Building Sage and Productive Change

By Giving List Women   |   May 20, 2024

In 1965, when Sara Miller McCune was only 24, she founded Sage Publishing, which grew into a major international academic publisher with subsidiaries in India, Singapore, and Australia. McCune believed that research and education were critical forces in moving society toward greater justice, which included the support of scholars writing in their own voices, and representing new and emerging fields.

As a philanthropist and visionary, McCune’s support of social science and academia has been particularly significant at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Stanford University. At UC Santa Barbara, McCune created the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind, and the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy, for which McCune serves as executive chairman. For her leadership, the university awarded her the Santa Barbara Medal, its highest honor. At Stanford, McCune endowed the directorship of the influential Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.

In 1990, McCune and her husband, George D. McCune, established the McCune Foundation, which began to direct its resources to nearby Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. The Foundation’s mission supports the empowerment of local communities, with an emphasis on championing grassroots, collaborative organizations working to increase the region’s social capital for underserved populations.

In 2013, McCune was inducted into the Pacific Coast Business Times Business Hall of Fame, becoming the first woman to receive this honor. Other honors include the Entrepreneur of the Year Award in Media/Entertainment for the Greater Los Angeles Region from Ernst & Young and the London Book Fair Lifetime Achievement Award. In addition to holding many honorary degrees, she is an honorary fellow at the University of Oxford.

Giving List Women: As the president of a fully endowed private foundation, are women and girls a big focus of your work?

Sara Miller McCune: To some extent. The McCune Foundation has nine female board members and only three men. There aren’t that many men that I know or know of who are interested in philanthropy to promote social, educational, economic, and environmental justice. Maybe in another generation that will shift, but right now, it is what it is. I’ve been working hard to get more younger people and people of color [involved in the Foundation].

GLW: You were the founder and CEO of one of the world’s largest academic publishing companies, when very few women were in such positions. What was that like?

SMM: Sometimes I was very aware of being a woman in what was essentially a man’s world. Back in the mid ’60s, there weren’t many women investors or bankers to talk to. In fact, most of the companies that I had worked at in the U.S., and one in the U.K., had hardly any women executives. I was out there on my own. I was certainly aware that too many men, and not enough women, were at the table. And that had to change.

GLW: What kind of a difference does it make when women are at the table?

SMM: It’s always a broader view for one thing. When we’re looking at things from different angles, it’s very useful to have some of those angles seen through a woman’s lens. There were times, like sitting down with the banker and him talking about the Boy Scouts and everything to do with a male perspective, and I would try and widen the discussion. I can also remember sitting with the head of The [University of] Chicago Press and him telling me with pride that he was saving The Press tons of money by hiring female graduate students for minimum wage so that The Press had more money to put into their book program, their journal program, etc. And it was all I could do to keep myself from going for his throat and throttling him. Didn’t even blink at telling me this crap. He was proud of it. It was 1970 or so. That’s crazy nuts.

GLW: I think women are capable of the same tribalism as men, unless we consciously decide to lead differently. Do you agree?

SMM:Yes. But that’s got to be done from within and not imposed. But as I said, there are times when I’m not thinking as a woman, I’m thinking about getting this something done, and I would do it that way, whether it was a man, or a woman.

GLW:What gave you the confidence to build and lead a major global company when very few women were doing that?

SMM: I’m lucky because my family recognized that I was very intelligent, and there was a lot of faith in my going places. But I can still remember one of my dad’s brothers – he had loaned me money, $4,000, to complete a deal very early on. Four years later, I paid back the last part of the loan, and we’re sitting at a table with my uncle and his wife in a restaurant in Manhattan. And he took the check and said, ‘Gee, I never thought we’d get this money back.’ I can’t believe I didn’t toss my glass of soda water. I mean, it never occurred to me that I would not pay it back. Never.

GLW: What do you consider your most important philanthropic experience?

SMM: I started in philanthropy when I was 14. I joined what was then B’nai B’rith Girls [BBG], and I left as president at 19. Last year was the 80th anniversary of BBG’s founding, and I went to their headquarters, and we talked for 45 minutes or an hour, and at the end, I pulled out an envelope and I said, ‘BBG made a huge difference in my life, and I feel I owe you something. So here’s a check.’ And the check was for $80,000 – 10 grand for each of the eight decades that the organization had been around. And he was blown away.

GLW: There’s an enormous wealth transfer underway in this country and around the world, much of which will be in the hands of women. What advice would you give to Next-Gen donors in terms of where to focus their energy?

SMM: Where to focus your philanthropy, I think, must come from within you. What’s in your heart? What’s on your mind? What do you passionately care about?

GLW: Many believe that women and girls have made great strides toward equality since the ’60s. Yet, progress for women is being rolled back as we speak. To what do you attribute so many people’s willingness, including women’s, to roll back reproductive rights, the lack of political will to pass the ERA [Equal Rights Amendment], etc.?

SMM: Oh, it was planned. I mean, guys like Karl Rove, the Koch brothers, some very bright guys, looked at the judicial and political systems and went to work. And the Democrats saw it coming and let it happen.

GLW: Do you still have hope that the ERA will be passed in your lifetime?

SMM: I no longer believe that it is likely that I will see that come to pass. I think we’re going to have to fight that fight all over again, just like we’re going to have to fight for abortion all over again. The world is not a fair place. I’ll go to my grave being aware of it. It wasn’t a fair place when I got started in business. But to make advances and then lose them is heartbreaking.

GLW: Do you think the world believes the narrative that women have already achieved equity with men and that’s why so little funding goes to women and girls, and less to those of color?

SMM: I don’t think most people think that women and girls are equal. I think many people believe that women and girls are capable of a hell of a lot more and should be given all the opportunity, all the help, etc. But I also think there’s a huge number of people who do not think that way, have never had to think that way, and still need to have their eyes opened. Now, having people’s eyes open and making them change their core beliefs are two different things. And part of the problem is that we can open a lot more eyes, but we may not be able to change quite as many hearts and minds. And that’s the challenge.