Grassroots Philanthropy: Fieldnotes of a maverick grantmaker (2008)

Book Review
Reviewed by:
Publishing information: 
Bill Somerville with Fred Setterberg Berkeley, CA: Heyday Books, Feb 2008. 144pp. Hard & paperback. ISBN 978-1597140843. $15

Foundations in the US have phenomenal wealth with assets in the billions. Grant-makers enjoy great freedom in deciding how this money is spent without answering to any regulator or shareholder and have the ability to take risks and innovate where others cannot intervene.  The author of this book - a maverick grant-maker as the title suggests - argues that this luxurious position is wasted.

Somerville, chief executive of Philanthropic Ventures, rejects the rarefied atmosphere of the funding world, preferring to be out in the community meeting people and learning how funds can be spent to improve local communities. He is focused on outcomes, but does not believe in giving fundees long prescriptive lists of key performance indicators. Instead he has a vision of a more just society where grant-makers are enablers rather than gatekeepers.

The author also argues that the lack of public criticism of philanthropic foundations is not a sign of success but rather due to fundees’ fear of biting the hand that feeds them. Somerville offers a scathing critique: philanthropic foundations are filled with untrained staff who focus on maintaining their endowment rather than tackling society’s problems; grant-makers are often perceived  as ‘arrogant’ rather than as collaborators in promoting social change; and when grant-makers venture outside their offices they talk to other funders rather than the recipients of their largesse.  Somerville therefore proposes a five-step programme to challenge foundations and reinvigorate grant-making. 

Principle 1: Fund people not paper. Potential funders usually insist on seeing copies of annual reports, development plans and grant applications but, as in business, it is the human capital which makes the difference to success or failure in a new venture.  Funders therefore need to go out into the field and meet the people who have passion to change lives, rather than the ability to write a funding bid.

Principle 2: Move quickly and shred paper. Somerville accuses foundations of emulating “the worst aspects of big government, with cumbersome regulations, endless forms and arcane bureaucratic procedures”. Many excellent smaller, volunteer-run, organisations are put off by complicated processes and the demands of potential funders inevitably diverts resources away from programmes. Exemplifying this approach, Somerville faxed flyers to 47,000 public school teachers in the San Francisco Bay area inviting them to bid for $500 to fund either a field trip or classroom equipment.  Applicants were asked to send no more than one page of information on school letterhead and have it co-signed by the head teacher.  The response was phenomenal because teachers and students were delighted by the simplicity of the process and four foundation staff were easily able to cope with all the requests. The donor, who originally committed £100,000 to the project, was so pleased with the results that he increased the funds available and this scheme has now distributed $3.5 million in ‘immediate response grants.’

Principle 3: Embrace risk. Somerville insists that successful grant making comes from taking risks and being prepared to get it wrong, yet grant-makers still overwhelmingly prefer safety and predictability. The author does not advocate taking risks for the sake of it, but says funders should assess the potential of unproven projects and take calculated risks based on the leadership, creativity and potential impact of potential recipients.  For example, Somerville once granted $10,000 to a local journalist to distribute amongst a Spanish-speaking community; the money was wisely used for many small but important projects such as creating a support circle for Spanish-speaking mothers at the local school.

Principle 4: Focus on ideas instead of problems. Grant-makers may not be able to solve all the world’s problems, but through creative thinking they can make it a better place to be. Spurred on by the plight of poor women, one donor suggested that $200 couldn’t solve their problems but could pay for a ‘day off’ and serve to recognise and value their contribution. Low-income women, nominated by headteachers, social workers and clergy, were given the opportunity to put themselves first for one day; some went to the movies alone, others had their hair and nails done, others just enjoyed a stroll by the beach. Visiting other funders, brainstorming with colleagues, and allowing imaginations to run unfettered can all aid the generation of such ideas.

Principle 5: Take the initiative. Funding is often reactive and passive, funders choose the problems they are interested in and then wait for applications to arrive. Somerville urges officers and trustees to be proactive, spend as much time as possible outside the office to assess need and meet the people who are helping to tackle problems in local communities.

In conclusion, this book is littered with useful examples from Somerville’s 40-year career and is a quick and easy read that contains much to challenge, inspire and energise even the most jaded grant-maker. Some UK funders are already attempting to reduce bureaucratic burdens by using shorter application forms, offering pre- and post-grant support and undertaking common monitoring.  However, there is much more to be done and grant-makers seeking to make the most of their funds to achieve common goals of a fairer, more just society would do well to recall Somerville’s principles which should ensure that grant-makers’ work remains exciting, inspired and fun.

Jacqueline Cassidy

Jacqueline Cassidy is Director of grant-making charity the Kent People’s Trust

This book review is tagged under:

  • Charity selection
  • Philanthropy stats & trends
  • Trusts & foundations
  • Understanding philanthropy