Paul Brest & Bill Somerville Mix It Up

Well, boy that was a lot of fun! The Forum went over great last night. The turn out was strong, Somerville & Brest responded to my request that they actually explore their differences and not just agree that both appraoches are needed. covered the Forum, so as soon as the video is edited I’ll be posting the entire event.

I solicited written questions for Bill and Paul and got so many that I only got to pose about 20% to them. So I told the audience that I would start posting some of the additional questions here on the blog and Bill and Paul agreed to answer at least some of them. Of course, I invite everyone to answer these questions.

The discussion ranged across a number of issues and Bill and Paul kept jumping in to give their two cents even when a question was only directed at one of them. As a reminder, Paul was advocting for the idea of strategy and Bill is much more interested in “locating outstanding people doing important work” and using “intuition” to decide whom to fund. This first question references strategy and so is directed at Paul. But the question also touches on how to source knowledge from the community and so Bill will have a strong perspective. This question comes from a member of the audience:

Given the value of strategy in philanthropy, who should be involved in developing strategy? How does the foundation seek and use diverse perspectives in formulating strategy? After all, foundation staff don’t have a corner on wisdom…

A lot of the conversation last night centered on the tension between creating a strong strategy and needing to trust grantees. So what is the answer to the audience member’s question? It’s a good  one.


  1. Dorian Adams says:

    Fantastic Forum: Great speakers, great crowd. Thank you!

  2. Paul Brest says:

    It is helpful to distinguish between strategies for an overall foundation initiative (e.g., reducing air pollution in the San Joaquin Valley) from strategies for the grants to particular organizations that may be aspects of the initiative (an environmental justice group working on one aspect of the problem).
    For a complex philanthropic initiative like this one, with many grants, the foundation must usually play an overarching role. The happy exception is when a foundation is fortunate to find a strong organization so aligned with its mission that it can make a general operating support grant (which is ideal from everyone’s point of view when missions are aligned). Here, the grantee organization develops strategies, the foundation examines them in the due diligence process and invests in the organization if it believes the strategies are robust and the organization has the capacity to implement them.
    When making grants for particular projects, who develops the strategy depends on what expertise the funder and grantee can contribute to the process. The grantee organization is always involved, but a foundation with experts on its staff may also have valuable knowledge to contribute. In the best of all worlds, strategies are co-constructed, with each party contributing what it has to offer.