March 11, 2013

Carrie Avery on Getting Dramatic Results with Relatively Small Grants

Carrie Avery, the President and Board Chair of the Durfee Foundation, represents the third generation of Averys to take the helm of the family foundation

By: The Bridgespan Group
Carrie AveryCarrie Avery, the President and Board Chair of the Durfee Foundation, represents the third generation of Averys to take the helm of the family foundation. A lawyer by training, Carrie currently chairs the board of the National Center for Family Philanthropy in addition to leading Durfee and infusing her family’s foundation with her own brand of creative philanthropy.

Interpreting her grandfather’s vision

Avery credits her grandfather, R. Stanton Avery, who launched the foundation in 1960, with embedding his values flexibly, such that family members could make the foundation their own. Says Avery: “My grandfather made it very easy for us to plug into the mission of the foundation and keep it alive because he was so gracious about creating a flexible mission…[to allow] different trustees, further down the generations, to find what enlivens us and plug it into the mission.”

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Doing “something big with something small”: the potential of small grants

Avery says “By doing something a little bit different by giving people a sabbatical or giving people a Stanton Fellowship…we are looking to do something big with something small.” The sabbatical program, for example, offers leaders up to $35,000 to “travel, reflect, or otherwise renew themselves in whatever manner they propose.” Despite the relatively small grants, the result of letting strong leaders choose how to make the most of the time has spoken volumes: Durfee, along with other funders of similar programs, commissioned an evaluation that determined that such sabbaticals “demonstrate a number of positive outcomes that are unexpected, broad, and profound.” As Avery shares: leaders came back from sabbatical and “saw things with fresh eyes…they discontinued programs that didn’t really deserve to have a life anymore. They added new things…they realized the potential of the people who had stepped in while they were gone.” 

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A focus on “the way work is done” rather than on causes

As remarkable as Durfee may be for its continuity across generations, the strategic focus of the foundation may be even more unusual. Stan’s focus on creativity and individual initiative has engendered today’s focus on nonprofit leadership development in Los Angeles. As Avery says, “we’re more about the way the work is done than about what work is being done…we’re focused much more on supporting leadership, supporting innovation, supporting creative thinking….” Case in point? The groundbreaking Durfee Sabbatical Program, which from 1997 to date has supported 80 dynamic nonprofit leaders to take a three-month sabbatical to recharge and focus on themselves.

Avery’s favorite moment came as the result of such a grant to Susan Burton, who leads nonprofit A New Way of Life Reentry Project.

How might your philanthropy punch above its weight? What makes small gifts likely to get outsized impact?

Carrie Avery’s Key Messages for Philanthropists



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