I just finished reading Grassroots Philanthropy by Bill Somerville with Fred Setterberg and this post is a review. Bill Somerville is the CEO of a medium sized San Francisco based foundation, Philanthropic Ventures Foundation (PVF), and he is well known as an unconventional grantmaker. In this book he lays out his philosophy in detail, provides lots of anecdotes, and detailed guidance on how to implement his philosophy.
The book is well organized and it has a holistic, big picture yet focused on nitty gritty details at the same time feel about it. I guess you’ll have to read it yourself to really understand what I mean.
Bill starts with a simple definition of what philanthropy is – the stuff of dreams made practical and then goes into detail about what’s important for a foundation to do to make the most of its philanthropy. Here’s a few of his ideas:
•Find outstanding people doing important work (sparkers, igniters and burners)
•Embrace risk – Rely on your head and your heart. Use intuition and trust outstanding people
•Focus on ideas instead of problems – Commit to quiet time spent pondering what might be achieved coupled with vigorous ongoing relationships with outstanding people and organizations. The idea being to elevate grantmaking with a sense of hope and possibility.
•Move quickly and shred (or is that shed) paper – This is my favorite of Bill’s principles and this chapter is filled with great examples of how they do business at PVF. Empower staff to make decisions and grants and use being in the field rather than excessive paperwork to do your due diligence. You can make grants everyday – not just once or twice a year. Businesses have learned that today everything has to be done in shorter timeframes and the lifecycle of every decision must be reduced. Guess what grantmakers – its time to catch up!
Bill wraps up his book with “Seven Immodest Proposals” which incorporate the ideas presented throughout his book in a simple to do list. But my favorite new idea is his last – Link larger foundations with smaller community foundations to pursue grassroots philanthropy. I love this idea. One of Bill’s basic premises is the importance of being in the field and seeing the actual work being done. Large, national level foundations cannot really do this efficiently but they can partner with community foundations to strengthen the work of both groups. This is definitely an idea worth pursuing.
Grassroots Philanthropy really should be must reading for foundation Board and staff. In fact, I was interviewing Ross Danis at the Geraldine Dodge Foundation for a strategic plan before I started reading this book. We were discussing our mutual interest in Newark when he mentioned Grassroots Philanthropy and picked up a copy on his desk. Their Board had all read the book and they had a lengthy discussion about it. I must admit that this conversation motivated me to start reading as soon as it arrived in the mail and our conversation made me appreciate it more. The Dodge Foundation is highly regarded in NJ and it will be interesting to see locally how they adapt some new ideas.
Interestingly, even the Gates Foundation – yes the Gates Foundation - is adopting some of these principles too. I bet they read this book too. It recently announced grants of $100,000 to 104 scientists in 22 countries. The program called Grand Challenges Explorations had a two page, web based grant application with a turnaround time of about two months. They have 60 people who do the reviews without knowing the applicants and make the decisions. Up to six grantees will be eligible for $1 Million dollar grants based on their results. All levels of scientists are represented, including young investigators who never before have received a research grant. The Gates Foundation called this program high risk but acknowledged that some great science happens in small laboratories by previously unknown investigators.
I highly recommend this book. It is intellectually stimulating and challenging yet written in a down to earth style. It is a quick read at 127 pages. Published by Heyday Books.
Grassroots Philanthropy at Heyday Books Website