Thursday, March 13, 2008

How Foundations Can Assist Grassroots Movements Even Better...

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.


David Stoker said...

I thought you might be interested in the work Ashoka ) is doing with their Citizen Base Initiative. I have been an intern with them the last couple months and have been able to digest the concept. One way of looking at it is that they partner with foundations to inspire independence and innovative resource mobilization among grassroots organizations. A foundation will partner with Ashoka to sponsor a competition surrounding innovative ways of income generation, mobilizing community in support, and creative marketing. They then award a salary to the organization for a staff member to implement the new strategy. The grassroot organizations are able free themselves from chronic dependence on grant money. Foundations are able to make a grant that will recycle, so to say, on its own, allowing them to move on and award a grant to another grassroot organization.

Examples of past winners are profiled on the website ( I think collectively they illustrate a radical change in the operations in the nonprofit sector.

Arlene M. Spencer said...

Thank you for sharing information about both Ashoka and Citizen Base Initiative. I was not aware of either organization, but this new philanthropy is an opportunity for the whole of the philanthropic world. Best, Arlene

Stefan Pasti said...

I discovered this “Seeking Grant Money Today…” blog in the process of searching for foundations which are actively seeking innovative solutions to the challenges ahead.

I am the founder and outreach coordinator for The Interfaith Peacebuilding and Community Revitalization (IPCR) Initiative ( I believe more and more people, in more and more parts of the world, are coming to the conclusion that all of us have important responsibilities associated with resolving a significant number of very serious challenges in the years ahead.

In June, 2008, I completed a 161 page proposal titled “1000Communities2” (“1000CommunitiesSquared”)(

This proposal has a lot of useful suggestions for people and foundations seeking to provide assistance at the local community and regional levels.

The “1000Communities2” proposal advocates organizing and implementing Community Visioning Initiatives in 1000 communities (communities—or segments of rural areas, towns, or cities—with populations of 50,000 or less) around the world

1. which are time-intensive, lasting even as much as 1½ years (18 months), so as to give as much importance to developing a close-knit community as it does to

a) accumulating and integrating the knowledge and skill sets necessary for the highest percentage of people to act wisely in response to challenges identified as priority challenges
b) helping people to deliberately channel their time, energy, and money into the creation of “ways of earning a living” which are directly related to resolving high priority challenges
c) assisting with outreach, partnership formation, and development of service capacity for a significant number of already existing (or forming) organizations, businesses, institutions, and government agencies
d) helping to build a high level of consensus for specific action plans, which will help inspire additional support from people, businesses, organizations, institutions, and government agencies with significant resources

2. which expand on the concept of “Community Teaching and Learning Centers” (created by the “Teachers Without Borders” organization) so that such local community points of entry function as information clearinghouses, meeting locations, educational centers for ongoing workshops (on a broad range of topics related to the Community Visioning Process, and building the local knowledge base), practice sites for developing “teacher-leaders”, a location for an ongoing “informal” “Community Journal”, a location for listing employment opportunities—and provide a means of responding quickly (by changing the emphasis of workshop content) to new urgencies as they arise

3. and which suggest—as a way of emphasizing the need for an exponential increase in compassion for our fellow human beings—that communities (with the resources to do so) enter into “sister community” relationships with communities in other countries where there has been well documented calls for assistance with basic human needs.

The Fall, 2008 issue of The IPCR Journal/Newsletter includes 3 essays describing the “1000Communities2” proposal. Another more detailed introduction to the proposal is titled “Transitioning from Less Solution-Oriented Employment to More Solution-Oriented Employment”, and can be accessed near the bottom of The IPCR Initiative homepage ( The contents of the “Current Educational Materials Outreach Package” is also at the bottom of The IPCR Initiative homepage, and features the document “The “1000Communities2” Proposal: Creating a Multiplier Effect of a Positive Nature”.

The Worldwatch Institute recently published an “Letter to the New Education Secretary” which outlines the potential of emphasizing education strategies as a response to the economic crises (

The “1000Communities2” proposal is one way of using innovative educational strategies to create a multiplier effect, which will both bring to light the local and regional appropriate solutions, and accelerate the transition to solution-oriented employment.

With Kind Regards,

Stefan Pasti, Founder and Outreach Coordinator
The IPCR Initiative