Funder Spotlight: Durfee Foundation

Since its inception in 1960, the Durfee Foundation in Los Angeles has been investing in extraordinary leaders through an almost hard-wired approach to trust-based philanthropy. As a place-based family foundation devoted to leadership, relationships, and constant learning, Durfee is seeing some incredible long-term results. As part of our series on trust-in-practice, we sat down with President Carrie Avery to get the scoop.

How would you describe Durfee Foundation’s approach to grantmaking, and how has it evolved over the years?

We have always had a focus on funding extraordinary people, looking at people over programs. And that has been in our DNA from the beginning. My grandfather [founder Stan Avery] always talked about how a proposal can look great on paper, but if you don’t have the right person behind it, it can’t go anywhere. On the other hand, you may have an amazing person with a great plan and vision, but their plan maybe doesn’t look that great on paper.

So we spend time getting to know the leaders we invest in, and come up with multiple ways to understand and support their vision. The investment in leaders has remained the same, but of course our process has evolved over the years. We now take more deliberate strides to incorporate feedback as we continue to tinker with our approach. We now do a better job of bringing in community voices. We used to be an all-family board but we have been more intentional in bringing in community leaders to inform our process.

You recently released a 10-year study on your Stanton Fellowship Program. How does this program reflect your trust-based approach to grantmaking?

At one of our earliest grantee retreats, a nonprofit leader pointed out a challenge that many leaders face. She said, “Funders will give you money to do things but they won’t give you money to think about what you’re doing.” That was a light bulb moment for us at Durfee. We instantly realized that this is something leaders need, and something we can actually support. So we took the idea, collected lots of feedback from grantees and community experts, and created the Stanton Fellowships. Every two years, we identify a cohort of six fellows in a leadership position in the nonprofit, government, or social sector. They stay in their jobs but take release time to pursue an inquiry. The hypothesis is that they can really make a change if they had time to focus on one key question. We provide each fellow $100k over the course of 2 years to do just that.

Our approach is very different from usual foundation funding, which tends to be project-based. We want people to step way back from their projects and think outside the box. When people apply, we ask them what their inquiry is, and how it serves their field. The inquiry must be a  question that hasn’t yet been approached in L.A, and that has the potential to contribute to positive change. For example, one of our alums dug deep into the issue of how local blue collar jobs could be developed to meet the requirements of the multimillion dollar municipal contracts for buses and transit.

The trust-based part comes into play because we trust these leaders to forge their own path and do what they need to get at the root of their questions. Stanton fellows set quarterly goals, and report to us on their progress. It’s understood that their goals and plans will change as they dig into their inquiry; we just want to be kept apprised of where they’re going.

Download the 10-Year Stanton Fellowship Study.

Are there challenges in taking such an open-minded, trusting approach?

Durfee’s Executive Director Claire Peeps and I have learned to coach each other on our own trust-based approach. We have found that about a year into the two-year Stanton Fellowship program, we get to a point where we worry that nothing is happening, and we have to remind ourselves to be patient.  After the one-year mark, breakthroughs often take place, sometimes in very unexpected ways.

You seem to provide a lot of support “beyond the check”, such as convenings, retreats, and mentorships. Why do you emphasize this type of support?

It starts with our origin story. When you get to know so many great people and organizations, you just have this desire to connect everyone! So we’ve created some formal pathways to support relationship-building and peer learning. For 20 years, we’ve been running our Sabbatical Program that enables nonprofit leaders to take three months off from their work and totally disconnect. In addition to funding the leader to take time off, we help the organization prepare for the time that executive director is away.  Almost since the inception of the Sabbatical Program, we bring together alums for lunches and overnight retreats to weave a network of connected leaders throughout L.A.  Bringing people together over food, with interesting topics of conversation, is core to what we do at Durfee. We also learn so much about the challenges in the sector, and its great ideas, by spending time with the people we fund.

Another example, the LEAD Residency, grew out of the Sabbatical Program. Usually, when a sabbatical leader steps away, an associate director or management team will step up to take on the ED’s duties.  So our LEAD Residency allows for interim directors from our Sabbatical Program to learn from another Durfee grantee organization and build their skills by learning from others doing similar work.

And through our Springboard Fund, we provide general operating support to new organizations, and we also provide them with a mentorship with one of our alums from our Sabbatical Program. We pay the mentor an hourly fee to work up to 50 hours/year with the new organization for two years.

You mention that you make grants where your dollars will have the greatest impact. How do you define (and assess) impact? More importantly, what is Durfee getting out of this approach?

We have a long-range view of impact. For example, we just released a 20-year retrospective of our Sabbatical Program, which has now reached over 100 leaders in L.A. Not only have we had a transformative impact on the leaders of those organizations and the organizations themselves, we have seen a culture shift in the sector as a whole.  The dominant narrative about nonprofit leadership has been that it’s a 24/7, undercompensated job, and burnout is inevitable. This narrative doesn’t serve anyone – not the EDs, not their staff, nor the causes they address. The message of the Sabbatical Program is that pacing and self-care are important to the entire sector. This message is catching on. Other foundations have replicated our program, and many more nonprofits are not waiting for foundations but setting up their own sabbatical policies.  This is what we mean by impact.

As a Trustee yourself, how would you respond to other Trustees who may be skeptical about your trust-based approach to grantmaking?

Some people might say this is kind of crazy stuff, but by investing that trust in people, we get incredible outcomes. Most for-profit companies take some portion of their work to step back and think about the big picture, so why can’t we do the same in the public benefit sector? We think of our long-range approach as philanthropic R&D, which is essentially a subset of a trust-based approach. It’s about risk capital, letting go of the structures and constraints of how grant dollars are administered, and trusting innovation.

One of the stories I tell is about one of our Stanton Fellows, Aaron Paley, an urban planner who came to us saying he wanted to figure out how to activate public space in L.A. for greater civic participation. His initial vision was to hold a festival around the L.A. River. He spent his first year figuring out how to do it, and went around the world, visiting other festivals and taking a lot of notes. Ultimately, he came to the conclusion that the LA river is not ready for prime time and not a candidate for a festival. In his travels, someone asked him if he had been to Bogota where they close down the streets to cars and open it up to pedestrians and bikes. He came back with the idea to bring this to L.A. The program launched about 5 years ago, and it’s called CicLAvia – the biggest bike event of the kind in the country right now.

If we had approached Aaron’s project from a traditional grantmaking perspective, he would’ve been stuck with pursuing his original vision of a river festival, and it would’ve been just okay. But by giving him permission to think bigger and not wed himself immediately to an outcome, something much greater and much bigger happened.

What advice would you offer to a foundation that’s interested in taking steps toward a more trust-based approach?

A trust-based approach is way more fun, creative and interesting than the traditional project-based, top-down approach. It allows you to always be in a learning mode. As funders, we should strive for continuous learning and improvement, rather than focusing on how we’ve “nailed it”. And yes, it does get challenging; our work is exponential and only grows. But the long-range view is what keeps us motivated, and I would encourage other funders to look toward the horizon for that big picture impact.

About this blog series: This is part of an ongoing series by the Whitman Institute, featuring foundations that practice trust-based philanthropy, i.e., approaching their decision-making and their grantee relationships in a way that acknowledges the power dynamics and realities facing nonprofits, and that invites more authentic relationships and communication. If you’d like to be considered for the series or if you have questions about taking steps toward trust-based philanthropy, email us at contact@thewhitmaninstitute.org.

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