Small Grants, Big Difference

I enjoyed presenting at a great session, “Small Grants, Big Difference,” during last week’s Council on Foundations Annual Conference with Daniel Tillias of Pax Christi Sakala in Haiti; Kate Ahern of the Case Foundation; and Monica LaBiche Brown of Water for People. It was great that 75 or more people came to our session because they think small grants are important. I think it’s the beginning of a movement.

In case you missed it, here are some key takeaways.

Small is relative. We had funders in the room giving $5,000 grants, while others gave $1 million or more. But what is small—and meaningful—depends on a lot of factors.

  • The size of the organization makes a difference. A $5,000 grant can be a significant investment to a grassroots organization, a start-up, or a scrappy network run on volunteer power.
  • Flexible small funding can have greater value than highly restricted funding. A $10,000 flexible grant can be a lot more valuable than $100,000 with lots of strings attached.
  • Purchasing power matters. $5,000 spends differently in Kansas City or New York City or Katmandu.
  • Small grants accompanied by other nonfinancial supports can maximize and multiply the actual value of the grant. Leverage, introductions, connections, convening, and organizational development or capacity-building can make a small grant worth more than its actual monetary value.

Small grants are powerful. Small grants might be dismissed as a drop in the bucket in a world full of big grants and big programs. But often a small grant can be a game changer.

  • Small funding can allow for innovation. While key program and operational support must be raised—often in large sums—to run core programs, a small grant might be just the thing needed to add a technology component or test a new concept.
  • A small grant can open a door to big things. In Haiti, few girls were benefiting from Sakala’s programs. While it was socially acceptable for boys to play sports at the community center without shirts or shoes, that was not the case for girls. A grant to help girls get shoes allowed them to take part in the program. That’s right, a grant for shoes brought about gender equity!
  • Being the first or an early funder can provide an inflection point for organizations. Daniel of Sakala mentioned that early funding from The Global Fund for Children attracted new donors. It brought credibility, capacity-building, leverage, and visibility they would not have had otherwise. Not bad for $10,000.

Small grants are different—and the same—as large grants. Small grants work much the same way that large grants do. Prospecting, proposals, reporting, and monitoring are key similarities in the grants management process. However, a few things can help small grants make as big a difference as larger grants.

  • Know thyself; be clear about what you want to achieve. Is seed funding a goal?   Perhaps a small grant program can be formed around capacity-building, innovation, scouting, and discovery, or used as a magnet and leverage for larger funding and visibility. Each of these goals is significant and can be achieved with small grants.
  • Measurement and monitoring matter, but should not be on the same scale as larger grants. Evaluation and learning must be commensurate with the grant—no randomized clinical trials for $25,000 grants to $150,000-level nonprofits. Still, clear metrics and goals for small grants will go a long way in tracking the impact achieved. At The Global Fund for Children, we are a scouting and capacity-building grantmaker. Our metrics are around finding promising organizations with budgets under $100,000; being the first U.S. institutional funder; and affecting and tracking our leverage efforts for bigger impact.
  • Be unapologetic. Too often small grants are accompanied by the word “only” or “just”—as in, “We are just a small foundation, our grants are only around $10,000.” In a world of big dollars and brand name funders, it’s hard not to feel like the little guy. But never have I heard a nonprofit say that a $5,000 grant didn’t matter.

There’s no one size fits all in philanthropy. Small grants are the right size for many, and can make big impact.

Victoria Dunning is vice president for programs at The Global Fund for Children.

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