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Small (grants) but Mighty!

This week’s post is from Jennifer Lentfer of How Matters. She has worked for several organizations that, like Spirit in Action, give small grants to developing countries. In this post she shares about what small grantmaking looks like and explains how it works.

Spirit in Action is listed as one of the organizations doing work similar to what Jennifer describes.


Thanks to probing, concrete questions from Maryline Penedo, moderator of a virtual discussion on aid effectiveness from a gender perspective sponsored by UN-WOMEN at the end of last year, I was able to better share my experience of alternative small grant mechanisms that directly support community groups. From the inside in, it’s often difficult to describe your own experience, but Maryline helped me to elaborate on the approach used by a family foundation I worked with for many years that was crafting an alternative to business as usual in the aid and philanthropic sectors. I’m gratefully utilizing her questions to create a Q & A format in the second of two posts (see Part 1 here) that attempt to answer the important questions posed by fellow blogger, Dave Algoso, “So what’s that look like? And who, if anyone, has done this well?”


Q: Could you be more explicit about what you mean by “minimum accountability requirements” necessary [to lower the barrier for local organizations to benefit from funding]?

A: The foundation’s proposal and reporting formats were specifically formulated to break down language and conceptual barriers that often serve to exclude community-based organizations from more typical funding mechanisms.  For example, rather than having to provide abstract objectives and a logframe, organizations were straightforwardly asked to respond to about ten questions such as “What are you trying to achieve?” and “What do you plan to do in this proposal to bring about these changes?” At the reporting stage, the same occurred with such questions as “What were you able to achieve?” and “How do you know if you are making progress on your goals?” Every attempt was made to de-technicalize development jargon and offer questions that were easy to translate in local languages, including financial reporting.

Q: How did you find and establish communication with community-based organizations?

A: Local groups found out about the foundation’s open request for proposals through networks of civil society organizations that were contacted, but most often through word-of-mouth. Each year this foundation gets more and more inquiries, usually through email. The rise of and access to ICT in the developing world really makes these types of funding mechanisms more possible than ever before.

Q: In which language did community-based organizations have to submit their applications?

A: The foundation accepted applications and reports in local languages and even accepted those that were handwritten. They believed that in order to reach marginalized groups that were doing good work, the foundation needed to take on the expense and time of translation, rather than pass on this burden to applicants and grantees.

Q: Were there any specific requirements about the independent references requested in the application process?

A: The foundation asked applicants to provide contact information of people who knew their organization’s work, but the foundation also reached out to its network of “eyes on the ground” to verify the legitimacy of organizations. Rarely did “bad” groups slip through. Program officers were actually encouraged by the board to carry a certain amount of risk in their portfolios. From the foundation’s perspective, a couple of failed small grants from time to time was an acceptable price of doing business in this way.

Q: To what extent were staff involved in the implementation of the [grantees’] projects? Did they only follow up or did they contribute to a larger extent?

A: The role of program officers in this scenario is not confused between grantmakers and implementers, as it is in many traditional aid scenarios. The foundation firmly believed that since they were not running the programs, not on the ground, not interacting directly with the people being served, its funding did not result in its ownership of the programs. Rather, grants were seen as an investment in sound local leadership, not as a means of “ensuring that all projects are carried out in accordance with the terms and conditions of their respective contractual agreements.” (This quote is taken from an INGO job posting I just read. Ugh, I will not be applying.)

When a program officer’s key function and skill set is developed to identify and support local organizations that effectively strengthen the community’s capacity to address its own needs, the donor-grantee relationship fundamentally changes. When the level of community ownership of a program or organization is adequately established, a certain amount of trust can then be relied upon for accountability in a small grants scenario. It is also worth mentioning that in my experience, the smaller the organization, the easier is to observe community ownership as there are key personal relationships to which leaders are held downwardly accountable. Unfortunately, this is counter-intuitive to unexamined thinking and practices in the sector that remain leftover from modernist and racist approaches to development.

Q: Were staff responsible for conducting any evaluation of the projects and if so, what was the nature of this evaluation?

A: Formal evaluations were not a part of follow-up. Consider that the price of an evaluation for even a US$10,000 grant would probably exceed the amount of grant itself. Therefore, the foundation focused on helping grantees develop proportional expectations for their own monitoring throughout the partnership. Foundation staff critically analyzed grantee reports and renewal proposals, and conducted site visits in order to determine the extent of responsible use of the foundation’s funds and locally-mobilized resources, empowerment of communities and families, holistic programming, and demonstrated outcomes.

The foundation’s grant “loss” rate was approximately 1 percent, meaning that they were able to verify that 99 percent of grants were used for the purposes for which they were intended. This demonstrates the strength of due diligence within its grantmaking mechanism, and the skill of the program staff in identifying and supporting promising and effective grassroots organizations.

Q: Were these community organizations supposed to learn by themselves?

A: Capacity building funding was available through the course of partnership, but more importantly, the foundation supported a peer-to-peer learning approach, in which grantees could establish their own supportive relationships and learning strategies with other civil society organizations. Program officers were not expected to act as technical “experts” engaged in skills transfer. Rather they were expected to identify and highlight the learning that occurs within local organizations naturally, and also to ask questions that enabled groups to reflect on their own accomplishments in social change at the local level.

Q: What was the length of the grants?

Even though grants were small (<US$10,000) and short-term (annual) in most cases, partnerships were designed to be 7-10 years, which is what I think is really necessary and realistic to help local organizations firmly establish themselves as civil society institutions within their community.


Initial List of Small Grantmakers in the International Development and Philanthropic Sectors (Small grants are defined as approximately <US$20,000.)

KIOS – Finnish NGO Foundation for Human Rights


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