What If? The Winding River of Open-Ended Inquiry

As funders, we are expected to measure things: how many dollars given, how many grants distributed, how many organizations served, and what results from the funded dollars.  But what if we reconsidered our attachment to these metrics? What if instead of expecting a specific outcome, we pursued a promising hypothesis? While this might sound unusual to some philanthropists, this practice is both accepted and respected in fields like business and science—they call it Research and Development, or R&D.

The Durfee Foundation’s Stanton Fellowship began as an experiment in providing R&D support to social sector leaders. It was an offshoot from other investments we had made through our Sabbatical program to rejuvenate leaders and build organizational capacity. The experiment was successful beyond our expectations. Now in its 12th year, the program continues to yield many lessons about the potential of open-ended inquiry—lessons about trust, communication, taking calculated risks, and the power of cross-sector networks.

When urban planner Aaron Paley applied for the Durfee Foundation’s Stanton Fellowship, he identified the lack of civic engagement in public space in Los Angeles as a challenge he wanted to tackle. He had a hunch that the Los Angeles River might offer the perfect construct for a festival, connecting residents from the inland parts of the county, to the port in the south. And with that, a Stanton inquiry was born.

Few people even know that Los Angeles has a river because, for most of its 51-mile stretch, the irrigation channel is a dry, concrete ravine. Aaron spent his first year and a chunk of his two-year, $100,000 Stanton Fellowship traveling the world for inspiration. When he came back, he told us he needed to pull the plug on the fellowship because most of the successful river festivals were organized around rivers that actually had water in them.

Rather than let the project go, we advised Aaron to go back to the drawing board and encouraged him to think outside the box. Eventually, he found his way to Bogota, Colombia where he experienced Ciclovía—a weekly event in which 40 miles of roadway are blocked to cars for street vending and pedestrian traffic. A light bulb went off for Aaron—streets are an abundant resource in Los Angeles, and he could engage people directly on these rivers of tarmac!Four men on two boats in the ocean, looking through telescopes in different directions  

Aaron returned to LA and wrote a letter to then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who was intrigued along with a number of stakeholders who also saw a panoply of civic benefits in what Aaron proposed—CicLAvia, a periodic, roving event in which the streets were turned over to cyclists and pedestrians.

It’s been eight years since the first CicLAvia, and the project has taken off in ways we never imagined. Now a multi-million dollar venture and vital part of the city’s identity, CicLAvia exists in part because of the Stanton Fellowship’s investment in non-linear inquiry. When Aaron found himself in a cul de sac at the midpoint of his investigation, he was able to detour and forge his own path. Had Durfee made a more typical grant to Aaron, he’d likely have created the deliverable promised—a river festival—and it would likely have been chalked up as an “oh well” grantmaking failure, to be filed in the bottom of a drawer.

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, is what led to the inauguration of the Stanton Fellowship Program in 2005. Since then, we’ve engaged more than 40 leaders from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors to think deeply about complex challenges in Los Angeles. We recognize that it’s a David and Goliath proposition. There may not always be successes within two short years of a grant period, but we don’t prioritize problem-solving. Rather, what’s important to us is that they share what they’ve learned with others, so the city can move forward collectively, building on shared wisdom and knowledge.

The iterative nature of non-linear grantmaking offers productive surprises. Six years after Aaron Paley’s Stanton Fellowship, Omar Brownson of River LA became a Stanton Fellow. Omar took up the challenge of the LA River where Aaron left off, but from a different perspective. He focused on how to build trust and foster partnership among the multiple public and private stakeholders along its winding banks. Omar has made remarkable progress, from community planning with residents to working with famed architect Frank Gehry and the Army Corps of Engineers on a master plan for the hydrology of the river. We have no doubt that a future Stanton Fellow will pick up and place down another piece of the puzzle.

The challenges we face as a society are so nuanced and complex that we, as grantmakers, must make room for “what if” thinking. We should challenge our basic assumptions more often and allow ourselves to follow a winding path of inquiry rather than directing it. When we can follow a hunch and step away from the pressure to produce a known outcome, more creative avenues for groundbreaking solutions can emerge.

We encourage other funders to consider how a Research and Development approach could advance your foundation’s vision. Even those whose grantmaking strategies are driven by measurable outcomes might set aside a small slice of the grant portfolio for experimentation.  Adding some R&D funding to the contract of an established nonprofit partner, without requiring predetermined deliverables, might be a start, and could open the door to further discovery.

What could be possible if more funders allocated a portion of their budgets to support open inquiry and trusted in community leaders to find their own solutions? We can only imagine a social sector more stimulated by imagination, and a world of unprecedented solutions.

For more information about the Stanton Fellowship, including a mini-documentary about the project, please visit www.durfee.org. Get in touch with us if you would like more details on how we’ve made the case for the program among our stakeholders, the mechanics of running it, and what we’re learning today.  

About the author(s)

Executive Director,
The Durfee Foundation