Quite possibly the Bay Area’s fastest philanthropist, Somerville gives away $5 million a year to fight poverty, granting each proposal he likes within 48 hours.
He calls it “paperless giving,” and he’s made it the hallmark of his Philanthropic Ventures Foundation in Oakland, as well as his mantra for transforming the way money flows in America from the rich to the poor. Charities typically must submit multi-page grant proposals and wait months, even years, for grants. With Somerville’s foundation, it’s just a talk, a handshake and a whole lot of trust.
Critics say the approach doesn’t work for large-scale, international poverty work. But Somerville is convinced he’s found a better path to giving.
“I’m trying to push the envelope of philanthropy – most foundations are paralyzed in bureaucracies of their own making,” he said recently, over a meal of meat loaf, curry pilaf and steamed vegetables at the St. Anthony of Padua soup kitchen in Menlo Park.
“I find good people and fund them,” he said, using a favorite Somerville-ism from his grab bag of catch-phrases.
He spent 17 years at the helm of the Peninsula Community Foundation (now the Silicon Valley Community Foundation) and has run Philanthropic Ventures for 17 years. At 76, Somerville has come to believe that charitable funding should be more about people and less about process.
Leveraging donations from wealthy Bay Area families who are familiar with his work, Somerville runs his three-person community foundation like a $10 million venture capital firm: taking risks to invest in bright nonprofit leaders and their startup charities.
When Larry Purcell of the Catholic Worker House in Redwood City needed a truck to take food to homeless families, he called Philanthropic Ventures and got a $40,000 check the next day.
Christina Heltsley was given money to build a shower for the homeless at the St. Francis Center in Redwood City.
“I’ve never written a proposal for Bill,” Heltsley said. “We go to lunch, we craft an idea, and if he likes it, we work on it together. His involvement makes a huge difference whether the program will succeed. I’ve had funders who have never set foot in my building, and it’s just not the same.”
Somerville’s main complaint about traditional, top-down community foundations is that they wait for the proposals to come to them instead of searching out innovative charities.
If grantmakers left their offices more, they’d build relationships with nonprofit leaders and discover programs to fund, rather than being passive and possibly missing some of the best chances to have the most philanthropic impact, he says.
Somerville practices what he preaches, using a method for finding people with deserving projects that is part investigative journalist, part door-to-door salesman, part documentary filmmaker Michael Moore.
He reads seven newspapers a day, chats people up in welfare lines, dines in soup kitchens, and spends time with those on the front lines of fighting hunger and homelessness. He befriends juvenile court justices and social workers, who tell him about the foster teens who need bus passes to get to summer school or the mother in a domestic violence shelter who needs a cell phone to contact her daughter.
Grants by fax
When a donor gave Philanthropic Ventures $100,000 to “help education,” Somerville sent a letter to 47,000 public school teachers asking them to fax him one-page, $500 requests for supplies and field trips. The “fax-grant” program was such a success it’s now a permanent fixture at Philanthropic Ventures and is also offered to social workers.
Somerville proudly wears the cape of philanthropic rabble-rouser, and enjoys publicly deriding larger community and private family foundations for moving too slowly.
“His approach makes sense for certain organizations that are smaller in scale,” Paul Brest, president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, said in a recent panel discussion on philanthropy with Somerville in San Francisco.
“But if you are granting $10 (million) or $20 million to improve the educational development in an entire country, you do need a strong evaluation process. Fax grants are not for the Gates Foundation that is trying to develop a vaccine,” he said.
Speeches and classes
Somerville happily disagrees, either in the pages of the new book he co-wrote with Oakland author Fred Setterberg, “Grassroots Philanthropy: Field Notes of a Maverick Grantmaker,” or in speeches at Rotary clubs, and in his philanthropy classes at Stanford, UC Berkeley and Laney College in Oakland.
“Philanthropy needs to invest in people, not programs,” he said. “I’m not interested in throwing money at problems.”
Not everything Somerville tries has worked out. There was the sculpture artist who took $2,000 to buy a stone, and ended up paying the rent instead.
“He was hard up and used the money for living expenses – that sticks out in my mind,” Somerville said.
Somerville has held many jobs – helping create the Equal Opportunity Program at UC Berkeley, teaching inmates at San Quentin State Prison to read – but now he feels he finally has hit his stride.
He beamed when a group of first-graders clung to his legs during a recent stop at Holy Family Academy in Redwood City, a school for 12 of the area’s poorest Latino children he started with $250,000 from a donor.
“Some of these students were living in garages and none could speak English when we started,” he said.
Within 18 months, they were testing in the 80th percentile on state standardized English tests, he said.
“I truly believe we have broken the cycle of poverty for these children.”
To learn more
For information on Philanthropic Ventures Foundation, go to:
E-mail Meredith May at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page B – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle
Friday, November 28, 2008