Philanthropist of the Year: Above and Beyond
As vice president of Darcars Automotive Group, Tammy Darvish is a busy, successful businesswoman who could show her support of local nonprofits by writing checks and chairing fancy galas. She does that and much more.
In 1984, soon after Darvish started working for the family business, her dad saw a sign at a High’s convenience store in Rockville about a 2-year-old Germantown girl named Kendra who was waiting for a liver transplant. The girl’s family couldn’t pay her medical bills. “There’s gotta be something we can do,” John told his daughter. He gave Darvish a certificate for an all-expenses-paid trip to Hawaii that he’d won in an auto manufacturer’s contest. “Let’s figure out a way to have a raffle and make money from this.”
She’d never fundraised before—if there were rules, she didn’t know them. She set up a table to sell raffle tickets at Montgomery Mall but got kicked out because she didn’t have permission. She drove to Redskins training camp and got quarterback Joe Theismann to voice a public service announcement on her cassette recorder, then convinced radio stations to play it on the air. Pepsi agreed to give away hot dogs and sodas at the drawing.
“When you don’t know, and you’re naive, you’re not afraid of people telling you ‘no,’ so you just ask,” says Darvish, who kept in touch with Kendra and her parents for nearly a decade. “We ended up raising about $50,000 just selling raffle tickets.”
Her father taught her the importance of giving back, she says. When you’re in a position to help someone, you do it. She doesn’t have to run a 5K for the Boys & Girls Club—she could ask someone else to go—but she wants to. She’s heard her father talk about personal engagement. “Don’t send a messenger,” he’d say. She’s taught financial literacy classes at Francis Scott Key Middle School in Silver Spring. She visits young cancer patients at MedStar Georgetown Hospital, and helped raise money for cameras that allow children staying at the Lombardi Cancer Center to virtually connect to their school classrooms.
She volunteers for Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A.’s automotive vocational training program at Ballou High School in Southeast D.C., where she passes through metal detectors to teach business and life skills courses. She’s hired several Ballou graduates to work as auto technicians.
“It’s the communities our businesses are in that support us, and without that support we couldn’t survive,” says Darvish, whose father is 77, battling Parkinson’s disease, and goes to work every day. “We can’t save the world, but every single person we can touch along the way—to me, that’s what I would rather be known for than, ‘Come buy a car from me because we’ve got the cheapest deal in town.’ ”
Her days are packed with customer service meetings and visits to dealerships, and she’s realized she has to start saying no. She helps oversee all nine departments at Darcars, including new vehicles, used vehicles, finance, service and parts, at 21 area dealerships. Three years ago, she co-authored a book called Outraged: How Detroit and the Wall Street Car Czars Killed the American Dream. “People are like, ‘How do you balance your life and work?’ I’m honest: I’m not good at it,” she says. Her husband, an engineer for her family’s company, Eastern Diversified Properties, was home for dinner when the kids were younger. She usually wasn’t. When she made it to one of her son’s soccer scrimmages, someone yelled, “Oh, look—Nima really does have a mother!” She’s never forgotten that.
“That’s the only thing I really, really regret,” says Darvish. “I feel like I really did a good job for my father, but it was a big price to pay.”
When Darvish’s daughter, Nadia, was home from college this summer, the two of them got hooked on a TLC show called Extreme Couponing. “Every single person goes to the grocery store and buys six or seven hundred dollars’ worth of stuff, and the most I’ve seen someone pay is $20,” says Darvish. “You gotta watch it—it’s incredible.” She saw an episode where a shopper used coupons to buy groceries for a food bank. Now she wants to do that. “I am gonna figure it out,” she says. “I’ll record like 40 episodes and watch them back to back. That’s how I’m gonna learn.”
She hates paying more than she has to—she furnished her home through DirectBuy and likes to shop the sales at Kohl’s—especially when she’s trying to raise money. Rather than hosting committee meetings at restaurants or hotels, she uses Darcars’ headquarters. “To spend $800 to have a meeting to plan how to raise money for a gala? It’s stupid,” she says. “They can come use our conference rooms for free.” She asked the team at MCCH to stop paying someone to design invitations. “I’ve got a digital team,” she said. “Give me last year’s—we’ll change the color and the font.”
A benefit isn’t a family wedding, Darvish says. Guests aren’t expecting perfection. She won’t run a gala if she can’t oversee the budget. Philanthropy is like a business, she says. “If I’m gonna go out and beg for money, I want to know what we’re spending it on.” When she and Nadia made centerpieces for an MCCH dinner, they went to Michaels to buy silk flowers but decided they’d find them cheaper online. “Who cares what they look like?” Darvish says. “You put them on the tables and tell everyone, ‘Here’s a card. Pass it around. Whoever bids the highest wins a centerpiece.’ In front of everyone, are you not gonna bid on that centerpiece?”
