadfast in his commitment to educational opportunity and racial equity. His leadership in Baltimore has touched many lives, and he has helped guide the philanthropic community in so many ways. Tom has mentored me and taught me a great deal about staying true to my core values. Tom Wilcox and the Baltimore Community Foundation have helped to shine a light on the strengths of our city.
    Amy John
    Executive Director, Baltimore Educational Scholarship Trust

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