At IWF’s star-studded gala last year, a legendary mother-daughter duo, dressed to the nines and, as always, surrounded by friends and strangers, were the most welcoming people in the room. The vivacious daughter, Abby Moffat, had introduced IWF’s Gentleman of Distinction, Senator Tim Scott, and was now mingling, making sure everybody she spoke to felt as valued as the Senator.
IWF’s Amber Schwartz recalls Abby’s warmth to her parents following a tragic loss, “She asked thoughtful questions and wanted to get to know them. She has an incredible amount of empathy and an uncanny ability to read a room.” This is a defining quality of the effervescent executive. Schwartz summed it up well, “She always aims to build people up. True kindness.”
Diana Davis Spencer and her daughter Abby aren’t your typical Washingtonians. It’s no wonder that people feel drawn to them. Their joie de vivre, passion to make the world a better place, and warm interest in others always come through—whether it’s the way they engage one-on-one in a crowded ballroom, or in their work at the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation. Mrs. Spencer serves as executive chairman and Abby Moffat, a serial entrepreneur and business leader, is CEO and president. Mrs. Spencer is also a journalist who has published nationally and is a member of the National League for American Pen Women. Friends describe her as “brilliant” but “down to earth.”
People in the nonprofit world know that Mrs. Spencer and Ms. Moffat don’t just read their proposals—they study them. Then, they ask questions—pointed but polite and often over a fun lunch. The Diana Davis Spencer Foundation doesn’t just write checks but invests in people. Spencer and Moffat get to know beneficiaries, show up for their panels and other events, and find creative solutions to help them succeed. They are hands-on partners, offering grants not only with funding but also access to consulting and marketing expertise, human resources support, and legal counsel.
The Foundation, for example, provides crucial financial support for the Mysa School, a “micro-school” in the District of Columbia that has just opened a second school in Vermont. The Mysa Schools are trailblazers in personalized education rather than the old system of moving kids from grade to grade. Siri Fiske, the founder, says that, if she is having a problem figuring something out, Abby will find the right expert to help “within 48 hours.” “Abby and Diana are great at pulling people together from different worlds,” says Fiske, “and making sure they have the resources they need.” But they don’t hover. “They pay attention, but they do a great job of trusting me to make decisions,” says Fiske.
“Something I learned from my grandfather,” says Moffat, “he said, always invest in management. So, when we look at a nonprofit, we look at it with those eyes. We are investing in solid management—people who are visionaries, people that have the potential to move the needle.” Ms. Moffat’s grandfather was the late Shelby Cullom Davis, the prominent investor, U.S. ambassador, and philanthropist.
Today, the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation, headquartered in Bethesda, Md., has four areas of philanthropy: our “founding values,” as expressed through the founding documents of the United States; education; entrepreneurship; public policy; and national security.
The Diana Davis Spencer Foundation has supported everything from think tanks to medical research. “We support organizations that forward our nation’s founding principles and hope that, one by one, it will make a difference,” says Spencer. “I have a quote from Frederick Douglass, which is ‘The life of the nation is secure only while the nation is honest, truthful, and virtuous.’”
Shortly after the death of Diana’s mother, painter, author, and noted philanthropist Kathryn Wasserman Davis, in 2013, the family donated $26 million to The Heritage Foundation’s Davis Institute for International Studies, a gift that honored Spencer’s parents and highlighted their longtime ties to Heritage, along with their stalwart support for the values of free enterprise, a strong national defense, and individual liberty.
The tribute was an apt one. Philanthropy, as practiced by Spencer and Moffat, is a family tradition. The values were nurtured first by Mrs. Spencer’s parents. “I grew up in Westchester County,” Mrs. Spencer tells IWF. “Work ethic was really instilled in my brother and me. We decided at age six and eight, that we would raise chickens and sell the eggs. So, we went around the neighborhood selling these eggs at a price a little lower than market value. It was ironic that after we sold all our eggs, our parents ended up buying their eggs at a higher price at the grocery store!”
