January 19, 2016

Carrie Avery and the Durfee Foundation - Honoring Family Values, while Forging New Paths

With an innovative sabbatical program for nonprofit leaders, Carrie Avery is translating her grandfather's values into the third generation of family involvement with Durfee.

The Avery family's wealth was quite literally built on a small idea that stuck. R. Stanton (Stan) Avery invented the self-stick adhesive label in 1935 and built a $5 billion business around it—a business that, among other things, created automatic label dispensers, in-line label printing machines, and the self-adhesive postage stamp.

Being able to offer timesaving innovations—products that could ease mundane tasks and free people up to do other things—was important to Stan. He was a passionate inventor who prized creative space. But in 1960, he took that passion one step further when, together with his wife Dorothy Durfee Avery, he founded the Durfee Foundation to reward individual innovation and leadership. By the foundation's 50th anniversary in 2010, it had awarded more than $20 million in the areas of arts, culture, education, and community development, primarily in the Los Angeles region.

Stan Avery died in 1997, but the Durfee Foundation is still run by family members. In fact, the family's third generation took the helm in 1993, when Carrie Avery, Stan's granddaughter, became the foundation's president and board chair. Carrie attributes this unusual continuity, in large part, to the values that built the foundation to begin with. Stan Avery's legacy might have put a great deal of pressure on the generations that followed. But his commitment to innovation and creative space, which gave the foundation its direction, has also given his family members license to find their own way.

Carrie, in particular, has taken the foundation's values to heart. Nearly 15 years ago, she led Durfee to make waves in the funding community when her team introduced a sabbatical program for nonprofit leaders. Like her grandfather's first innovation, though, it was a great, small idea—and it's sticking.

Carrie Avery's Journey

"I would not have benefited from, nor would I have added much to, the Durfee Foundation had I been groomed to join the board at a young age," Carrie reflects. Left to her own devices, however, she eventually did find herself taking an interest in the family's philanthropy.

Carrie joined the board while she was in law school. Then, several years into her career as a corporate lawyer, an intriguing opportunity presented itself. The foundation was at a turning point; with its assets growing, it needed to hire more staff. Interested in getting more involved, she took on the role of board president.

Initially, she envisioned the position as being temporary; at the time, she was anticipating the birth of her first child, and her thought was that she would shepherd the foundation through this one period of growth. But, as she explained, she was surprised to find that the job offered "a rare balance of creative, intellectually challenging and flexible" work. What was temporary is nearing its 20th year. And her first child, Carrie notes, "is now entering college!"

Maintaining a Family Foundation

Carrie is the only family member working at the foundation, but leads a board that is now composed entirely of third-generation Averys. She does not take this level of family engagement for granted. On the contrary, she is the first to acknowledge that maintaining a family foundation through the generations is tricky business. Carrie also serves on the Board of the National Center for Family Philanthropy, and she notes that most family foundations don't make it to the fourth generation with family involvement intact because, as she put it: "Donors and their children have usually lived together and have similar values, [but] as you move down the family line, people are different and have different views. It can be much harder to hold things together."

Why has Durfee been able to buck this trend? Carrie believes that the foundation's mission and grantmaking framework provide a "touchstone" for board members. "I feel that the mission transcends who's on the board," explains Carrie, who has brought on three new board members during her tenure with Durfee. She doesn't expect people will immediately know what to do: board members undergo a yearlong orientation, which includes exposure to board meetings, learning how grant applications are analyzed and grantees selected, and visiting with grantees.

It's still too early to know whether the fourth generation of Averys will carry the torch. Carrie hopes her two sons "will freely choose a fulfilling life in philanthropy when they are ready to serve," she says. But in true Avery style, the pressure's off.

Innovating on a theme

In the meantime, it's Carrie's turn. When she became president and board chair, she took time to reflect on how she would interpret the foundation's charter to support innovation and leadership. Carrie and her colleagues at Durfee "looked at leaders in the nonprofit community and saw how overworked, stressed out, and underpaid they were." It bothered them to see nonprofit leaders leaving jobs they liked and were good at, simply because they couldn't see any other way to take a break. They were burned out; what's more, by leaving, they were compounding the nonprofit sector's significant leadership deficit (see box: "Leadership Deficit"). "It seemed like such a loss," Carrie said.

