The Liberating Power of Discretionary Giving

By: Bill Somerville, President and CEO


Philanthropic Ventures Foundation (PVF) is known for giving discretionary grants, meaning the recipients can spend the money at their discretion to run their programs. This implies that we know and trust the recipient, and it gets away from all the details usually required by foundations. When we know the program and admire the leadership and their work, we are eager to give support.


It has come to be that the average time to apply to a foundation for a grant is 26 hours. We think this is unnecessary and does not honor the program leader to continue his/her good work. Of course, we have discussed the program work with the leader. We have made site visits to see the work for ourselves and have gotten to know the leaders. Why then require 26 hours of filling in forms?

Bill Somerville and Josh Griffth, Principal of Fair Oaks Community School.
(Photo by Martin Klimek)  


There are also general support and operating support grants. A discretionary grant covers both of these, but allows the recipient complete latitude in using the money where it is needed most. There are a lot of nonprofit leaders doing outstanding work, and we feel that flexible funding should facilitate these people. We often give discretionary grants to public school principals, which allows them to work outside of their tight budget. Principals use this funding for a range of needs, from supporting individual students to motivational activities for staff.  


One such principal is Josh Griffith of Fair Oaks Community School, an elementary school in the low-income unincorporated area next to Redwood City. We offered Principal Griffith a discretionary grant to use as he sees fit.  Since receiving this funding, he helped an unemployed father cover the rent to keep his three children off the street, provided monetary assistance to help a battered mother find a safe living environment for her two children, and purchased eyeglasses for two students to be able to properly access curriculum. Principal Griffith told us: "This money has been able to help so many overcome odds that are debilitating, but are of paramount importance to the survival of my families." 


He is also partnering with Second Harvest Food Bank to make Fair Oaks Community School a food distribution site that students and their families can easily access. Through this funding, Principal Griffith is helping his students' families eat, stay clothed, and be housed together safely. Principal Griffith is a community resource able to make things better for his students and parents.


The many faces of Fair Oaks Community School.
(Photos by Martin Klimek)


The Transformative Impact of Discretionary
Giving in East Palo Alto

Virginia, who serves food to the staff at Tesla Motors, fell behind on her rent one month, and as a result her landlord tried to force her and her children out of their East Palo Alto apartment. Her situation is not uncommon; many East Palo Alto residents struggle to stay afloat in a sea of Silicon Valley wealth.
PVF's Bill Somerville and Community Legal Service of EPA's Phil Hwang. (Photo by Craig Sherod)


Fortunately, Virginia has an advocate to help her challenge evictions and stay in her home: Community Legal Services of East Palo Alto. Equipped with a team of dedicated lawyers, they provide legal services for immigrant families and youth, the formerly incarcerated, and residents in jeopardy of being evicted. These legal services range from weekly classes aimed at educating people on their rights to panels that provide career advice to Latino immigrants.    


Read more on our blog!

About PVF
PVF is a demonstration foundation practicing unique forms of grantmaking and innovative philanthropy. Our primary interest is in the creative and significant use of the philanthropic dollar.
About the Editors
James Higa
Executive Director
Bill Somerville

James Higa brings 28 years of executive experience from Silicon Valley, working with Steve Jobs to change the face of technology. He was at the birth of the personal computer revolution as a member of the original Macintosh team and was deeply involved in the creation of many products and services at Apple over 3 decades. He has a long history of public service as a board member of Stanford's Haas Center and in grassroots relief efforts.
Bill Somerville has been in non-profit and philanthropic work for 50 years. He was the director of a community foundation for 17 years, and in 1991 founded Philanthropic Ventures Foundation where he serves as President. Bill has consulted at over 400 community foundations, on creative grantmaking and foundation operations. Bill is the author of Grassroots Philanthropy: Field Notes of a Maverick Grantmaker.