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East Bay Philanthropist Quick to Help Those in Need

BERKELEY (CBS SF) -- A Berkeley man has built a reputation for himself as a maverick grant maker and perhaps the fastest philanthropist around.

At the St. Francis Center, Sister Christina Heltsley serves a few thousand low-income residents a month in San Mateo County with food, housing, and youth programs.

And when they needed a laundry and shower room, she turned to Bill Somerville.

"Bill gets it. He goes, 'Yes, I understand that need. Let's work on that,'" Heltsley said.

Somerville founded the Philanthropic Ventures Foundation in 1991. The Oakland-based foundation receives donations mostly from private individuals and invests between 10 and 15 million dollars a year in grants.

And Somerville's made the process refreshingly speedy, simple and streamlined.

With his foundation, you won't find the bureaucracy typical of the grant process, or the long application forms that take months to process.

"That's the essence of good philanthropy, is trusting the people that you work with to do good things and not taking their time to fill out your applications," Somerville explained.


For three decades, he's given Bay Area teachers up to $500 for supplies.

He said, "It used to be called the fax grant program because all they had to do was fax us in a sheet of paper, and we would give them a grant in 48 hours.

Larry Purcell, founder and director of The Catholic Worker House, has known Bill for 40 years.

"Bill is only funder I've met who swims among the people of the community," Purcell said.

Somerville understood the need for a truck to pick up produce for distribution to low income families.

"Our food truck, the first of four in a row he supplied, eventually became the first food bank of San Mateo County," Purcell said.

Often, Somerville himself identifies a need. Just before the pandemic, he approached Purcell with an idea.

"I said, 'Larry, what would it be if I gave you $10,000 and you keep it in your pocket and give it out to people for rent when you need it?'" Somerville said.

LEARN MORE: Jefferson Awards for Public Service

The grant grew to $75,000 and helped keep people from going homeless in the pandemic.

"This is money that kept many, many families in their apartments," Purcell said. "People are crying when you give them this money."

The 90-year-old Berkeley native is hands on: Somerville's foundation helped to fund, and he helped paint the fence, at St. Francis Center's community garden.

And he and Heltsley collaborated to create an innovative school that serves 30 of the lowest income students, and teaches their immigrant parents English one day a week.

Heltsley is grateful for Somerville and his partnership.

"I would put Bill in the very, very top percentage of goodness in my life and the lives of other people," she said.

Before Philanthropic Ventures, Somerville served 17 years as executive director of what became the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

He's consulted with more than 400 community foundations in the U.S., Canada and Great Britain.

He taught philanthropy courses at Stanford University and Laney College.

He's also authored a book "Grassroots Philanthropy: Field Notes of a Maverick Grantmaker", to teach people his creative brand of grant making.

"It's a pleasure to be able to serve," Somerville said.

So for his streamlined, grassroots grant making process that meets his community needs, this week's Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Bill Somerville.


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