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How Foundations Can Assist Grassroots Movements Even Better...

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I was asked by co-author, Fred Setterberg, to read and review Grassroots Philanthropy Field Notes of a Maverick Grantmaker by Bill Somerville with Fred Setterberg.  I do not know either gentleman but accepted the request as I enjoy exposure to what people are talking and thinking about in philanthropy.

Somerville asks in Chapter 1, "Why isn't the American philanthropic sector doing a much better job?" He retains nearly 50 years of experience in the nonprofit sector, both as a nonprofit executive director, and as a founder and president of Philanthropic Ventures Foundation in Oakland. As they say in the philanthropic world, 'he's been on both sides'. The book is a quick easy read.

His response to his question is part empathy to the role and work that foundations play and do, and part suggestions based on experience.

As a fundraising professional who has not worked for a foundation, it is an interesting read. The book is a natural discussion and set of suggestions for those of us working for foundations. For those of us working for nonprofits, the book is an interesting peek inside the typical grantmaking machine (bureaucracy, process, politics, and even mindset).

Our grantmaking maverick, Somerville, makes grants by getting out of the office at least 30% of his work week, talking with and listening to people working on a given issue, lessening the paperwork to get the money where it's needed, embracing risk, focusing on ideas instead of problems, and taking initiative.

Getting out of the office is "continuing education as a grantmaker." He funds people, not proposals. "Grant" is a poor term. Philanthropy is investing. "Results is a "who" thing." All of these truths require getting out of the office to talk to people who are not necessarily the local 'star' of the philanthropic sector, but rather very good at working for the cause that they do. Excellent people are the "first requirement for any program that I am seriously considering funding."

Our communities need money quickly. Foundations lumber along, mostly encumbered by the grant cycle and its paperwork. Somerville suggests operational, staffing, grant application, and application review methods that lessen the paperwork and expedite getting the money where it's needed.

Foundations want to proceed cautiously but experience shows that leaps and bounds in any progress' cause occurs when leaders are willing to take risks. Foundations need to take more risks. Grants should be given to creative ideas, potential for high-yield impact, and thorough research and lasting relationships. Foundations may respond that this is what they do. But, Somerville asks, why haven't foundations really dug into universal health care, the erosion of Constitutional rights, or poverty? It is not easy to do so, politically. "Every success was a risk when it started."

Foundations should emphasize what they want to happen and how they will bring it to be, instead of being problem based. Foundations, today, are reactive; funding once an issue has reached critical mass.

Foundations who conduct studies to determine what needs exist in their communities, today, are letting the needs assessment become their work, instead of acting. Foundations, instead, should take initiative by convening the nonprofits working on a given cause.

His book is impassioned and speaks from experience. As a professional who's submitted hundreds of letters of inquiry, proposals, and attempted to approach each foundation as I've understood they want to be dealt with; I agree with what Somerville proposes. Foundations are bogged down by bureaucracy and process. I've often been amazed at the larger grant amounts that are given without anyone from the foundation visiting a nonprofit's office, let alone even talking with a nonprofit executive or board member. The process is the thing.

Somerville makes the point that foundation leaders are often sheltered, retaining job security as their employer has a huge endowment, and loathe to look at their organization with a critical eye. He urges that foundation leaders and staff get out of the office to find out for themselves what the cause really is, where the money is truly needed, ask questions, listen, and observe. He wants foundation staff to be less drone and more intuitive, open, risk takers. I like it.

The grassroots level of the nonprofit sector is full of passion, people trying to learn all of the 'how to's' of running a nonprofit, and they're the front line. They're holding the hand of the woman who just lost her home with her two children in tow. They're picking the litter up off of a once vibrant waterway that has been shunned, locally. Anything that can keep these front line soldiers going, and better yet, actually helping the cause - is worth a try.

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