As Women’s History Month draws to a close, the Roundtable sat down with one female philanthropist who has spent decades investing in initiatives that promote a free and vibrant American society.
For the last three decades, Abby Spencer Moffat has served as chief executive officer of the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation. Over the years, the foundation has supported nonprofits with a focus on national security, education and entrepreneurship. As CEO, Moffat built the foundation into a leading innovator in the national security field, channeling her own entrepreneurial spirit to lead the organization’s support for a wide variety of projects, including a graduate school serving the nation’s intelligence community, as well as a business fair for K-12 students and a community-based approach to policing.
You support a variety of causes from national security to entrepreneurship – what ties your philanthropic efforts together?
At our foundation, we truly believe we only grow if we live outside of our comfort zone. As a result, we bring an entrepreneurial mindset to everything we do. That’s the link—whether we are investing in app-based education models, advancing military intelligence training or improving police-community relations, the causes we care about embody creativity, drive and the American spirit of innovation.
When we look to invest, it’s not just about new ideas and strong business models—though they play key roles in our funding choices—we are always looking for entrepreneurs, people with a variety of skill sets and a vision for success. And that doesn’t stop with grantee leadership. We recognize that entrepreneurship is key to developing the next generation of talent. By investing in mentorship programs, incubators and education, we are helping launch the entrepreneurs of tomorrow.
And that is the foundation of our country’s success. We invest in national security to preserve this spirit of entrepreneurship our founders instilled in the fabric of the nation. And like them, we recognize the solution to the most critical issues of the day, from competitive economics to national security remains: competitive human capital.
The Diana Davis Spencer Foundation was an early investor in the Acton Academy’s Children’s Business Fair, the largest entrepreneurship event for kids in North America, as well as the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, which provides values-based business skills to returning citizens.
What does having an entrepreneurial mindset look like when it comes to your relationships with your grantees?
We don’t just write a check. Bringing a business mentality is incredibly important to successful partnerships. And when we invest in you, that’s what we are: partners. We lock arms with our grantees to help them grow and develop. The resources we provide include from human resource support, development, marketing and communications and strategy. In that way, we are not just investing in innovative ideas or dynamic leaders, we are serving as full-service consultants incubating successful models.
If they want to scale, we help them think through what that entails, test their programs and analyze opportunities for growth. But it’s not just about that. We also like to put our grantees in touch with one another. We have seen some incredible collaboration when our grantees work together.
For me, the entrepreneurial mindset means starting every day by asking, “What can we do today to serve?” And it doesn’t have to be some big thing. It’s often in the small details.
What is a current project or initiative that excites you?
There are a few, but I want to talk about Code 3, an organization of cops and citizens working together in low-income areas to address divides between police and communities by “educating, equipping and empowering police departments with the tools and resources they need to do their jobs effectively, while creating the conditions for cops and communities to work better together.”
About nine years ago, we read enrollment in police academies was down by roughly 90%, and we thought that it was an opportunity to explore the idea of community policing. We turned to Dale Sutherland, who served as a Washington, D.C. police detective for 32 years. A pastor and regular contributor to the community, Dale had both police expertise and community heart. We chose him to start Code 3.
The fruits of this labor were no more obvious than at the height of the pandemic. In D.C.’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods, Code 3 is helping forge relationships that are chipping away at negative stereotypes. I had the opportunity to help advance the cause firsthand delivering Christmas presents door to door with the police. Officers and community members were getting to know one another not as enemies but as people. It’s taken time, but we are building friendships, trust and stronger communities. Our vision is to have “Code 3 in a box” so that other cities can replicate D.C.’s success.
Another organization that’s worth highlighting is Mysa School, a nationally recognized “micro school” with campuses in Washington, D.C. and Stowe, Vermont. Utilizing a propriety app-based system, Mysa is filling a critical need for families frustrated by one-size-fits-all education models, yet uses technology flexible enough to map student success against more traditional public and charter school measures. There are many exciting things about this, but what I really like is the approach meets the students where they are. And, the pandemic demonstrated the incredible benefits of using technology to help customize learning. While other models scrambled to adapt, Mysa’s inherent flexibility helped it thrive and grow.
“Mysa” is a Swedish word meaning to be engaged in an activity that is comfortable and pleasurable – to feel cozy. Mysa School is a modern-day version of the one-room schoolhouse. It combines project-based learning with online learning platforms to ensure learning is individually customized for each student.
What is one thing you want people to know about your foundation’s efforts and your philanthropy?
We dream big. And we believe the impossible can be done.
For more information about the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation’s work, please visit its website or reach out to Philanthropy Roundtable Program Director Erica Haines.