How Yvonne Moore Maximizes Philanthropy’s Potential to Do Good

Long before she began her work with foundations, our Founder and Managing Director, Yvonne Moore, had learned that “love of humankind” means more in action than it does in etymology. She grew up being shaped by the ways Black women in her family showed up in their communities and took in how they grounded their everyday philanthropy in an ethic of care and shared responsibility.

Long before she began her work with foundations, Yvonne Moore had learned that “love of humankind” means more in action than it does in etymology. She grew up being shaped by the ways Black women in her family showed up in their communities and took in how they grounded their everyday philanthropy in an ethic of care and shared responsibility. Moore has relied on her family’s values and her faith as a source of insight and accountability, guiding her throughout her extensive career in institutional philanthropy.

Today, as the founder and managing director at Moore Philanthropy—an advisory firm that provides tailored philanthropic services to individuals, families and private institutions—Moore shares the wisdom of her upbringing with those who seek to leverage their financial resources to build the wealth and influence of communities of color. I spoke with her about Black feminist theories of love and justice, what American funders can learn from African philanthropy, and how to move beyond performative grantmaking.

Tell me about what brought you to the work you do in philanthropy.

I was born and raised in Texas and come from a family full of extroverts, but I’m very much an introvert. I definitely grew into this personality. There was a moment before graduate school that was kind of a turning point. I was working in child advocacy and doing a home visit with a child in residential care in West Texas. He was taking medicine to get up in the morning, and they were giving him medicine to calm down in the evening and go to bed. I was like, this is not the way it’s supposed to be.

I wanted to get on the front end of policy because the laws I was working with clearly weren’t serving children. I wanted to figure out how to fix stuff before it gets to the people in the field, whether it’s policy, resources, or whatever was affecting the work they do—but I knew I couldn’t do field work anymore. I just wasn’t emotionally equipped. So, I went to graduate school with policy advocacy and nonprofit management in mind, and I picked up this book called “Do What You Are,” because I was trying to figure out my personality strengths and weaknesses, practical matters on how I worked best.

I came from a family of philanthropists, and as a Black woman, the thing that frustrated me the most about institutional philanthropy was that there were people who thought I didn’t know what I was doing. They would actually tell me: “You don’t understand the analysis. You don’t understand the strategy.” First of all, I knew what a logic model was because I studied it in graduate school. And I knew what philanthropy was because I did it all my life. So coming into institutional philanthropy was very frustrating.

Are there things you wish you had understood sooner about the work you are here to do?

To become who I was meant to be and do the work I was meant to do has been a journey, for sure. One of the things people tell me is that I always say what other people are thinking. At first, I thought that was kind of cool, but then I began to get angry because I was like: Why aren’t you saying it, too? Especially people in charge. I will never forget talking to a colleague who worked at a very large foundation as a deputy director, and she was telling me about all the things that her foundation wouldn’t do. I thought to myself, “Wait, did I forget what her role is?”

The Center for Effective Philanthropy did this report on the future of foundations from a CEO perspective, and I constantly quote it. One of the questions was: Are there things philanthropy needs to change? And nearly all the CEOs said “yes.” But the next question was something like: Do you think philanthropy is likely to change? And most said “no.” I thought to myself, “But you’re all in charge!” That report made me realize that there is some kind of mental or emotional block that keeps most folks in philanthropy from doing the work that needs to be done. Now that I’m in my 50s, I see that there’s way more to lose than there is to be afraid of.

What you’re saying is making me think about Audre Lorde’s oft-quoted essay “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” and her mandate to claim our power by operating from a place of freedom and letting go of the restrictions that others are placing on us. Doing that requires having faith in yourself and in your community to have your back regardless of whether the consequences are positive, negative or maybe a little of both. Where does your confidence come from?

There was a particular moment in graduate school that I call “the crash and burn.” I woke up one morning, and this wave came over me where I felt like I didn’t want to wake up again. I called my doctor and was like: We need to talk. I went in for an appointment and told him what was happening. He was like, “I’m glad you came in, and this is not odd. You’re in graduate school and you’re stressed.” We tried medication, and it didn’t work. So I found a therapist to talk to and help me let go of all this stuff. It was as though the glasses had come off, and that actually was the beginning of my journey to being a philanthropic advisor. I tell people that you have to deal with your own issues before you can try to deal with anybody else’s. I’m a huge advocate for mental health; that’s why God put therapists on the planet.

