Insights From a Decade of Philanthropic R&D - Exponent Philanthropy
A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Insights From a Decade of Philanthropic R&D

As funders, we are expected to measure things: dollars given, grants distributed, organizations served, and what results. These are all familiar metrics.

But what if we reconsidered our attachment to these metrics? What if instead of expecting a specific outcome, we pursued a promising hypothesis? This is an accepted practice in other fields, such as business and science. They call it research and development, or R&D.

The challenges we face as a society are so nuanced and complex that we must make room for the “what if” type of thinking that propels any field into next stage thinking.

Yet we know that it is nearly impossible for busy leaders of change-making organizations to dedicate the time required to think differently and deeper about the challenges they face. Even if they were encouraged by their boards to use general operating funds for a deeper level of inquiry, leaders tell us they would be reluctant to do so. This is especially true of travel and time for open-ended research.

It was from our hypothesis about the power of open-ended inquiry, and our fundamental belief that smart, innovative, passionate people are the most essential force for progress, that the Durfee Foundation created the Stanton Fellowship Program in 2005.

Each year, the Stanton Fellowship provides six fellows with $100,000 each over a two-year period to tease out and test solutions to complex challenges in their field to improve the lives of people living in Los Angeles.

Fellows stay in their jobs, but take three months of leave time over the course of the two years to delve deeply into their Stanton issue. Fellows also meet regularly to share their work, learn from one another about their respective fields and projects, and discover more about Los Angeles.

Earlier this month, a decade after the first cohort of fellows completed their two-year terms, we released What If: Insights From a Decade of Philanthropic R&D.

The report outlines the benefits, learning, and success stories from the first 10 years of the Stanton Fellowship and provides a blueprint for how other organizations can foster open inquiry, leadership development, and cross-sector collaboration to advance big ideas and groundbreaking solutions.

We have seen a glimpse of what can be accomplished when extraordinary leaders are given the time, space, and resources to think deeply. We have also seen that when we invest in leaders, they invest back in their networks and that the peripheral vision they gain can shift the collective perspective, often yielding tremendous results.

Even a small percentage of overall philanthropic dollars invested in R&D could make a huge difference to progress in the social sector.

Read the report >>

Carrie Avery is president of the Durfee Foundation, a family foundation that seeks to adhere to the values of its founders, Dorothy Durfee Avery and R. Stanton Avery, by rewarding individual initiative and leadership. The majority of its grantmaking focuses on the Los Angeles region, where the foundation’s history lies, and where funding needs are great.


  1. Tom David

    Thanks for commissioning and sharing this report! It contains valuable lessons for anyone who is asking “what can foundations do best…regardless of their asset size?” An inspirational example of bold and creative thinking by all involved.

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