“You want to see my favorite room in the house?” Darvish asks on an August afternoon. You would think it might be the one she’s sitting in, a beautiful open kitchen with a white marble-topped island.
She walks downstairs to a small storage area. “This is my regift room,” she says. It’s filled with wine, frames, champagne glasses and trinkets people have given her as presents. She uses them for nonprofit events—an organization might make $800 off a basket she puts together for a silent auction. “I’m very honest with my friends: ‘I don’t need anything. I don’t want anything. But if you’re gonna buy me something, I’m warning you: It’s going on my shelf,’ ” she says. “I’m going to donate it.”
She and Fallahi, who’ve been married for 21 years, designed their Avenel home in part to host charity benefits. They have two kitchens and 14 burners. They love entertaining. As a teenager, Darvish would flip through catalogs and dream about the dinner parties she’d have one day, even the meals she’d serve. She rarely hires caterers; the family cooks for their own parties. “No matter what I do, I always make macaroni-and-cheese,” she says, “even if it’s a black-tie event.”
They never know who they might find in their kitchen, and that’s the way they like it. Two summers ago, Darvish met a soldier being treated at Walter Reed Medical Center and insisted that his family stay with her when they came to town for his wedding. He hadn’t been fitted for prosthetics yet so he was getting married in his hospital room—she gave his relatives keys to her house and a car for the weekend. She told another soldier that his wife and two small children should move into the bedroom suite in her basement. She’s still trying to convince him.
“They’re living in tiny dormitories for the families,” says Darvish. She met the soldiers through her work with the Aleethia Foundation, which partners with local donors and restaurants to provide Friday-night steak dinners for injured service members and their families. “He’s so shy that he won’t do it.”
Darvish often gets invited to speak at conferences—“I think because I’m free,” she says—and likes to show up early to put an envelope under every chair. She sticks a label on the front that reads: Please do not open, because she knows everybody will open it. Inside is a gold U.S. dollar, a blank greeting card and flower seeds. She tells the audience that half of the world’s population lives on less than a dollar a day and asks them to keep the coin in their wallets so they don’t forget that. She holds up the seeds and shares two lines of a Persian ode she learned from her father: Plant herb of friendship, it brings success. Uproot tree of enmity, it causes distress. She picks up the card and asks, “When was the last time you wrote somebody a two-line ‘thank-you?’ ”
The key to raising money, and running a successful business, is connecting, she says. She answers every e-mail she gets. She makes introductions—she put MCCH in touch with ABC7/WJLA-TV’s Leon Harris—to help nonprofits find partners. The first time she worked with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, she was struck by the fact that Hall of Fame athletes were being escorted into a benefit dinner by beautiful women in fancy dresses. We need to see patients walking in with the players, she said. Kids who’ve lost their hair.
She wasn’t being insensitive, she says. She wanted guests to connect with the mission, to genuinely understand why they were there. “When you see these kids and how they’re affected, these little kids, it’s amazing the difference that makes,” says Darvish. “That’s what’s going to make you write a check.”
Two years ago, she met a woman at a conference who had given up a comfortable life in California to start a school in the slums of Rishikesh, India. Darvish was so moved by the woman’s description of the children there that she decided she wanted to meet them herself. “We’re going to India,” she told her family.
She booked a flight for Thanksgiving. They brought 21 bags filled with backpacks, Legos and snacks, and a portable printer so the kids could see pictures of themselves for the first time. They spent time with a family who had six children sharing one bed in a small aluminum hut. No power or running water. One night Darvish invited a group of young teachers to have dinner at her hotel. They were teens from the slums who helped out at the school in exchange for a place to sleep.
“They can’t eat here,” an employee told her.
“I’m a guest here—and they’re my guests,” she said. “They’re eating here.” The next night she invited even more.
About the Award
Each year, The Community Foundation for the National Capital Region in Montgomery County recognizes local philanthropists who “give where they live,” as the organization puts it.
Recipients of the Montgomery County Philanthropist of the Year award are: the late Josh Freeman in 2007; Craig Ruppert in 2008; Stewart Bainum in 2009; Carol Trawick in 2010; Jeffrey Slavin in 2011; Patrice and Scott Brickman in 2012; Solomon Graham in 2013; and Tammy Darvish this year.
If you would like to nominate someone to be the 2015 Montgomery County Philanthropist of the Year, watch for the announcement in the January/February 2015 issue of Bethesda Magazine or go to the Foundation’s website, www.the communityfoundation.org.
Senior editor Cindy Rich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To comment on this story, email email@example.com.