You mentioned your work as a philanthropic advisor, but there’s hardly a role in philanthropy that you haven’t played over the last 20-plus years — whether managing a foundation or working with individual philanthropists and corporate actors. What is the purpose that guides your work?

I came to philanthropy intentionally to help get money to the work that people are doing on the ground. My very first job was at the Klingenstein Third Generation Foundation, which was a family foundation that allowed me to learn the walk of institutional philanthropy. I still adore them. And even though philanthropy drives me nuts on a daily basis, I love it because I know it has such amazing power and potential to do good.

Some people make stuff way more complicated than it needs to be. I feel bad for folks who are so steeped in process that they forget about all the good they’re trying to do. When you have time on your hands, you come up with steps and create systems that you don’t actually need. Time is a justice issue. Who gets to manipulate their time and spend it the way they want to? I’m not saying that all process is bad or that a logic model isn’t appropriate in some cases. But philanthropy creates barriers that are self-defeating with all this compliance bureaucracy that’s not even an actual requirement legally. It just takes the joy out of it.

You mentioned before that there are things that need to change about philanthropy and that those of us who work in the sector are responsible for creating those changes. How have you seen philanthropy change in the time you’ve been working in it?

One of my mentors, Michael Seltzer, has been in philanthropy forever. When he was at the Ford Foundation back in the late 1990s, we were having a conversation about general operating support being core to an organization’s sustainability, and how we need to help folks realize that it’s core to taking care of the people who are doing the work. He said, “Philanthropy has been having this conversation for the last 30 years, and we still have this problem.”

Let’s just be real: it’s an issue of trust. Philanthropy has real toxic issues with trust. I honestly don’t think anybody should be able to work in philanthropy without having first worked in community. If you had actually had to run a nonprofit or work on the ground, we would not be having these conversations about general operating support anymore. You can’t fund what you don’t understand.

I think what has changed for the better is individual philanthropists are finding their voices. That has been exciting. I’ve noticed that individual philanthropists who have donor-advised funds have actually matured faster than the institutions that are holding the funds. That has made it complicated, because these institutions haven’t kept pace with their clients. Individual donors are trying to figure out how we can do this better while most institutional philanthropy keeps doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome. I think that’s a waste of money and time that you can’t get back.

One of the ironies in what you’re saying is that institutional philanthropy has created standards that organizations are expected to conform to in order to receive foundation funding, but these standards aren’t actually fit for purpose.

I have colleagues, particularly in Africa, who work with high-net-worth donors or local institutional philanthropy tell me: I don’t want your donors talking to our donors because they’re exporting bad habits. On the continent, people actually talk about the origins of wealth instead of bypassing it and acting as though there was no exploitation or marginalization of people as one particular family built their wealth. There’s a donor organization in East Africa that asks people to talk about the origins of their wealth when someone applies to be a member. It’s interesting how people are willing to have that conversation there, but not here.

Also, there’s an authenticity to community philanthropy among the African Diaspora that people in the U.S. are trying to manufacture. The concept of giving circles comes from the West African esusu, which is a Yoruba term that simply means an informal saving or credit association. However, now you have people outside of the diaspora building giving circles which may not be authentic community savings or support. If you go to other countries, you find a type of philanthropy that most people in the U.S. don’t even consider to be philanthropy—but what they’re doing is literally demonstrating love of humankind.

I have a colleague who works with donors in South Africa who told me that the young people there don’t even want to use the term “philanthropy.” Love is literally in the definition, but for some people, it’s almost like they do the opposite. There’s a line in “All About Love” where bell hooks says that “love and abuse cannot coexist.” I think the term “philanthropy” has been distorted to the point where I actually want to reclaim the word for those of us still operating from a position of love.

What are examples you’ve seen of authentic community philanthropy in the U.S.?

HERitage Giving Fund, one of the projects we sponsor, that is a Black women’s giving circle in Dallas. And there is a giving circle in Denver that is a group of African American women: SPIN, Sisterhood of Philanthropist Impacting Need. It’s simply people wanting to figure out how they can mobilize on behalf of community. They don’t come from a place of charity because they’re not transactional. Again, the investment and work come from a position of love and honor. They’re not trying to corner the market on something. They’re coming from a place of love and commitment—and just trying to do good in our community.