Spencer’s parents were products of the Depression. “One of the lessons we were taught was the motto ‘save and have.’ It was instilled in us to not be wasteful.” Mrs. Spencer continued, noting the fact her family ironed and reused Christmas paper. “Another lesson was that hard work doesn’t hurt anyone, and grit is important. Grit and determination.” Spencer’s parents practiced what they preached. “My father really instilled in us the pride we should take in our work. My mother also worked hard. She gave these exceptional lectures on what was happening in the USSR and then Russia.” Mrs. Spencer noted her mother’s ability to do behind-the-scenes reporting: “She would go to Russia and get into a daycare center, a casino, a wedding palace…and give these amazing lectures without notes. But it took hard work. I saw her practicing. So, I realized that nothing just comes. You have to work at being successful.”
“My parents supported educational institutions,” Mrs. Spencer continues, “because they felt this gave people a chance. And, education was important to them. My parents hoped that students would come out understanding that America is exceptional.” Diana’s parents supported higher education and research into public policy and economics, endowing the Center for Historic Studies at Princeton, along with several chairs at Tufts, Trinity College, Wellesley, and the Cullom-Davis Library at Bradley University (in honor of Diana’s grandparents).
This dedication to supporting education is multi-generational. Diana Davis Spencer is a firm believer in the liberal arts. “Liberal arts education was founded on dialogue, encouraging an open mind, and hearing all sides. Socrates asked his students to challenge themselves and each other to see the world differently. That’s a tradition worth preserving,” Spencer explained when she was honored last year by her college. “We’re pushing classical education. Hillsdale College is building a grad school where students will learn how to teach effectively in this classical education tradition,” Spencer noted during our discussion.
“We support organizations that forward our nation’s founding principles and hope that one by one, it will make a difference,” says Diana Spencer. “I have a quote from Frederick Douglass, which is ‘The life of the nation is secure only while the nation is honest, truthful, and virtuous.’”
“We look at education in a myriad of ways,” Moffat adds. “Educating future journalists, not only in how to be good journalists but on what it means to understand the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights. We can do that with the students in everything—teaching them the Constitution from elementary school all the way through. Hillsdale is one example, but we’ve also done it at other schools.” The Foundation has supported a range of educational initiatives: from civics curricula, mentoring, college scholarships, and schools for the learning disabled, to fellowship programs in the classics.
It’s about enhancing communities. Mrs. Spencer notes, “we learned and really have tried to replicate what my parents believed in, which was a strong America, which meant self-reliance, entrepreneurialism, free speech.”
When Diana’s alma mater, Wheaton College, named the renovated science center the Diana Davis Spencer Discovery Center, Dedicated to Free Speech and Innovation, she recalled a formative experience. “When I was a sophomore I entered a Henry James essay contest and won. What I remember most is how affirming that experience was.”
Shortly after graduating from Wheaton, Spencer wed John Means Spencer, who would go on to become a popular prep school teacher. It wasn’t just a passion for education they shared. His distinguished lineage was a match for Spencer’s—he was a distant cousin of Sir Winston Spencer Churchill and Lady Diana Spencer, future Princess of Wales, leaving a friend of John’s to quip, “Oh, that other Diana Spencer!”—and they both had understood the value of American history, entrepreneurship, and hard work. John Spencer taught at the Darrow School, Dana Hall, and Loomis, enjoying a 25-year-career in that profession.
“My father had a student who told him,” Moffat says proudly, “‘Mr. Spencer, I’ve not learned a thing in your class. The only thing I’ve learned is how to think.’ For my father, that was the greatest compliment. A liberal arts education should help you develop the ability to be a critical thinker, which is crucial to becoming a successful leader in whatever you do.” Spencer retired from teaching and devoted himself to farming at Elm Hill Farm, which had been in the Spencer family for 12 generations. He died in 2002, after a long battle with multiple sclerosis.
Because of John Spencer’s profession, Moffat spent ten of her early years living in a prep school dorm. “So, I had all these adopted big brothers who threw me in the air, and I think that’s where I really began to learn how to navigate the world because of these boys. I’d learn all kinds of lessons about taking care of yourself, fighting for yourself. And it was just a wonderful experience to be able to grow up in that rich intellectual environment.”
