SVCF donor family explores the interconnectedness of philanthropy

Moran Family
Lydia and Tom Moran, SVCF donors

Responsible, informed, and effective philanthropy is not easy, as Lydia and Tom Moran have learned over the last seven years of giving. “There are so many needs,” said Lydia. “Figuring out where best to give is hard work.”

Through working closely with their Silicon Valley Community Foundation Philanthropy Advisor and many members of SVCF’s Community Impact team, the Morans have made grants supporting the Big Lift, Choose Children, the 2020 census, DACA emergency fund, and natural disaster relief in Silicon Valley and beyond from their donor advised fund. Their giving initially focused on education, but as their work with SVCF helped them discover the interconnectedness of Silicon Valley’s needs, they were inspired to expand their philanthropy to include civic participation, social justice and financial stability, as these major factors can also inhibit or support a child’s education and chances for a better and more meaningful life.

The Morans met at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA, and moved to Palo Alto in 1974 after Tom completed his PhD. He worked as a research scientist pioneering the field of human-computer interaction at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center and later at IBM Research. They moved to Portola Valley in 2008 after their two children grew up and moved out.

Lydia and Tom’s initial foray into philanthropy came in 2014, when, as Lydia explained, “We began to figure out that we had resources beyond our own and our family’s needs. After analyzing our retirement and estate situation, we realized we should focus our attention on using our resources for philanthropy.”

Lydia and her now 97-year-old mother together funded a professorship in honor of Lydia’s father at CMU, where he was a professor of physics.

Lydia started a donor advised fund at The Pittsburgh Foundation in 2016. She and Tom then funded another professorship at CMU in Learning Science, and a fund to support first-generation students at CMU.

Lydia decided to transfer the remaining fund to SVCF, because she wanted to shift their focus to Silicon Valley, where they have lived for more than four decades and where they raised their family. They also wanted to be able to interact in person with philanthropy advisors and other foundation staff more easily. Except for the professorships, she was accustomed to making comparatively smaller individual donations, so ramping up their giving was a learning process. She and Tom used the people and resources at SVCF to learn about issues and possibilities for giving. “We are fortunate to have this money, and we feel we have a responsibility to use it well; and there is work to do now to put the money to use as soon as possible,” said Tom.

“I was worried we’d be a small fish in a big pond,” Lydia said about moving their fund to SVCF, “But our experience has been that, while SVCF has an ocean for the big fish, it also has a lake for nurturing smaller fish like us.”

The broad mission of the Moran’s donor advised fund is to help support the disadvantaged and empower people to live meaningful lives. “One of our strategies is to support less well-funded areas and fill in the cracks where funding is missing, so that we can maximize our impact with the resources we have,” said Tom.

Like most donors, they opened their fund at SVCF with some ideas about what they wanted to support, but they were also very open to learning about how they can enlarge their charitable efforts and grow their impact. Working with SVCF expanded their horizons, introducing them to new organizations and new ways to give back to their community. In 2019 they donated to support critical work that encourages census participation in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.

“We couldn’t have supported the census without SVCF. Census outreach is most effective when it is targeted to small, hard-to-count groups,” said Lydia, referring to SVCF’s census grantmaking which focused on supporting grassroots nonprofits and trusted messengers, “We wouldn’t have known how to do it by ourselves.”

Former SVCF Philanthropy Advisor Sawako Sonoyama Clarin appreciates that the Morans are both thoughtful and timely with their grantmaking. “They’re not afraid to dive in, fund an organization and learn from the process,” she said.

The Morans have also learned that making small grants can be a great way enable them to build deeper relationships and work with newer, less established nonprofits. For example, as part of their work in civic engagement, they are currently exploring the idea of teaching middle and high school students the skills of civic participation. Through a recommendation from SVCF, they are interacting with a nonprofit called Generation Citizen, which empowers students to participate in the democratic process. What started with a small grant has led longer conversations about possible larger grants for specific projects.

Looking back on their last few years of giving, the Morans were surprised at how interconnected philanthropy is – how their interests align, how organizations work together, how friends and acquaintances from different parts of their life know each other. “It’s been so interesting to see all the pieces fit together,” said Lydia.

Looking toward the future, they are excited to continue learning, continue giving, and continue working together to make a difference. “I expect there will be more twists and turns as we go along,” said Tom.