How are these ideas reflected in the approach you take at Moore Philanthropy?

I had an amazing stay with Abby Disney and Pierre Hauser, who I worked with for almost 15 years. As I was leaving that role, I realized I wanted to help folks by using my expertise. I’ve been in philanthropy long enough that I remember the launch of Arabella Advisors, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, The Philanthropic Initiative, and all those entities. So, I called everyone I knew to do a little bit of market research into what I could bring to answering the question: How do you do philanthropy in a non-transactional and loving way?

The other part of this is that I was tired of Black folks being seen as takers only. When I started doing this research, I called on my networks to find a group of colleagues to build with. I called Valaida Fullwood, who helped write the book on Black philanthropy, and asked her to come speak at something I was doing in New York. She was like, “Of course I will.” Then I spoke with Abby and Pierre, and they were willing to let me take my international portfolio with me—God love them—and that was the launch of Moore Philanthropy.

The launch of Moore Impact came from a place of frustration and exhaustion. The proverbial last straw was when I was working with a private foundation on a project to serve girls of color, and they were not willing to build partnerships with people of color, even though the girls of color were very clear that this was important to them. It’s not a big deal to go with white-led institutions because there are white allies in the sector, but they chose to go with someone who shared no demonstrated values or ethos around serving girls of color.

People might say, “Well, you don’t know what’s in their heart.” But, yeah, you do. I’m a Christian. And the Bible is very clear that whatever you’re truly thinking comes out in your actions. So I knew that we would have to build it ourselves, and that was the impetus for Moore Impact. How do we build wealth in Black communities in a way in which every partnership is thought about as adding value? I just had a conversation with the people who handle our investments for our employees’ 403(b) retirement plans, and I was like, “We have to talk about the selection of the funds you picked. How did you pick them? Do you even know anything about the fund managers?” Everything we do is about our partners and their values and ethos.

What have been the hardest decisions for you to make since launching the organization?

The hardest decisions are the clients that you just should not work with. It’s also the saddest part. We’ve learned a lot, especially over this last year or so with all the performative grantmaking that’s been going on. We’ve been really assessing our own values and had to tell someone not just that we can’t work with them, but telling them why—that it’s about their bad behavior. I’ve never had a problem taking responsibility for my own actions, and sometimes I have to own my own bad behavior. I guess I naively expect that of other people. Social justice starts at home. It’s how you treat every single person in your circle. Especially after this last year, performance is not enough.

What has it taken for you to remain in this field and to do so in a way that is grounded in your values and purpose, not just performance of them?

My maternal grandmother and I had a special relationship. She cleaned houses most of her life and was a savvy businesswoman who saved, bought two houses, and always seized opportunities to travel. I asked her one day why she didn’t do something else, and she told me simply: “I was told I could be a teacher or a nurse, and I didn’t want to be either, so I continued doing what I was excellent at.”

There are so many things about her statement that made me angry later in life when I really understood the implications of her words: the dismissal of domestic workers, the failure to inspire women to reach their full potential. It’s because of her, and so many others, that when it comes to philanthropy, I’m not willing to do the minimum. I find that so many colleagues are satisfied with the minimum, but I’m always trying to figure out what is the maximum we can do. Right now, the power of philanthropy to do good is just a fraction of what it could be.

Also, I am a woman of faith. Some people say that, but I am an active Christian on a daily basis. I read my Bible. I go to church. I try to be around people who share my values. There are parts of the Bible, especially in Isaiah, where God talks about justice. That’s what has helped me stay grounded and accountable. But I still make mistakes. I continually have to fight walking in fear.

One of the things that freaked me out was reading the 14 characteristics of white supremacy culture — because sadly, all of them are applicable to philanthropy. Those of us who study this work and try to really understand what it means to dismantle racism, we understand that those characteristics are applicable to everybody. So, it’s not that I don’t make mistakes. It’s just that I have and use a moral compass. I try to check it daily. And it’s helped me to be clear about what philanthropy really is and what it can be.

Mandy Van Deven is a philanthropy consultant with 20 years of experience in strategy and planning, grantmaking, organizational development, capacity building and strategic communications in the philanthropic, nonprofit and journalism sectors—with an emphasis on gender, racial and economic justice and fortifying the infrastructure for narrative power.

Published on February 9, 2022. Link to article on Inside Philanthropy here.