Tom: I’ve been in retail for decades and started our company Zumiez in 1978. We sell fun-- surf, skate, snowboarding and action sports to teenagers, ages 12-18--you know, a group that typically has problems with authority. I’m really competitive and I love the challenge that poses. It bodes well with how I lead my life, my business, philanthropy, and my own challenge with authority around environmental work.
Growing up, my family didn’t have a lot of money. My old man was a mailman with four kids. I got a quarter for allowance but a nickel of that had to go in the church pew. And after a camping trip with my Catholic Youth Organization to the Olympic National Park, I’ve been exploring public lands throughout the west, hiking, camping and snowboarding ever since. To this day, my Catholicism mixes the goals of helping my fellow man with my love of preserving wilderness…which is why our foundation combines these two goals.
The year I started Zumiez was also when I got into the conservation movement in the Pacific Northwest as an active volunteer. While the timber industry was cutting huge swaths of old growth forest in Washington, I was growing Zumiez stores all over the timber states…using my financial resources and time to support the environmental movement. Starting with the famous “spotted owl” campaign, I helped sue the forest service and won our first lawsuit in 1979. I love taking risks and it’s reflective of what I’ve chosen to work on at the Campion Foundation.
We wanted to accelerate and leverage our philanthropy as aggressively as Zumiez was created, using our success to contribute at a bigger level and up the ante. We chose to focus on Alaska because it doesn’t get any bigger than that—three times the size of California and the most fought over piece of public land in the last 30 years.
Sonya: I first met Tom while we were both working on a gubernatorial campaign and fell in love with his vision and the passion he brings to everything he does. Tom’s attitude is “Go big or go home.” Having worked in the non-profit sector my whole career, I couldn’t imagine working every day without meaning at the end. So, when the opportunity came, Tom and I started the Campion Foundation to protect wilderness in the Northwest and Alaska, end homelessness, and strengthen the non-profit sector.
I think the non-profit sector is one of the most innovative, catalytic, creative sectors in the world. We practice “catalytic philanthropy”, which involves the ambition to change the world and the courage to accept responsibility for achieving the results we seek. We throw everything in the mix to create change-- from personal capital to political leverage. We take risks, invest in leaders and seize opportunities. But I also know that if we want to make big change, we can’t do it alone. So, we also emphasize capacity building and educate others about the need to build leadership and infrastructure to leverage the power of non-profits.
Tom: Imagine being married to that for 20 years! Sonya’s been the perfect partner and has turned me into an incredibly well adjusted board member with better perspective—and that’s saying a lot. She brings 30 years of professional fundraising experience with a profound understanding of the non-profit sector, lots of practical know how and credible leadership to our philanthropic work. The community respects the fact that Sonya has been in the trenches with hundreds of organizations, donors and board members achieving big things. She’s all about being innovative, collaborative and strategic. Even though we are a relatively young foundation, we’ve already received awards for excellence. I think what sets us apart is not so much what we fund, as how we fund.
Sonya: Our philanthropy benefits from Tom’s business smarts and my understanding of the challenges non-profits face. Foundations have to work together to strengthen the whole sector. And when our foundation became more strategically focused, we separated our personal giving through our local community foundation. The Seattle Foundation has high standards of excellence and is a vital part of the local non-profit eco-system. We are proud to support their leadership in the community and benefit from their thoughtful support of our personal giving.
Tom: Sonya’s role at our foundation is to leverage external relationships, and she has been a leader in many philanthropic partnerships, including Funders Together to End Homelessness, Philanthropy Northwest, BoardSource and Grantmakers for Effective Organizations. She’s often a catalyst, bringing funders together to challenge the status quo. Some examples include starting a learning circle at Philanthropy Northwest for donors to invest in the capacity needs of non-profits and encouraging homelessness funders to create permanent affordable housing instead of just short-term shelters.
Sonya: How we ended up working on homelessness is when I asked friends from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for advice on what could be achieved by being small and nimble. That’s when the role of advocacy and systems change kicked in around ending homelessness. There wasn’t a lot of philanthropy going on there, so we went for it, and brought everything to the table to make a difference.
Tom: We go beyond giving money. In 2001, Senator Frank Murkowski defended drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on the Senate floor. Holding a blank piece of paper, he said, “White; A vast nothingness. This is the Arctic.” I was so outraged that I joined a group of donors to commission Subhankar Banerjee, a great photographer, to document the rich diversity of life and culture in these lands. Two years later on that same Senate floor, Barbara Boxer held up his book, “Seasons of Life and Land” to illustrate the natural diversity of the Arctic and oppose drilling. It drove the Alaskan Senator nuts because now everyone saw the truth about abundant wildlife in the Arctic. That’s what I call impact!
Raise the issue, change public opinion, and take it from regional to national attention. The other side has to win once but we have to win every time. Great citizens know that the win is never permanent and you’ve got to like the fight. You have to like using your money and taking risks. Endless pressure, endlessly applied.
Sonya: We know that philanthropy can’t do it alone, and the non-profit sector can’t do it alone, but leveraging all the people around them can make a huge difference. For example, there are 20 million board members of non-profit organizations that can pressure elected officials to bring about public will. Non-profits need to understand that their mission requires their participation in public policy. There are over one million non-profits nationwide that deliver public good. If just a fraction of those board members storm DC, I think the non-profit sector would be pretty powerful. This is the incentive behind a national Board Advocacy Campaign we are launching with BoardSource.
If you care about something, you bring everything you have into the game and you play for keeps, rather than being afraid of failing. Some of the biggest innovations and gains come from failures. It’s discouraging to see how many philanthropic dollars are wasted in low impact giving, how little collaboration there is, and how many capacity issues non-profits still face. We want to inspire philanthropists to be more catalytic in their giving.
Tom: We leverage everything. Our staff, our connections, all the Zumiez manufacturers know all about the Arctic now! We give money separately for political candidates because we have to influence policy on the things we care about.
My business philosophy is to think big, take risks, reward people who show initiative, leverage resources, and give back to the communities where we work. I took Zumiez public in 2005 so I could increase my giving. And we’re still growing Zumiez. Why? So we can give more.
It’s a rush to go all out, not holding back or worrying. We need to use wealth to better humanity and the planet. And at the end of the day, when I leave this earth, I want to be known as a damn good skateboard salesman who contributed to the planet. And that I married well.
Sonya: Yes, you married very well (smile). We’ve had a lot of fun challenging others to think big. A big part of our goal is to expand philanthropy and to understand that it’s not just for rich people. With the Internet, philanthropy is more democratized – more people are giving, but we still aren’t cracking the 2 percent of income barrier. Years ago as President of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, I issued a “Trillion dollar challenge” – that Philanthropy could easily exceed a trillion dollars if we create big visions, take more risk and expect more philanthropy from all of us. In my 30 years as a fundraiser, people tell me that the most meaningful thing in their life was giving, whether big or small. We want to be known for smart philanthropy, really doing what was needed. What is our philanthropy? It’s catalytic!
More on Tom & Sonya Campion:
Tom Campion, co-founder of Zumiez and The Campion Advocacy Fund applauds passage of The Sawtooth National Recreation Area and Jerry Peak Wilderness Additions Act in the Boulder-White Clouds in central Idaho. The Wilderness Act was intended to protect America's most special and pristine wildlands. There's no doubt that the Boulder-White Clouds fits that description.