Voice of The City: The benefits of a solid foundation

With some schools opening in just a week, it’s nice to know the kids can have something to look forward to this year — reduced academic courses, cuts in athletic programs and lingering budget problems.

That’s why it’s refreshing that some people are trying their best to make adjustments in an ever-changing world — the kind that give students,  teachers and community leaders the tools they need to do their jobs without waiting for the wheels of bureaucracy to grind to their customary halt.

Or, as longtime philanthropist Bill Somerville likes to say: “People always talk about thinking outside the box. Whoever came up with the idea that you needed a box?”

Somerville is the founder of Philanthropic Ventures Foundation, a nonprofit that is widely recognized for grassroots initiatives designed to get necessary grants to community groups — and to do so in a hurry. As hard to believe as it is, that concept goes against the grain of most philanthropic ventures, which seem to take months or years to assess, and then actually fund, worthy programs.

That’s not the case with Somerville’s organization, and why he is considered a maverick among grant-givers. His foundation provides its funding to groups within 48 hours of their applications, for the simple reason, according to Somerville, “that the quicker you give the money, the more impact it has.”

This past year, the PVF came up with some innovative ways to address budget-battered schools, including two new grant programs for San Francisco — one designed to target cuts in sports programs and another that steers low-income students to funding for everything from music classes to outdoor education programs.

Simple ideas can net simple pleasures. One student at Everett Middle School was able to get a new skateboard and money for a skateboard camp through the grant program. Another third-grader at Jose Ortega Elementary School was given money to attend a summer camp — after a student adviser filled out the application for the funding.

And education is the key here, because Somerville has spent his life trying to get other philanthropic agencies to understand that giving away money should not be a bureaucratic adventure involving drowning in paper, but a hands-on attempt to give grants to people who need them in a hurry.

It may be easier for a modest-sized foundation like Somerville’s to respond more quickly — with about $11 million in assets, Philanthropic Ventures is the quintessential picture of a community grants organization. Still, the contrast between PVF and philanthropic behemoths — such as San Francisco’s Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, which has more than $5 billion — is all the greater when you consider that the Moore Foundation has made a name for itself among community nonprofits for being distant and often nonresponsive to direct needs.

“Most of the big foundations today paralyze themselves in their own bureaucracy,” the ebullient Somerville said. “They’re like a big battleship trying to turn around, and we’re like a little water scooter.”

Oakland-based PVF opened in 1991 and has distributed more than $50 million in grants, gaining a national reputation for its quicksilver returns on grant proposals. Somerville, whose name may sound familiar because his son Frank is the new nighttime news anchor at KTVU, has termed the concept “paperless grants.”

And there’s probably a good reason that his latest book, “Grassroots Philanthropy: Notes of a Maverick Grantmaker,” is inching up on the Amazon charts — his philosophy works. PVF pioneered the idea of instant relief during natural disasters, immediately dispensing up to $25,000 to 10 local agencies providing emergency food and shelter services. (Think of the Federal Emergency Management Agency during Hurricane Katrina to get the extreme opposite model.)

The foundation also started a Juvenile Judges Program in San Francisco and six other Bay Area counties to provide immediate grants to youths in the foster-care system — as identified and administered by juvenile-court judges who handle the cases. The funding has been used for everything from a bus pass for a teen in foster care to a $500 award for a high school junior to go on a tour of black colleges.

That may not be as glamorous as, say, spending millions trying to save the South American rainforests, but tell that to the teachers and families who are trying to improve students’ lives, one day at a time.

Another fairly novel aspect of the organization’s process is that it directs a lot of grant money specifically for projects and programs found by its donors, many of whom provide funding anonymously. One San Francisco lawyer recently gave $50,000 to the foundation to help obese kids.

“Philanthropy needs to answer to a higher calling,” Somerville said. “You’ve got to find people you trust and fund them.”

It certainly helps when foundations recognize the need for speed. 

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