Sparks Charts Justice-Charged Path for Masto Foundation
In 1942, Harry and Masie Masto – along with more than 110,000 Japanese Americans – were sent to a World War II internment camp. After arriving at a government farm in Idaho, Harry was tapped to manage the internees and German POWs that worked the farm, and after the war he bought the land and launched a successful potato dehydration business just over the border in Washington State.
As the business became more profitable, the Mastos shared their fortune with the community by developing an emergency safety net for workers, leading a capital fundraising campaign to create the first local hospital and community college, and even sending the children of employees to college.
After selling the business in 1977, the Mastos set up a foundation to continue their community support; soon after, however, Harry had a stroke and could no longer speak or direct the foundation. The money was kept safe, but the foundation was largely dormant until Masie Masto died in 2018, at the age of 101.
Enter the Mastos’ granddaughter, A. Sparks (who goes by Sparks). A trustee of the Masto Foundation since she was 16, Sparks earned her MBA and Master’s in Social Work and went to work at other foundations, learning the intricacies of grantmaking and financial advising as she sought to integrate that work with her experience as a queer woman of color.
While those experiences helped prepare her to take over her family foundation as the CEO (and only staff member) in 2018, Sparks never had the chance to ask her grandfather about his philosophy of giving. So she did the next best thing – visiting the community of Moses Lake in Eastern Washington to see first-hand the impact of her grandparents’ largesse.
The trip changed her life.
“I talked to a lot of people in the community, including my grandfather’s secretary of 30 years, and the stories I heard were extraordinary,” Sparks says of her family’s support of worker collectives, or leasing their land at below-market rates to employees. All this was done informally, and in a Japanese American cultural context where giving is an expression of gratitude, respect, and a desire to contribute.
Today, Masto Foundation offers an updated version of Harry Masto’s vision, which is explicitly dedicated to social justice for marginalized or underrepresented communities. The foundation is part of a small but growing group of institutions looking to create a new and more just model of giving based on trust and relationships, with a healthy disregard to ego.
“We honor my grandfather’s legacy by highlighting the need for a more diverse culture of philanthropy, both in terms of who participates and the ways in which we give,” Sparks says. “The system has excluded so many communities from having access to wealth, which has led to philanthropy being very transactional. With the capital our family was lucky enough to accumulate, we promote an alternative way of giving, which honors the Japanese and Japanese American traditions of gifting and focuses more on relationships. We hope that this model will influence other philanthropists to give in ways that promote equity and are more aligned with the needs of diverse communities.”
One way the foundation does this is by providing funds to communities and letting them take the lead in deciding how to use it. Starting in 2020, in response to the national racial equity conversation prompted by the killing of George Floyd, Masto Foundation, which always supported organizations led by people of color, began to support African American community leaders and institutions more explicitly. An example is Trust Black Women Initiative, a partnership with Black leaders and community activists, which offers open-ended, ongoing support.
“The system has excluded so many communities from having access to wealth, which has led to philanthropy being very transactional. With the capital our family was lucky enough to accumulate, we promote an alternative way of giving, which honors the Japanese and Japanese American traditions of gifting and is focused more on relationships. We hope that this model will influence other philanthropists to give in ways that promote equity and are more aligned with the needs of diverse communities.”
As part of Masto’s commitment to Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, especially in light of disturbing recent spikes in anti-Asian violence, Sparks and the foundation have championed organizations like API Equality – Northern California (APIENC), which supports the Bay Area’s transgender, non-binary, and queer Asian and Pacific Islander community.
Sammie Ablaza Wills, the nonprofit’s director, points to the revolutionary way Sparks and the foundation support organizations like APIENC. “One of my first interactions with Sparks was her simply opening her home to us for an event, in which we had the chance to meet other donors,” Wills says. Sparks continued to offer “invaluable” support through funding, as well as strategic and fundraising advice,” Wills adds.
Perhaps most radically, the Masto Foundation offers no grant guidelines; indeed, it doesn’t ask for or accept grant proposals, a process that can be a huge drain of time and energy for nonprofits.
“Even the best-intentioned foundations can set the strategic focus for entire sectors, emerging with new priorities which then dictate how funds are given out,” says Wills. For small organizations like hers, “our commitment has to be to the people we serve, not to the grantmaking process, which sometimes can feel like an end in itself.”
For Sparks, a more transparent culture of philanthropy is a crucial part of creating equity and levelling the playing field. If someone wants to partner with her and the Masto Foundation to create a more equitable society? “Just call us,” she says.
Sparks’ professional engagement with her family foundation began by understanding her grandfather’s legacy. Part of her work now, she says, is to encourage other family foundations to bring younger members into the process.
“It’s an amazing experience for philanthropic families to come together and talk about the values and history behind their money,” she says, adding that this level of transparency and acknowledgement of the historical inequities in wealth accumulation highlights the ways in which contemporary philanthropy is still “overwhelmingly white.”
Whatever the racial, ethnic, or gender profile of philanthropic organizations, “the system is at risk if we don’t invite the young folks in,” Sparks says. “If philanthropy doesn’t seem like it is open enough to change, then young people will opt out. And we need the younger generation to help us see the future.”