In Conversation with Karina Moreno, Tipping Point Program Officer

TPC: Tell us about your role at Tipping Point.

KM: My role is to both go out and find new grantees that are doing amazing work in the fight against poverty and to work with a subset of 12 existing grantees to help them get even better at what they do. In the most basic sense, I cultivate and nurture relationships with leaders and with organizations, and do what I can to help them be the best they can be. There are a lot of thorny issues in the philanthropic sector related to power and privilege and money, and I try to be cognizant of that. I really believe in the Greek root of the word philanthropy–love of humankind. At the end of the day, philanthropy is about channeling private resources for the public good, and I love being a part of that.

TPC: What led you to this position?

KM: My background is in public policy, broadly defined. My entire career has been working for nonprofit organizations that in some way, shape or form help low-income children or families move up the opportunity ladder. About 8 years ago, I made the move from being on the practitioner side to the funding side. I started at a private foundation in the East Bay called the Y&H Soda Foundation. Having grown up in Oakland, I’m very much a Bay Area enthusiast at heart and Y&H Soda was an amazing place to learn philanthropy because, especially at the time, it had a broad mission of improving quality of life in the East Bay. Here at Tipping Point, most of my groups are also located in the East Bay. One of my newer colleagues here at Tipping Point recently said to me, “Karina, it’s very important to you that you’re working in your own community.” And he’s right. I take great pride in a job that I feel is not just working to better a community, but working to better my community. I see so much potential here, so the challenge becomes how we continue to honor the strengths of the region while making it a more equitable place for everyone.

TPC: What differentiates Tipping Point as a funder?

KM: I was initially drawn to Tipping Point’s model of putting dollars to work right now, as opposed to a traditional philanthropic endowment where foundations sit on a lot of money and pay out only a small percentage each year. Our unique model keeps us on our toes, a little bit hungrier to see results, eager to innovate and make riskier moves, to do whatever we can to support groups to get that return on investment.

The unrestricted general operating support Tipping Point provides also sets us apart. The social sector is asked to do the impossible with bifurcated, non-rational funding streams. In my entire career, it’s what I hear organizations say they need time and time again.

I also value our desire to be responsive. Daniel has set a strong tone here at Tipping Point. He constantly says to grantees, “We genuinely want you to call us not just when things are good, but when things are bad too. We may not be able to help every time, but we will try our best, no matter what.” That goes a long way in establishing rapport and trust.

TPC: What does due diligence really mean?

KM: Sometimes the term “due diligence” sounds to me like it’s about digging to find something wrong, or to make sure that if something goes awry down the line, you could say that you saw it coming. And let’s be clear – we do have a fiduciary responsibility here at Tipping Point to protect the interest of our donors and make sure we’re investing their resources wisely. But in my mind, due diligence is equally about the cultivation of a relationship. One of the biggest compliments I was paid by someone who’d been through the process with me was when they said that it never felt like I was probing to find something wrong, but rather to authentically understand what they do and how they do it.

In practice, due diligence is a web of conversations where every curiosity and question leads to another curiosity and question. I’m currently in due diligence with an organization, which is a process that can take anywhere from six months to a year to complete. During that time, I’ve had formal meetings with the founders, the school leader, as well as myriad phone conversations and email exchanges, less formal check-ins over coffee at Starbucks, and of course site visits to the school as well. Our goal is to better understand what motivates leaders, what change they’re trying to make in the world, and whether that work aligns with Tipping Point’s approach, priorities and mission.

TPC: What does Tipping Point look for in due diligence that other funders may not care as much about?

KM: In addition to program data and financials and, we look at whether each leader, and each organization, has an appetite for continuous learning. This piece is really important to us. It’s less critical that organizations and leaders have all the answers, but that when they don’t, they’re willing to say as much, and that they are curious about how they would get there. One example of how this plays out is around outcomes. We understand that many groups, through no fault of their own, are under such enormous pressure to perform. Sometimes you unpack the data and it’s not as pretty as you thought it might be. We appreciate when a group is willing to say, “This is where clients have gotten to date, we’re unsatisfied with that, and we need help taking them to the next level.” We have red flags when organizations present everything as fully baked, packaged and perfect in due diligence, because we know that organizations are by nature imperfect.

TPC: What’s the secret to good grant-making?

KM: People ask me how to build trust, and my answer is simple: put the time into it. It takes years and years. When I got to Tipping Point, because I had worked at Y&H Soda, I inherited relationships with a lot of grantees that I’d already known for a long time. As a result, some of the relationships that I have with our groups are eight-year-old relationships. They aren’t always perfect, but I do feel that there is genuine trust at the center of it on both sides. Grantees do come to me when things aren’t so great, and that is the ultimate indicator that they believe that my intention is to serve them and their work.

TPC: What’s most challenging about your work?

KM: The reality is that organizations are incredibly complex, dynamic and ever-changing, and nonprofits in particular are under-resourced and faced with many, many competing demands. You can make amazing progress in one area only to turn around and realize that a whole other area needs attention. It’s humbling to know what a small piece of the pie Tipping Point is for some of our grantees. And what a small slice philanthropy is in general within the universe of funders and stakeholders working on poverty alleviation, education, workforce development, housing and wellness. There are moments when I feel good that I helped funnel $1.5M to an incredible grantee, and then I’ll remember that Alameda County spends nearly $460M supporting over 200 nonprofits for direct client services. But then I remind myself that there are bright shining stars all around us – Tipping Point grantees like Year Up and Aspire and Nurse-Family Partnership and First Place for Youth – that really have been able to influence much broader sectors and systems. I know that it takes so much more than just one organization or one philanthropic institution to create big change. It takes all of us working together.