An Evaluation Contrarian at GEO

Tactical Philanthropy is currently covering the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conference with the help of a blog team. This is a guest post by Carrie Avery of the Durfee Foundation.

By Carrie Avery

image In early 2009, Kathleen Enright, President and CEO of GEO, called to ask if I would chair the planning committee for the 2010 conference.  My first thought was — why is Kathleen asking me?  I do not fit the profile of the typical GEO person.  I am a family member trustee of a small family foundation that focuses its grantmaking regionally, in Los Angeles.  I do not hold a Ph.d in sociology, nor am I the CEO of a multi-billion dollar global foundation — my jobs prior to philanthropy were lawyer and baker (that’s baker, as in scone, not banker, as in IMF.) 

Further, the Durfee Foundation has been something of a contrarian about evaluation during its 50-year history.  Our mission statement says, "We make grants that may be hard to measure or not measurable for many years."  Our board sits comfortably with uncertainties about whether our grantmaking works, and understands that results often take years to reveal themselves fully.  This is especially true for the type of grantmaking that we do, which includes sabbaticals for nonprofit leaders, quick turnaround funding for individual artists, and fellowships for cross-sector leaders working on L.A.’s intractable problems.  This is not to say that we are flat-earth evaluation deniers; we do seek to evaluate our grantmaking in ways that are meaningful to our work.  This is where GEO comes in. 

GEO has been a strong partner for our foundation, one that has pushed us to think about the way we do things and to strive to do them better.  It was at a GEO gathering for funders working on "Strategies to Sustain Seasoned Nonprofit Leaders" that the idea was born to band together with other funders of sabbatical programs to do a meta-evaluation of five programs and learn together.  The resulting 2010 report, Creative Disruption: Sabbaticals for Capacity Development and Leadership Development in the Nonprofit Sector would not have happened if GEO had not done what it does best — bring people together to share knowledge.  (We’re presenting a session on Creative Disruption on Tuesday afternoon at the conference.)

I have been to two previous GEO conferences:  Atlanta in 2006 and San Francisco in 2008.  Probably like you, I have attended a lot of philanthropy conferences.  The GEO conferences stand out because sometimes we learn most from those who are not just like us.  Even though I’m not a health funder, I have referred to the lessons about Positive Deviance from the Atlanta conference numerous times.  Chip Heath’s "Made to Stick" presentation in San Francisco — well, it stuck with me.  Even beyond the speakers and presentations, the in-the-hallway conversations at the GEO conference are much more stimulating than the usual.


  1. Prem Durairaj says:

    I found Carrie’s post insightful because it not only recognized the value of evaluating grants and understanding the benefits of this money towards a social return, it also brought to light the idea of looking at completely different non-profit agencies in how they are run. This provided a broader understanding to her, and should provide somewhat of a benchmark for her organization’s future grant evaluations.

  2. Hi Carrie,

    It has been some time since we worked together through NCG. Funny, I don’t remember you as being a “contrarian” as you self label, but someone with a healthy perspective and relevant questions.

    I found your post refreshing as it is easy to forget that evaluation, in all its various configurations, is not fully embraced by all. It is a relatively young discipline particularly in its application to the real world of social inequities.

    So, I hope you will continue to be “in question.” It will keep us all on our toes.