An idea raised by a former Durfee Executive Director—to somehow give nonprofit leaders a chance to rest— resonated with Carrie and her Executive Director, Claire Peeps. The concept had never gelled, but they determined to look for a way to develop it into something real. Carrie and Claire engaged with the board and determined to develop a program that would somehow give nonprofit leaders a break that would, ultimately, keep them in the game. Continuing to research the issue, Carrie and Claire talked with the Vanguard Public Foundation in San Francisco, which was doing something similar for community organizers. They also did a lot of listening, holding focus groups to learn what leaders most needed.

Early on, one option Durfee considered was offering nonprofit leaders time to devote to professional development. But focus groups and conversations with Vanguard leaders and others led the team to determine that nonprofit leaders really did need space to rest—not unlike the creative space Carrie's grandfather had valued so highly. Piling professional development on top of leaders' existing obligations wasn't the right answer. The team also realized that no one program would suit a spectrum of unique leaders.

Ultimately, Durfee developed a full-fledged sabbatical program, launched in 1997, with the simplest of formats: grant recipients design their own time off based on the pursuits they believe will be most rejuvenating for them.

The idea surprised other funders, who were more comfortable offering program investments (see box: "Nonprofit Starvation Cycle"). More than that, funders feared leaders would run for the hills if given the chance. As Carrie put it, "Some funders were saying, 'Don't do this! Don't send them away! Once they see the light of day, they'll never come back!'" Such resistance raised the stakes: if sabbatical participants really did jump ship, Durfee would be to blame. Still other critics questioned the impact of such an "indulgent" program, wondering, "In a time when food banks need money, how can you send people away on vacation?"

But Durfee persisted, giving participants a once-in-a-career chance to stop working 80-hour weeks and tend to themselves- for a minimum of three months.

And to date, the initiative is working just as Carrie had hoped it would. This brand of caring and respect for personal freedoms has led to strong relationships with nonprofit leaders. Durfee has funded seventy-seven sabbatical participants so far, who report that when they return to their organizations, they're re-energized. What's more, they have a fresh perspective on how they don't need to keep doing the same things they did before—and running the risk of burnout—in order to help their organization's achieve greater impact.

When Boyle returned from his sabbatical, he had a small, revolutionary idea of his own: now at the helm of a 60-person organization, he no longer had to be the one to open the mail every day.

Importantly, Durfee continues to serve as a refuge and resource for these nonprofit leaders, long after their sabbaticals end. The foundation hosts semiannual lunches and biennial retreats for sabbatical alums. And when former participants gather, they don't talk about their day-to-day grinds. "The conversation immediately elevates to the bigger challenges of the work they do, the challenges facing the sector, and the work-life balance," notes Carrie. These convenings, in other words, provide an additional way for participants to step into a creative space, breathe, and refocus.

In praise of 'Creative Disruption'

By some measures, Durfee's sabbatical program is "small": these are one-time grants that, on the face of it, only affect one person. But the initiative's reach has been profound.

When Durfee studied the sabbatical program's impact in 2009, it found that this singular touchpoint with leaders had positive results that could benefit almost everyone in the participants' organizations. A full 85 percent of leaders reported sharing more decision-making and other major responsibilities with managers after the sabbatical. And, without leaders in place, staff take on new responsibilities and develop new skills. Succession plans also start to take shape.

What's more, the innovation, one of the first of its kind, has encouraged the creation of a handful of similar programs around the country. In 2009, those organizations also commissioned an evaluation of their programs. The resulting "Creative Disruption" report reiterated many of Durfee's findings, especially the profound changes a leader's sabbatical can have on an organization.

What a little rest can do

Durfee celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2010 in part by inviting 300 nonprofit leaders in Los Angeles for a two-day retreat. The keynote speaker was sabbatical participant Father Greg Boyle, founder of HomeBoy Industries, a gang violence intervention that started small but has emerged as a national leader. When Boyle returned from his sabbatical, he had a small, revolutionary idea of his own: now at the helm of a 60-person organization, he no longer had to be the one to open the mail every day.

In his keynote address, Boyle told stories of his work with gang members. The stories were filled with the intimacy, compassion, and love of a person who is deeply engrossed in the real work at hand—and not in opening mail.

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