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Philanthropist Goes His Own Way To Find Causes

Publication Date: 
November 27, 2008
San Francisco Chronicle
Meredith May

Former Dean Paul Brest is quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle in an article about a different way of charitable giving:

When it comes to giving away money, Bill Somerville doesn't mess around.

Quite possibly the Bay Area's fastest philanthropist, Somerville gives away $5 million a year to fight poverty, granting each proposal he likes within 48 hours.

He calls it "paperless giving," and he's made it the hallmark of his Philanthropic Ventures Foundation in Oakland, as well as his mantra for transforming the way money flows in America from the rich to the poor. Charities typically must submit multi-page grant proposals and wait months, even years, for grants. With Somerville's foundation, it's just a talk, a handshake and a whole lot of trust.

Critics say the approach doesn't work for large-scale, international poverty work. But Somerville is convinced he's found a better path to giving.


"His approach makes sense for certain organizations that are smaller in scale," Paul Brest, president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, said in a recent panel discussion on philanthropy with Somerville in San Francisco.

"But if you are granting $10 (million) or $20 million to improve the educational development in an entire country, you do need a strong evaluation process. Fax grants are not for the Gates Foundation that is trying to develop a vaccine," he said.