Interview with Steve Moore

The executive director of the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust explains how the foundation is responding to the coronavirus

steve moore headshot

Philanthropy: Funders seem to be responding to the coronavirus crisis in different ways depending on their regional context.

Moore: A theme in the Almanac of American Philanthropy is how crucial diversity is: Diversity of funders. Diversity of styles. Competing models. Different areas of emphasis. 

That’s one of the really important things that’s come out of this crisis—we don’t need more uniformity and conformity. We need collaboration, but we also need diversification, investment in distinct areas that people really love. To be honest, there’s been a lot of pressure at foundations to conform, to say, “Everybody do it one way.” Pledges go around, and people felt obligated to join the parade.

On the other hand, there are funders giving in good, unique ways that fit their interests. Bill and Melinda Gates have stepped up today for medical research and testing that fall right in their sweet spot, and they’re doubling down against this virus. That’s what we’re trying to do, invest in our sweet spots. 

Philanthropy: Tell me about some of your foundation’s early responses.

Moore: One of the first things we did was have each of our program directors call every organization that has an active grant and say, “Help us understand what you’re facing. Tell us what you need.” And groups with a new application in front of us were told, “If you need to make a pivot in some way, let us know.” 

For some groups we have to say, “No, we can’t meet that need. I’m sorry. We can’t save the fact that you didn’t get to do your annual fundraiser. We can’t fill every hole.” It’s a lot of hard conversations.

One of our first rounds of new funding had to be for medical supplies, support of local health care, and scientific research. Our program directors got in touch with all the groups that we normally work with, asking about need, and in some areas we made a grant within a week or two. 

We tried to help prepare in the early weeks for what we hoped would not come by flattening the curve and fortifying medical facilities with resources. We also were looking for coordination between facilities because we were seeing some sites in Seattle with no free beds while others had a massive number of empty beds.

Now we’re focusing on the most vulnerable. Helping food banks. Trying to get resources to the frontlines. Working with community foundation partners and nonprofit support organizations. Offering them coaching.

Philanthropy: Explain that. 

Moore: We realized that leaders of nonprofits need help figuring out their response. These organizations are only as strong as the wisdom and understanding in their executive teams and boards. So we contacted the best organizational coaches in the region and got some to help. We offered local charities up to a certain number of hours of Zoom consultation. 

These coaches are business experts, organizational experts, they know how to execute immediate pivots. And because they are independent of funding decisions, the charitable leaders can be honest with them, talk about problems without feeling exposed. One of the themes has been “don’t waste a good crisis”—this is a moment to address problems you haven’t had time or space to deal with before. We have to help charities face up to needed reforms. 

About 500 of our local nonprofits have participated so far. There are weekly themes. Call participants share with one another. Some working cohorts have emerged—groups of leaders working together on particular topics like camping, or Gospel missions, or youth-serving charities.

Philanthropy: How are you supporting medical research? 

Moore: Because we regularly fund scientific research we were able to call some of our partners at University of Washington, Oregon Health Sciences University, and Providence Hospital, and ask if they had needs, either in developing tests or developing treatments or a vaccine. Our partners were very honest. They told us the places they really could use help because government funders won’t cover certain things. For example, one University of Washington lab had a coronavirus rapid-response test already under development because they had gotten early notice of what was happening in China, but they were getting no federal dollars. They needed gap funding to keep going.

Philanthropy: Did your trustees set aside a specific dollar amount for covid response? On top of your regular grantmaking? In place of other grants?

Moore: We’ve been building the plane as we go. Our trustees said, “Jack Murdock would’ve wanted us to be aggressive. Let’s identify our priorities.” So far we’ve given about $15 million in covid response. The question now is if we want to stay on this pace, or should we save some powder for the future.

I think of our grantmaking right now in three layers. One is direct covid response, the second is capacity-building grants, and the third is our enrichment programs for leaders. For example, we hosted a webinar called “Fundraising in the Midst of a Pandemic,” and hundreds of charitable leaders signed up even though we only gave them a week’s notice. 

There is no map that tells us how to navigate through this. 

Philanthropy: Are there any recent philanthropic interventions that have been inspirational or interesting to you? 

Moore: I was on the phone over the weekend with somebody connected to the Communities Foundation of Texas, where a group put together a plan to allow hourly restaurant workers to work at food banks. A very creative response. We contributed to a collaboration that is helping small- and medium-sized arts groups plan how to get out of the deep hole many have suddenly fallen into. The Alaska Community Foundation and Rasmussen Foundation have found some clever ways to help tribal communities in Alaska, where the economic impact has hit hard. 

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