Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - March 1, 2013

On Deadline: Bill Somerville stepping back (a bit) after a lifetime as a philanthropic revolutionary

by Jay Thorwaldson

Bill Somerville, who has spent more than a half century helping combat poverty through revolutionary approaches to philanthropy, is stepping back a bit from heading the Philanthropic Ventures Foundation he founded decades ago.

But he balks at calling his work "giving." He sees it as investing in people, finding dedicated individuals and funding their efforts in community programs, education and poverty-relief efforts.

On the Peninsula and in Silicon Valley he is perhaps best known for heading up the Peninsula Community Foundation for 17 years, which has poured millions of donated dollars into community-based programs. He was the first paid staff member of the foundation, which began as the San Mateo Foundation, and helped grow it into a multi-million-dollar operation.

Somerville's dedication to social causes and philanthropy dates to 1960, when he left a family printing business to work on race relations for the University of California, Berkeley, and later worked into philanthropy.

While the Philanthropic Ventures Foundation is based in rented offices in Oakland's Preservation Park, a huge amount of its funding — and Somerville's personal time — is spent in the Midpeninsula communities of Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, east Menlo Park and nearby communities.

Somerville, at a vigorous 83 years old, is turning over day-to-day CEO management to James Higa, who for nearly three decades was a key lieutenant of Steve Jobs at Apple Computer. Higa was literally involved in the birth of the personal-computer revolution and in the development of the Macintosh computers and other Apple products and services. He also has a history of public service, including spearheading international disaster-relief efforts and serving on the national advisory board for the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford University.

But Somerville will remain as president of Philanthropic Ventures Foundation's board of directors, which includes Colburn "Cole" Wilbur, longtime head of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Congresswoman Jackie Speier and attorney William Green of Palo Alto.

Yet within the philanthropic field, Somerville is known for his innovative and self-acknowledged "revolutionary" approaches to grant-making.

He is especially proud of a streamlined method of awarding grants. He calls it "paperless" grant-making — which means the foundation does whatever paperwork is needed, not the grant-seeker. This contrasts with what I once termed "the foundation dance" of requiring costly, detailed applications with multiple copies and lengthy review periods.

The average grant for the big foundations takes 27 hours of preparation, and on average it takes about seven months for a decision.

Somerville's foundation virtually guarantees an answer, even a check, within 48 hours. Another revolutionary approach Somerville takes is that he "invests in people," more than specific projects or programs. Trust is a huge factor.

Even the modest offices of the foundation contrast with huge buildings of some of the large foundations, including the venerable Hewlett Foundation and the new, block-square headquarters of the Packard Foundation in downtown Los Altos. Nationally, the Ford Foundation's building stands out as an example of monumental construction, headquarters for about $16.8 billion it has distributed in grants worldwide to "visionary" causes.

Philanthropy is huge, of "business" dimensions. Yet of the nearly $300 billion in philanthropy grants placed nationally each year only 14 percent comes from foundations. Another 5 percent comes from corporations — once equal to the amount from foundations.

That leaves 81 percent of philanthropy coming from individuals (8 percent from bequests), an astounding sum flowing to the estimated 1.6 million registered nonprofit organizations in America (in 2010), according to the San Francisco-based Foundation Center.

In the Bay Area alone there are an estimated 32,000 nonprofits and about 2,500 foundations. Those foundations account for more than half the total giving statewide and hold nearly half the assets of all California foundations — with about $45 billion in assets funding roughly $3 billion in grants annually.

No nation in the world matches the United States' volume of giving, although Britain and Canada both have community foundations similar to those in the United States.

Somerville is proud of that funding, but deeply dismayed by the cost, complexity and delay in the grant-application process — much of it likely stemming from fear of failure and lack of trust in the people applying for grants on the part of the grant evaluators working in the offices of the big foundations.

"If you're a young staff person the more paper you require the better it is for your job." And the average seven-month delay "is absurd. These sort of things, waiting and writing, that's not entrepreneurial; that's not taking a risk; that's not being on the cutting edge; that's not dealing with original ideas. It's very very conventional, and very sad."

Trust is Somerville's mantra guiding the awarding of thousands of modest-size grants to highly local people, grants that total in the millions over the years. The grants include a category he calls "public-sector funding," usually smaller grants awarded to public employees such as juvenile judges, social workers, librarians and teachers.

One judge asked simply for funds to buy teddy bears to give out to families completing an adoption process. Others use the funds for glasses, minor dental work or other things. A judge pointed out that judges couldn't receive grants. "So what we've done is set aside $10,000 for every juvenile judge in the Bay Area, and they can call on it and verify the need and we will make the decision to give the grant."

Teachers also get funding: "We now have what's called 'the Fax-Ma'am Program.' All teachers need to do is fax us a one-page letter for $500 for an excursion, science supplies, art supplies, professional training, and we give them a check within 48 hours.

"We do this with social workers who work with abused children. They can ask for things like when a girl (in foster care) wants to go to the prom and doesn't have a dress.

"We've given out millions of dollars this way so far, about eight million."

Small change in the big picture, but huge in terms of its impact on individuals and local communities, and a measure of Somerville's legacy.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com with a copy to jaythor@well.com. He also writes blogs posted on the Weekly's community website, www.PaloAltoOnline.com (below Town Square).

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