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Meet Claire Peeps of Durfee Foundation

Today we’d like to introduce you to Claire Peeps.

Claire, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I fell into the wonderful but odd world of philanthropy. I never expected to end up here, but am wildly grateful for the opportunity.

Where to begin? I was born in Canada to British parents who left the UK after WWII for a new start. We moved to Minnesota when I was little, where I grew up before heading west for college in California. Though I never returned to live there, my midwest roots are deep. 🙂

I studied the humanities and got a graduate degree in photography and printmaking. I planned a life as a working artist before I fell into a job working for Ansel Adams at the Friends of Photography in Carmel, CA. (Falling into thing has worked for me, and is as satisfying a career path as any I’d recommend).

After Ansel passed, I moved to Los Angeles. Still, in my 20s, I was hungry to be in a culturally vibrant, diverse, urban center. I found it! I fell (again) into a job as the executive director of Astro Artz and publisher of High-Performance Magazine. It was the perfect entry to LA — I went everywhere, from late night dance performances under the 1st St. bridge downtown to the Watts Towers Day of the Drum Festival to poetry readings in Topanga. I was at cultural events most nights and every weekend and got to know the city like the back of my hand.

When theater director Peter Sellars came to LA to take over the LA Festival, he asked me to join the artistic staff. As a newcomer to LA, he needed someone who knew the local artistic landscape, and I was in luck. I helped Peter and colleagues produce two citywide festivals, in 1990 and 1993. We brought aboriginal dancers from the Mornington Islands of Australia to LA, and itinerant theater artists from Thailand, shamans from Korea, and dancers from the islands of Wallis and Futuna. For 16 days, they performed alongside LA artists in public parks throughout the city.

Most of the events were free and invited people to explore the city — and culture — in ways, they hadn’t before. That experience was formative for me. It first time I felt that work in the arts mattered, that art intersected with the larger world, and it was deeply satisfying. Even though I’m trained in the arts, I’ve never felt at home in the rarefied world of art galleries, and so the LA Festival experience of connecting neighborhoods through arts and culture felt like the missing puzzle piece.

After two festivals, I fell (of course) into my current job at the Durfee Foundation. I thought it would be a two-year gig, but after 21 years, I am still here. Durfee has offered me the privilege of a lifetime to illuminate and support creative changemakers and progressive innovators in LA. Durfee is a small family foundation that provides grants to nonprofit organizations to support leaders and new ventures in LA, all with the goal of making LA a better place. We say we seek to support magnificent people who set out to change the world — and actually do!

I have been blessed to work with leaders like Steve LePore, who founded both My Friends Place (a center for runaway youth) and 1in6 (a support organization for men who were abused as boys) and Rick Nahmias, founder of Food Forward, an organization that recovers and distributes fresh produce to the hungry. Durfee fellowships have helped to launched such ventures as CicLAvia, Jobs to Move America and Climate Resolve, and have supported dozens of others from start-ups to established, like LURN, LA Más and Lost Angels Childrens’ Project, to Peace Over Violence and Homeboy Industries.

With more than 100 nonprofit organizations in the Durfee family, Durfee has gradually been building a cross-sector leadership platform for LA. We are fortunate to have so many brilliant, dedicated, selfless social sector leaders in LA — and I am wildly fortunate to work for a charitable foundation that supports them.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
Well, there are personal struggles and professional ones. Our kids grow up, and parents pass. Breast cancer set me back 11 years ago, but I’m still here, and it turned me into a marathon runner (well, more of a jogger, but it changed my life). Spinal surgery a couple of years ago set me back again, but now my daughter has outpaced me and has qualified (more than once) for Boston. So we’re still running.

The professional struggles are secondary. Because Durfee is funded through an endowment, our work is remarkably stable in a highly unstable world, and removed from the high-stress, front-line service work of our colleagues in the trenches of, say, homeless services, domestic violence, immigration or criminal justice reform. I have been ridiculously privileged by Durfee’s circumstances.

To the extent that there have been professional struggles, they have been in trying to be swim upstream at times against trends in philanthropy. Durfee is not especially driven by measurable outcomes, but more inclined to tinker and follow intuition on issues we see up close among our fellows, like burnout in the nonprofit sector, and leaders’ need for rejuvenation. Because we are a small foundation in the larger scheme of things, and our scale dwarfed by others, it takes a lot for our work to gain traction in the philanthropic landscape — but I think we’ve made modest progress.

So let’s switch gears a bit and go into the Durfee Foundation story. Tell us more about the business.
The Durfee Foundation is animated by the can-do spirit of founders Stan and Dorothy Durfee Avery. They created the first commercially feasible self-adhesive label and founded the Fortune 500 Company known today as Avery Dennison.

Before Stan became a successful inventor and business leader, he was an adventurer whose travels to revolutionary China made a lasting impact, and a tinkerer whose youthful experience with a printing press led to his now-ubiquitous invention. Stan recognized the potential of his idea but needed capital to start a business. Dorothy, his new bride, kickstarted the family business with a $50 bank loan, using as collateral the Model A Ford she paid for with her earnings as a school teacher.

Stan and Dorothy started the foundation in 1960.

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

We build partnerships with individuals and institutions that share our ideals of creativity, risk-taking, fiscal care, integrity, entrepreneurial spirit and continuous learning. We seek to build community in unexpected ways. We make grants where our dollars will have the greatest impact. We hope that Durfee funds provide leverage for other opportunities.

Durfee is a patient grantmaker. We are willing to make grants where the outcome may be hard to measure or not measurable for many years. Above all, Durfee’s focus is on extraordinary people who are making a better Los Angeles.

We believe that the Durfee Foundation’s impact cannot be measured solely by the amount of money it gives away—how we work and what we bring to our community beyond grant dollars are just as important. Durfee is a patient grantmaker and seeks to be a trusting partner. We believe that meaningful, lasting change isn’t always easy to measure in a chart and certainly doesn’t happen overnight. We select grantees with great care and attention, we offer them guidance and support, then we let them get to work. We are deeply committed to the success of our grantees, partners, and LA. We provide about $2.5 million in grants in grants to nonprofits in LA County each year.

We are probably best known for our Sabbatical Program, which has been replicated by several other foundations around the country, and for our Stanton Fellowship Program.

The Sabbatical program provides rejuvenation and capacity building to LA nonprofits by giving the leader a three-month, restorative leave from the workplace (no phone or email contact, or work-related activity of any kind), while allowing the rest of the staff the opportunity for professional development by stepping up to the plate to run the organization during the leader’s leave. The Stanton Fellowship is an R&D program. It provides $100,000 each to a cohort of six fellows to test a hunch about where a solution may lie to a problem that faces the future of LA. We look for leaders, in the nonprofit, public and private sectors, who are the deepest knowledge, highly networked leaders on a topic, and who are best positioned to tease out a solution to a problem, given the time and resources.

I think we are most proud of bringing attention to the idea that individuals fuel the nonprofit sector. We believe that they are our most valuable resource and that it is in our collective best interest that they be nurtured and sustained.

It is people, at the end of the day, who make a change. Yes, it takes money and strategy, buildings, infrastructure, and political will. But it is leaders who take up a cause and stoke and ember into a blaze. We are committed to those who tend the flame. Because they are here, we are hopeful for our future.

Has luck played a meaningful role in your life and business?
Everything. Luck, fortune, fate — whatever you want to call it. So much is given to us…

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