She also spent weekends and summers on the farm. “My first pet was a cow named Brenda,” she laughingly remembers. “Everyone else has a dog. I think I actually had some goldfish, and I did have a guinea pig for a short time, but I was most fond of my cow Brenda, who was a very stubborn cow. Much like myself, I guess you could say.”
Moffat’s interest in and belief in people from all walks of life was likely spurred by her father. He regularly visited life-sentenced prisoners at Norfolk State Prison—and for years brought home two of the men with no family to the farm for overnight furloughs twice a month. “So many of these men went on to do great things,” she says, “One of them was accused of a bank robbery, and he insisted that he was innocent. He developed the skills to become a paralegal. He found a way, with the help of a lawyer, to prove his innocence. Afterwards, he ended up becoming a paralegal for Hale and Dorr. Another, whom we called ‘Mr. Joe’ got into a halfway house and was able to do an apprenticeship at Ford Motor Company and ended up becoming the number one producer for Ford in Massachusetts.”
Moffat understands high achievement herself. After graduating from Mount Vernon College, a former private women’s college now part of George Washington University, she had a high-powered career as the chief headhunter for an executive search firm and subsequently launched an event-planning company, a line of work no doubt helped by her keen social eye and ability to connect with others.
When, as a young adult, Moffat met Baroness Thatcher, then the U.K.’s Prime Minister, Thatcher told her, “Young lady, you have a voice. You need to use it.” Thatcher’s words fell on fertile ground.
One of those connections was with Margaret Thatcher. When, as a young adult, Moffat met Baroness Thatcher, then the U.K.’s Prime Minister, Thatcher told her, “Young lady, you have a voice. You need to use it.” Thatcher’s words fell on fertile ground, and that is what Moffat has been doing since, whether through using her voice to speak out, or providing financial backing for institutions and people who will make a difference.
About nine years ago, Davis and Spencer began reading about how enrollment was down at police academies. They saw this as an opportunity to look into community policing, with an eye to helping people live in safer neighborhoods. The upshot was a new organization named Code 3, an organization that helps police and residents of low-income areas connect and build friendships. “We turned to Dale Sutherland, who served as a Washington, D.C. police detective for 32 years,” Abby recalled in a Philanthropy Roundtable interview. “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 never 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,” Abby continued. “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.”
In addition to her financial and intellectual support of Code 3 and innumerable other nonprofits, Abby serves on a wide swath of boards, including IWF’s. This has given IWF’s leadership and staff the privilege of getting to know her more personally. As IWF’s Chairman Heather Higgins put it, “Abby adds tremendous value to the IWF board because she has deep knowledge of—and discernment about—almost all the groups in the conservative orbit—what they did well, what were the strategic holes that need to be filled. So, Abby knew why a group like IWF was so critical, she saw our potential, and her input and stewardship are integral to why we’ve grown so tremendously in the past five years.”
That perspective comes from being well-read and well-attuned. Diana Davis Spencer and Abby Moffat are deeply aware of currents in American culture that they know are destructive—the attack on our history, the rise in crime, the neglect of virtues, and the radicalization of American education, to name a few.
When they are asked whether they are optimistic about the future, it is Spencer, who replies first, admitting that her view is “mixed,” but she quickly turns hopeful. “I really was inspired by the mothers in Virginia,” she says, referring to people such as Asra Nomani and other mothers who spoke out about parents’ rights in the education of their children, “because they set a tone to be proactive, and I think that is what it’s going to take. We all, in one way or another, have to be proactive to save our country. Run for the school committee, help out in some way. I think we’re at almost a tipping point unless we get enough people to realize that we are at that point.”
And that, in a nutshell, is what Diana Davis Spencer and Abby Moffat do—they provide the means for well-intended people to be proactive and accept the great challenge of saving the good things in American life and building up a culture that is in need of what they so good-naturedly offer.