Grassroots Philanthropy: Field Notes of a Maverick Grantmaker

Bill Somerville's loving and critical perspective on grantmaking, his profession of thirty-three years, is summed up nicely by the full title of this small book. "Grassroots," "field notes," and "maverick" set the stage for what follows: something between a primer for new, unspoiled foundation staff and a challenge to old-hand practitioners of the status quo. Fred Setterberg has shaped Somerville's passion into an easy, cheerily provocative read.

Somerville cuts right to the chase. He believes foundations are not living up to their potential as "a lever to move the world" despite few constraints and vast resources; indeed, they avoid funding the best ideas and projects out of inertia and fear of failure. Hoping to see that paradigm changed, he urges foundations to transform themselves and society by connecting to the grassroots: community-based organizations run by dedicated, activist, visionary leaders. His own experience, and the approach of the organization he founded, Philanthropic Ventures Foundation, is the "how-to," presented through the lens of his encounters with inspiring people and descriptions of effective programs.

Somerville clearly relishes the role of provocateur, perhaps to the point of overstating his case: he characterizes foundations in general as plodding and bureaucratic, their staffs out of touch and uninformed. The PVF model, by comparison, is "bolder and braver." In reality, of course, not all foundations are "prisoners of the grant cycle," and what Somerville recommends is simply sensible grantmaking and responsible stewardship (about which more below). But the contrast is useful as illustration and the field can always benefit from a little shaking up. Since not many grantees or practitioners will risk the possibility of a grant by criticizing foundations directly, that criticism must come from within the field, and Somerville is a special asset in that regard.

Somerville began his career as a social activist while a graduate student in criminology at UC Berkeley, organizing other students as volunteer tutors in the public schools. After graduation, he worked for nonprofits working to address "children's welfare, race relations, prisoner rehabilitation, job development, and other issues linked to the quest for social justice." Fundraising for those programs brought him into contact with foundation staff who were unresponsive and aloof. When he joined the staff of the San Mateo Foundation fourteen years later, he vowed to be different. There, and later as the founder of the Peninsula Community Foundation of San Mateo County (now part of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation), Somerville developed distinct ideas about grantmaking that led him to create the Oakland-based Philanthropic Ventures Foundation (PVF) in 1991.

A public charity, PVF's mission is to be "a demonstration foundation, initiating and demonstrating new forms of grantmaking focused on creativity, responsiveness, and community involvement." The organization's 2006 Form 990 and annual report (the most recent available), as well as the account provided in Grassroots Philanthropy, paint a picture of an organization with a lean structure and an active grantmaking program. With only $12 million in assets, PVF made eight hundred grants and allocations in 2006, totaling some $5 million; donor-advised grants accounted for about $2 million of that. Half the grants were $1,000 or less, many to individuals and scholarship programs, reflecting both Somerville's belief in funding "people, not proposals" as well as his conviction that "the best-timed grants usually don't involve a great deal of money." Regardless of how a foundation defines "small grants," says Somerville, they should be made at the discretion of staff, permitting a quick turnaround: forty-eight hours is ideal.

In the PVF model these small grants go to community leaders whom foundation staff has personally identified — he recommends that program staff spend a third of their time out in the community learning about local issues and getting to know its leaders — or are made through a PVF program for direct service professionals. The latter program includes donations of several hundred dollars to teachers, social workers, and juvenile court personnel, where a minor purchase can make a great difference in the lives of students and other young people.

The core of Somerville's philosophy of grantmaking, however, is an emphasis on identifying the effective leaders in a community and learning whom to trust. Knowing and trusting the right people, which comes from spending time in the community, enables foundation staff to stay abreast of community issues and needs. Confidence in those leaders, in turn, eliminates the need for lengthy proposals and months of review, resulting in less administrative work and more timely grants. Which means staff can spend more time in the community.

Somerville also encourages risk-taking, noting that because of their autonomy foundations are uniquely positioned to fund experimental, innovative, and sometimes controversial projects. Too often, however, staff "confuse bold action with recklessness" or stick with the safe project at the mainstream organization. In fact, Somerville believes much of the bureaucratic review process exists because of "terror at the possibility of making a mistake."

Along the way, he offers several suggestions to reduce paperwork and proposal review time. Many of the small grants awarded by his organization are based on a one-page application that PVF staff can formally approve on the spot. His other suggestions include identifying turn-downs quickly and getting them out of the system; and converting all communications, internal as well as external, into electronic formats.

I especially liked his admonition to foundations to "wade out into the great sea of critical issues" such as universal health care, poverty, and the erosion of constitutional rights in our society. Some, of course, already do; more certainly could. Large, complex issues like these can't be tackled only through small grants or direct assistance, however, and I wondered how Somerville would apply his community-centric vision to a challenge as enormous as climate change.

Grassroots Philanthropy is a "how-to" for staff at existing foundations and the new ones to come. But the tips and examples, while applicable to grantmaking in general (who wouldn't like to streamline the process?), are measures selected to support Somerville's vision: that effective philanthropy means getting to the heart of a community and supporting the creative ideas that reside there. This is a dynamic model for grantmaking in the twenty-first century, with its peculiar issues and as-yet-unimaginable technological changes; a model in which people and projects interact, influence, and add up to more than their constituent parts.

Kathryn Pyle
Washington, District of Columbia