Givers: Go Out and See For Yourselves

Givers: go out and see for yourselves

By Sean Stannard-Stockton

Published: May 31, 2008 (link to original Financial Times article)

I recently left behind my office, with its constantly ringing phone and glowing computer screens, to visit some of the non-profits funded by Philanthropic Ventures Foundation, a public charity founded and led by Bill Somerville.

As we stood in line at a soup kitchen in our dress slacks and collared shirts, the other men and women turned curious eyes our way. “I’ve brought people here in the past who worry that these people won’t want to be stared at,” Somerville said, “but as you can see, it is you and I who are the ones sticking out.”

A nationally recognised expert in creative grantmaking and author of the new book, Grassroots Philanthropy: Field Notes of a Maverick Grantmaker, Somerville has spent the past 17 years as the head of PVF. There he has replaced the bureaucratic shackles that hamper much foundation work with creativity.

Earlier that day, we went on a “field trip” to North Fair Oaks, an unincorporated area of San Mateo County mid-way between San Francisco and Silicon Valley where many newly arrived immigrants make their home. As we travelled from a new, privately funded school for immigrant children and their mothers, to a Catholic Workers house where a young family battling drug addiction had recently found refuge, we passed a seedy motel.

“I stayed there one night before an early morning trip to collect food for the soup kitchen,” Somerville told me. “By the time I woke in the morning the police were pounding on the door trying to figure out why I was staying there!”

In Somerville, I found a risk-taking, venture philanthropist fused with a roll-up-his-sleeves social worker. The mixture is a philanthropic force of nature.

In Grassroots Philanthropy, Somerville describes in engaging prose how to be an effective philanthropist. With no agenda other than his need to set things right in the world, he lays out a series of principles that can be adopted by both endowed national foundations and those with lesser means, providing they have an urge to use their wealth to improve the world.

Recently, a lot of effort in the philanthropic world has gone towards analyzing non-profits via an examination of their financial results. By separating how much an organization spends on “overhead” versus “programs”, some people hope to identify the non-profits that most deserve funding.

But Somerville never discusses this concept in his book. Instead, he urges readers to “locate outstanding people doing important work”. To accomplish this, he suggests visiting non-profits to evaluate the people working there. Every community has people who accomplish amazing social missions on limited funding. Just as mutual fund manager Peter Lynch once told individual investors they had an edge over Wall Street in knowing what products were the hot new thing, it seems to me that individual donors have an edge over foundations in knowing who the outstanding people are in their community. To remedy this, Somerville suggests that foundation program officers should spend at least 30 per cent of their time away from their offices getting to know the people they are interested in funding.

Individual donors who are used to writing checks in response to a fundraiser’s appeal may not realise that many foundations take six to nine months to respond to a grant request. In the chapter asking donors to approach grantmaking with “speed and grace”, Somerville admits an “intense aversion to pointless paperwork” and tells the story of PVF’s “fax grant” program.

When a donor gave the foundation $100,000 and asked it to tackle California’s education problems, Somerville knew that the amount of the grant could not address the large structural issues behind the state’s education woes. But he could help teachers pay for much-needed supplies and field trips. Thus was born the foundation’s “immediate response” grantmaking program whereby teachers could fax in requests for funding to buy such things as science equipment, make-up for the theater department, or funds to take students to the zoo.

By responding to requests in a shockingly short 24-hour timeframe, the foundation was able to deliver money directly into the hands of the people responsible for educating our children. To date, PVF has given out $3.5m in immediate response grants.

“Take risks. Move quickly. Get out of the office and into the field.” The philanthropy practiced by Somerville is energizing, creative and clearly effective to anyone who spends a day visiting the people he funds. In a philanthropic world being revolutionized by new approaches to giving, Somerville is both a throwback to simpler times and a leap forward towards high-impact, efficient giving that embraces imagination and risk-taking.

The writer is a principal and director of tactical philanthropy at Ensemble Capital Management and author of the blog