Society / Profiles

Inside a $2.5 Billion Galveston-Based Foundation — the Moodys Open Up On Their Family Giving, $100 Million Rice and SMU Donations Included

A PaperCity Exclusive

BY // 11.29.21

The responsibility of heading a $2.5 billion family foundation could be a daunting task, but Moody Foundation trustees Frances Moody-Dahlberg, her brother Ross Moody and his daughter Elle Moody are accomplished stewards of the vast fortune that was established in 1942. In a rare press interview, Ross Moody and Elle Moody talked with PaperCity over Zoom the about the work and philosophy of the foundation and their joy in continuing the legacy of founders William Lewis Moody Jr. and his wife Libbie Rice Shearn Moody, Ross Moody’s great-grandparents.

Garnering attention most recently was the Galveston-based foundation‘s $100 million gift to Elle Moody’s alma mater, Rice University, where she is a trustee, for a new student center, a transformative entity built to replace the 60-year-old building which has outlived its usefulness. (That figure ties with the Welch Foundation as the largest private foundation grant in Rice’s history.)

Half of the gift  is committed to the student center and the other half to an endowment spread across the university. The gift is in keeping with the trustees’ goal of expanding the state’s educational horizons.

Rice University Student Center
The Rice University Student Center which received half of the $100 million gift from the Moody Foundation. The remaining $50 million is committed for an endowment.

The largesse follows a $100 million gift in 2019 to fund the Moody School of Graduate and Advanced Studies at Southern Methodist University of which Moody-Dahlberg is both a graduate and a trustee. Also in 2019 the foundation committed $130 million to the University of Texas, the single largest gift from a foundation in the university’s history, for construction of Moody Center — a new basketball arena and events center. Ross Moody is a UT graduate and serves on the national leadership board of the Moody College of Communication, the building funded by a $50 million gift from the foundation in 2013.

In 2017, the Moody Center for the Arts at Rice University opened thanks to a $20 million gift from the foundation. In 2019, the foundation gifted UT with $20 million to reimagine and transform the exterior spaces The Blanton Museum of Art.

Beyond higher education, since its inception the foundation has awarded more than $28 million to local educational organizations aimed at increasing student success in literacy, science, math and technology. In 2018, the Moody Foundation launched Generation Moody, a cradle-to-career educational attainment program that aims to enrich the lives of Galveston Island students.

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Moody Giving

Ross Moody, speaking from his home in Austin, notes: “The SMU and UT gifts represent about 16 percent of our annual giving amount and it’s 24 percent including Rice, which leaves about $60 to $70 million a year to give to other nonprofits across the state. . . The bigger gifts are paid out in multi-year installments which gives us the flexibility of supporting literally hundreds of organizations a year.”

Last year, for example, in the height of the pandemic, the foundation granted $1 million to the Houston Independent School District for the purchase of more than 2,000 computer devices to combat the digital divide. Also in 2020, the foundation provided financial aid to Central and North Texas Food Banks as well as the Galveston County Food Bank, which were both hit hard by the pandemic. In total, $15.8 million was committed in pandemic relief funds.

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Ross Moody, Elle Moody at the Blanton Museum of Art Gala in 2019.

Elle Moody, who has served on the foundation board for five years, chimes in from her home in New York where she is an account director at Sutton, a communications firm working with an international coterie of nonprofits in the visual arts and cultural spheres.

“I use that background to support the arts in Texas, to merge my two interests,” she says adding that she shares the same vision for the foundation as her father and her aunt.

Yet, her father notes that she brings “a wonderful new perspective.”

The Importance of Investing Wisely

The trustees’ mission is to honor the founders’ goal of  “providing resources in perpetuity to people across Texas,” funding projects and programs that better communities across the state.

“We’re not only responsible for giving away money,” Ross Moody says. “But we’re entrusted with making sure that the funds that are there are invested wisely and that we manage expenses . . . We invest those resources very, very conservatively and the income that they provide to the foundation, we donate to nonprofits across the state. We budget for that.”

To meet the “minimum distribution requirement” each year, the foundation must distribute five percent of its net worth, a figure that runs between $80 and $100 million.

The foundation was heavily invested in the American National Group, which has a sale pending for $5.1 billion. Ross Moody notes that the windfall from that sale will allow the foundation to give way an additional $25 to $30 million a year.

Managing Hundreds of Grant Requests

The Galveston foundation has a streamlined staff of 12, including a team of grant managers who review initial grant requests, made through the foundation website, and select 40 to 50 which are in keeping with the foundation’s mission for consideration by the three trustees. Elle Moody adds that they still give a quick look through the hundreds of  of the requests that come in each year in case something catches their attention.

“Giving the money is the easy part,” Ross Moody says. “It’s the organizations that receive the money that are spending it to fulfill their missions and their visions. They’re on the ground. They’re doing the work. They’re putting things in place. They’re building buildings and teaching kids.

“Our jobs are somewhat complicated but at the end of the day their jobs are significantly harder than ours.”

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