Bill Somerville: Simple Can Be Significant

Bill Somerville’s career as a maverick grantmaker spans 50 years in the nonprofit sector. He founded Philanthropic Ventures Foundation, which specializes in creative giving programs customized to donor’s interests. At this talk TEDx event, Bill shows us how philanthropic efforts can be nimble, responsive, and imaginative. Bill starts by describing how he rescued a teenager from drowning in his early years with a small puff of air. A puff of air can give life and that is the role of philanthropy – to puff life into the community. He calls it grassroots philanthropy.

The traits of grassroots philanthropy?

  1. Need to be there at the right time and to move quickly. Unfortunately, it takes on average 26 hours for nonprofits to fill out the paperwork for a grant and go through the process – and you might get a gift in the end.
  2. Simple can be significant. Small grants given quickly can have drastic impact. PVF has a “fax grant program” where teachers in the Bay Area can request a $500 grant for science equipment, art supplies, field trips, etc. for their class. The one page request is signed by the principal and then faxed to PVF. PVF issues a check to the school within 48 hours when it is approved.
  3. Find them and fund them. The secret to grassroots work is to find them and fund them. Anyone can do this, you do not need a foundation to do good. All you have to do is find people you trust and work with them.
  4. The beauty of grassroots work is the opportunity to manifest compassion. Bill believes that the local people know their community best. Grassroots work is about being in the community with the people. Many low income Spanish speaking families live in east Palo Alto. The teachers are not able to communicate and involve the parents. PVF supports several Spanish-speaking women who work with the principals, teachers and parents to support the children.


If Bill’s approach resonants with you, I recommend reading Bill’s book, Grassroots Philanthropy: Field Notes of a Maverick Grantmaker. I recommend this book to all those starting out in their philanthropic work.

You may also like several of our blog posts on Bill Somerville’s work:

25 Creative Philanthropy Practices

Bill Somerville Shares His Thoughts About Due Diligence

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