Guest post by Shannon Burns, who served as a PVF intern in November/December 2010
It’s official. I have entered the “Odyssey Years.” David Brooks penned this term for the emerging stage in my generation’s human development as, “the decade of wandering that frequently occurs between adolescence and adulthood,” when we are desperately trying to cross that bridge between financial dependence and independence, and ideally, find our calling in a fulfilling career. Graduating from college with a broad degree in the social sciences, a classic English major, leaves me without a clear trajectory for my future. Recently I met Bill Somerville, and the rut of my quarter-life crisis took a new direction. With the recommendation from a mutual, dear friend, Bill took me on as his intern at Philanthropic Ventures Foundation to welcome me into the world of philanthropy where I would see firsthand how charitable business, unconventional and utterly inspiring, is done.
In the last month I have been conducting site visits to several organization under Bill’s radar to witness and partake in community programs that are working to combat poverty and its effects. From day one, Bill and his staff of two welcomed me into his office, showed me the calendar open on his desk, and went through all the meetings and appointments he had that week. He invited me to any I wished to attend. His schedule is an open book. From here Bill prepped me in taking on an investigative mentality that seeks to get a good sense of what each organization is trying to do, how effectively they are meeting their mission, and what needs could enhance their outreach, and most importantly, who is doing the work. Contrary to the way most foundations and donors invest funds, Bill decides how to allocate and fill requests based primarily on the people, rather than the programs or the words in a convoluted grant proposal. Vision, dedication, and heart are selling points at Philanthropic Ventures Foundation.
On this quest for passion and compassion, Bill emphasized an approach of “appreciative inquiry.” As someone representing other people’s money, it can become easy to want to make sure any donation is used in the way you or a donor advises; however, in Bill’s fifty years of non-profit work, he has learned that those on the ground doing good work usually know where their money can best be utilized. As soon as you start to attach strings to these funds, the recipients are stifled in their approach and their outreach. Appreciative inquiry, then, is a genuine desire to simply know and partake in the programs already set in place, get a real feel for what is going on, and envision the future potential of an organization without writing prescriptions or offering unsolicited criticism. PVF’s philosophy holds that people in good programs know best how to serve their population, and this directly translates in Bill’s model of giving. when asking for grant proposals, Bill wants a “full-rich description” of the grantee’s works and dreams, rather than a fill-in-the blank novel of facts and figures. This is not another detached, bureaucratic, monetary process. This is a simple, emotional means of instant giving to those who really need and use it wisely, most of the time. There are risks with this kind of trust, but the rewards are high for the recipients and supporters alike. Considered overly trusting and risky in the traditional foundation world, Philanthropic Ventures is pioneering a genuine, human way of giving.
With this orientation, I embarked on my own investigations to test this approach. My site visits gave me an interactive “full-rich description” of neighborhoods and needs unfamiliar to me, yet as close as a few blocks from my home. Immigration, education, food, shelter, crime, health and safety were all issues being addressed wholeheartedly. Sister Maureen at the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant, across the street from the UC Berkeley campus, provides legal services and asylum to some of the most indigent and vulnerable members of the Bay Area community. Operating in a carpeted, basement-like space beneath Saint John’s Presbyterian Church, attorneys, refugee rights advocates, and volunteer Berkeley law students have inventively constructed cubicles to serve clients. When I visited with Bill, a woman dressed in a beautiful traditional Guatemalan corte walked in bearing gifts of chips, cookies and sodas as her way of expressing her gratitude for the help and support she was receiving. The International Rescue Committee and the Street Level Health Project also dedicate their lives to providing everything possible to refugees and day laborers from temporary housing, to job placement, to free meals, to health clinics, to bicycle maintenance classes. Whatever the need, these small offices of operation are doing everything they can, with many volunteers and very little monetary return. Their compensation rests in securing a safe place for new residents to stay, eat, learn and create a sustainable future on American soil. If their humanitarian efforts are not motivation enough to get me working toward social justice or even just serving my neighbor, I do not know what is.
These opportunities to see people serving people provided the best educational experience a searching young adult could have. Counting forks and sliding over six hundred trays at the St. Vincent de Paul’s soup kitchen one afternoon, I was accompanied by several smiling volunteers who had been prepping and serving food every Monday for over ten years. These are dedicated individuals who have become a part of a community of giving and relating to neighbors from different walks of life. Well run after school programs do the same by offering students a safe, engaging place to stay once the bell rings. A robotics program for elementary-aged youth and a full-fledged recording studio for high schoolers at McClymonds High are two that stood out as particularly engaging. These opportunities were feeding my own education in the scope of philanthropy and my need to give back. Bill even invited me to experience his 6:30am morning workout routine the day after Thanksgiving at God’s Gym in uptown Oakland. Here, Brother Gary O. Shields took me through the most challenging wake-up call I’ve ever received. As a dedicated personal trainer and private-gym owner, Brother Gary has created a space for serious workouts to take place where the weight on one’s shoulders can be solely physical. Radical and economic barriers are torn down as all God’s people are welcomed and encouraged to whip into shape. As uplifting and invigorating as that circuit training was, my pumpkin pie from the night before also wanted to be uplifted. This was an education experience of mind, body, and soul.
Walking away from each of these field trips, I was surprisingly uplifted rather than downtrodden seeing how heavy the struggles and how numerous the needs are for so many right here in Oakland. My hope lies in the genuine care and human acknowledgment everyone receives within these havens of provision. A warm meal, medical attention, job placement, youth engagement, a safe place to get off one’s feet: these services mean more than I know. After most of my visits, I could not leave without asking if they were looking for more volunteers. The possibilities and necessities are endless in these charitable organizations, and the spirit that inhabits them is contagious. I come away wanting to find a way to make my life more about contributing than using. I want to step outside what I know, and do something out of my comfort zone every day. Bill coached and taught me this by example.
My daily living and future aspirations will never be the same. Last week I met with the media relations officer at my local social services agency. The social welfare field is looking more and more attractive as a career path. Also, PVF’s program officer and administrative assistant have been my guides in the world of charitable grant-making and receiving. This experience has given me more knowledge and leverage to support the development and fundraising needs of the non-profit I currently work for. The way Bill, Dawn, and Lindy work and support each other as a team and the way they have generously offered their time, knowledge, and accommodation shows that genuine philanthropy is not a job description but a way of life. I plan to pay it forward and embark on my own philanthropic ventures. Thank you.