Behind East Tennessee Foundation: An Interview With President & CEO Mike McClamroch

Photography By Ben Gibson

When you hear “East Tennessee Foundation,” you might immediately think of the many charitable resources this foundation has contributed to East Tennessee over the past 30 years. From scholarships to wildfire relief funds, this organization has its hand in charity work all across our region, with over $250 million in cumulative grants awarded since 1986. Many, however, do not know the story behind East Tennessee Foundation’s President and CEO, Mr. Mike McClamroch.

Mr. McClamroch graduated from Webb School of Knoxville, Furman University and Cumberland School of Law. He was a lawyer with the firm of Egerton, McAfee, Armistead & Davis as well as an active volunteer in the community before taking the lead role at the East Tennessee Foundation in 2001. He and his team helped build the foundation from total assets worth $30 million to now over $300 million.

We had the privilege of speaking with Mr. McClamroch at his office in downtown Knoxville. Sincere gratitude and thankfulness radiated from Mr. McClamroch as he discussed his upbringing, his faith and family, his present-day accomplishments and what the future may hold.

We want you to tell our readers about who you are! Can you begin by telling us about your childhood?

"I am from Knoxville. My parents are from Knoxville, all the way back to my great-grandparents, so I am an East Tennessean born and bred. I grew up in the country in West Knoxville and had all kinds of animals growing up. I was the only kid at Sequoyah School who was a member of 4-H. I grew up with lots of space, and we did everything outside. You know, it was a great way to grow up. We had a garden, not because we had to have it to eat. We had a garden because it was great fun. And I still have a garden, I still work in the yard and I still work outside. That’s how I relax."

Can we talk a little bit about your upbringing as far as your faith is concerned? Is it a big part of your life?

"It is a huge part of my life. It, in fact, is the driver for almost everything that I do. I learned a reliance early on where it feels absolutely natural for me, when confronted with a problem, to hand it over to God and ask for guidance and wisdom and strength and the wherewithal to get through it. And that serves me really well."

"I would not be here with ETF if I hadn’t had enough faith to take a real jump, a real counter-intuitive jump. You know, I went to a lot of people to seek advice. I went to my dad, and I said, “Dad, they’ve come to talk to me about this job. What do you think?” And he said, “Are you crazy? Your law practice is booming. You are doing so well. You’ve worked so hard. My advice is no way.” And for your gut, your heart, to tell you that your dad is just dead wrong, because he doesn’t know you as well as God knows you, or you know yourself, that was a hard thing for me to do. But I knew it was the right thing to do, and I called them back and I said, “Yes.”

Tell us about your son. We know he is very important to you.

"He is the most important thing to me. I am continually amazed by him. He is a wonder to behold. I could not be more proud of him, and not just in his accomplishments. He is a great athlete, and a great student, but he also is a deep thinker and really well spoken. Sometimes it is shocking to me and I have to remind myself that he is only fifteen. I love seeing him be a natural born leader. I love seeing him interact with his peers. He is one of those children who is equally at ease with his peers as he is with adults."

"Recently, we cooked and served dinner at Knoxville Area Rescue Mission and Michael’s response to that was not, “Oh my gosh, that was such hard work.” We stood for hours and made 34 pork tenderloins. The hair on both my arms was singed from the oven. It was hard work. His response was, as we got in the car after dinner and were driving home, “If we made a grant out of our fund to KARM, what do you think they need the most?”  That’s the stuff that makes you cry as a parent. I believe as parents we cannot impart that to our children—that is a God-given sensibility. I am just gratified that he has it. And he has a lot of it."

What sort of goals did you have when you were younger?

"You know, my goals have morphed or matured over time. I was really idealistic at twenty-five. Back then, I really thought that I could reform public policy. But as I grew older and I got deeper into politics, I grew increasingly weary of politics for the sake of politics.  Back then, I was the youngest-ever GOP chair and I may be the only GOP chair that counted the seconds until my term ran out. It was an eye-opening experience for me and a great way to pivot and shift gears. I recognized that I needed to figure out a better fit for me to make changes in our community."

Tell us about the East Tennessee Foundation and what you do there.

"ETF was founded in 1986 and I joined shortly after 9/11 as the economic crisis of 2001 was underway. Our growth since then has been really significant, with the crash of 2008 sitting right in the middle of that. We were able to maintain our grantmaking through both crashes, and it provided survival dollars for a lot of organizations, especially arts organizations that would have gone out of business otherwise. Cumulatively, our grants in the region are over $250 million. That goes a long way and changes a lot of lives in East Tennessee. We are all proud of that."

"Part of my job is to make sure that everyone here who is crunching numbers or reading grant applications, proofreading the newsletter or whatever it is, feels connected. To the ones whose lives we are changing. It is not uncommon for me to read the thank you letters, the gut-wrenching stories, in our staff meetings. I encourage everybody to go on the site visits, to serve on the scholarship committees, to do all of that work. It is what they have to do to stay focused and to remember that their job has meaning, no matter how difficult it is that day. It is easy for me, because I am at a 20,000-foot level, and at any point, I can go down and get involved in any part of it, but I think that it is important for our team. And it matters."

What ETF accomplishments are you most proud of that have taken place in the last year?

"I am proud of so much, but I am most proud of the way our team works with each other to get it all accomplished. This is not false modesty, but anybody that knows the Foundation and sees the way that it works, day in and day out, knows it is not a reflection of me. It is a reflection of this team. I am a part of, always, a larger whole, and the way they respect each other, the way they communicate with each other, the way they are able to advance the mission of the Foundation and just, one after another, set records in all of these accomplishments…it’s a reflection on them. Overall, I think the thing I am most proud of is our work environment, because it is conducive to success. It makes success not just possible, but likely. And I am really proud of that."

Looking ahead at the next couple of years, what is the ultimate goal?

"The ultimate goal is to stay in that position where we are managing, guiding and feeding that growth. We are going to be stretching in some areas in which we have never been able to stretch before, and we have done a great job on a meager budget on name recognition and brand recognition. We have done a great job on becoming the conversation starter for meaningful philanthropy in East Tennessee, so we have to continue all that. But we are going to be exploring really fascinating things like mission investing and other things that are going to be really attractive to potential donors, potential fund holders, and will multiply, I hope, exponentially, our impact in the region. When we get to invest, not just through grants but through investments in projects that are changing people’s lives, our impact and the benefit we provide is going to increase exponentially. I am really excited. We are now positioned to not only watch it happen, because there is nothing passive about any of this, but also to make it happen."

The Foundation is a grant-making institution comprised of over 425 charitable funds established by donors interested in impacting their communities. ETF can accept almost any asset of value. If you have questions about charitable giving, feel free to contact Mike or his staff at 865-524-1223 or visit their website for more information: www.easttennesseefoundation.org.

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