Field Notes of a Maverick Grantmaker

Bill Somerville with Fred Setterberg

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Field Notes of a Maverick Grantmaker

Bill Somerville with Fred Setterberg
129 Pages (Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2008)

In his provocative new book, Bill Somerville, a veteran San Francisco Bay Area foundation executive, has little good to say about what he calls the slow-moving, bureaucratic internal processes of large private foundations. He also offers a solution to this bureaucracy, outlining how to make foundation grantmaking more responsive, intuitive, and effective. He bases his wisdom on the successes of the foundation he currently runs, the Philanthropic Ventures Foundation (PVF). PVF, now 17 years old, functions much like a community foundation except that it focuses less on permanent endowment creation and more on helping its donors make highly responsive, modest, and local grants.

In the first two chapters, Somerville describes his own path into foundation work and explains why people give. He uses the next chapters to prove his central argument: that hands-on “investing” in outstanding nonprofit leaders, including offering them unrestricted gifts they can allocate however they see fit, lies at the core of effective giving. He gives advice on how to find and back effective local leaders, move quickly to seize opportunities, embrace risk, focus on solutions rather than problems, and initiate and fund new projects.

Somerville also repeatedly cautions that arrogance and isolation can develop in foundations that obsess about paper, evaluation, and research. These activities, he argues, may stifle creativity, delay response time, consume charitable resources, and prohibit staff from getting out into the community.

True enough that any foundation should consider these observations. Yet the book leaves on the table an array of questions that will surely spark debate, especially among program staff.

For one, most PVF grants have been small; timely and creative yes, but small. In one project, for instance, 98 grants went to 69 libraries at an average of $468 each. Although these grants reportedly stimulated a wide array of diverse activities, Somerville doesn’t say how long the activities lasted – leaving readers to wonder whether larger collaborative grants would have made a greater impact. Then again, is lasting impact even the point of such small grants?

The issue of scale may also undermine the book’s assertion that one of the greatest services foundations could render would be to wade into the big, intractable national issues of universal health care, erosion of constitutional rights, and poverty. But simply employing a strategy of small, rifleshot grants may serve mainly to eclipse more important activities needed to solve these problems: advocacy, collaboration, and working on public policy for social change, all of which invariably require sustained and collaborative commitment.

A second issue raised by the book: whether, and how, good ideas and good leaders can regularly be leveraged to create long-term institutional solutions. One of PVF’s most enduring legacies, for instance, has been the creation of a fully staffed health care center at a poorly funded school in Oakland. The project involved seven funders. Yet this grant appears atypical of other PVF grants, most of which served as modest cash injections for critical onetime fixes.

Somerville also raises the question of best evaluation practices. When it comes to who should get a grant, he emphasizes intuition – “my gut feelings played a key role in each grant,” he writes. He bases his post-project evaluation on intuition, too, though here he also polls his grantees. But in an era of impact measurement and of foundations demanding evidence of program effectiveness, this approach can be problematic.

Lastly, Somerville’s readers will surely wonder whether a foundation staffer should play the role of (relatively) independent philanthropist. As the book makes clear, Somerville is a master of his art. His board and donors fully approve of his dual role, he reports, and the community nonprofits funded by PVF would surely join in the applause. But not all foundation staffers have his skills.

Of course, Somerville has not set out to debate alternative grantmaking methods. He means to passionately articulate a philosophy of giving, open insights into 30 years of successful leadership, and illuminate the simple ways to quickly give those most in need charitable dollars. And he does all that well.

Recent research by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University tells us that at most, 31 percent of all individual charitable giving in America goes to the poor and economically disadvantaged. Maybe the world could use a few more mavericks like Bill Somerville – people who devote their lives to finding good people with good ideas about how to create great communities.

Peter deCourcy Hero is senior adviser to Silicon Valley Community Foundation, a regional foundation created by the merger of the Peninsula Community Foundation and Community Foundation Silicon Valley. He spent 18 years as president of Community Foundation Silicon Valley.