Small is Beautiful…Grants, That Is (Part 1)

Larger-scale support of local initiatives, grassroots leadership and small, often “informal” movements is a key reform needed in the international development aid sector. I shared this view in a post entitled, “What’s missing from the DIY aid debate? Overlooking the Capacity of Local Organizations” and in a virtual discussion on aid effectiveness from a gender perspective sponsored by UN-WOMEN at the end of last year. This is the first of two posts (see part 2 here) to 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?”

Indeed, there is a growing number of development donors willing to offer and build alternatives to business as usual in the sector (list forthcoming) by directly supporting local organizations and movements by creating broad guidelines, focus areas, and selection criteria to respond to what local stakeholders view as important. When grassroots groups are the setters of priorities, the controllers of resources, and thus the drivers of development, donors can help build local sovereignty through small grants programs. This could offer a vast improvement upon what Fahamu Executive Director, Hakima Abbas, refers to as, “…the ever-expanding NGO industrial complex [that] separates and depoliticises service and advocacy while failing to question its own role in weakening African institutions, power and self-determination.”

Though now discontinued, the former corporate aid agency I used to work for had a small grants fund as a part of each of its country programs. This fund was not tied to any specific project or sectoral activities, e.g. health or agriculture, but would rather be a pot of money to address priorities as they were identified by community leaders. Grants were US$500 or less, had an open application process, needed two positive independent references, and required only one-page proposals and reports. Many colleagues still talk about these small bits of money as some of the most memorable, impactful and fun(!) projects they ever supported.

I believe my colleagues still recall these small grants so positively because:

–       Small grants allow for international staff to better identify, leverage, and scale the efforts of respected local leaders who have the sustained commitment, effort and insights (just not the resources) to make changes at the community level. In other words, they saw that money can go directly into the hands of those able to use it immediately and effectively.

–       Small, responsive grants can encourage more innovative and less risk-averse and bureaucratic procedures. As Bill Easterly argued recently, “When you reach the end of the road, you CAN identify SOME local problems to which money IS the answer.”

–       Appropriate amounts of funding for relatively small or “informal” efforts help nascent organizations to build confidence and resilience to establish themselves as effective civil society institutions in their locality.

–       Small, responsive grants can allow for greater embeddedness of programs in the community, thereby providing greater opportunities for demands of accountability by constituents from all service-providers, including local government and the groups themselves.

–       The butterfly effect, discussed in an Alliance Magazine article by Global Greengrants’ CEO Chet Tchozewski, Getting to maybe: why small grants matter, is the idea that seemingly trivial events can have a great impact on complex adaptive systems. See the video link below for further explanation.

Drop in the Bucket

Yet international donors continue to refer to the absorptive capacity needed to implement large-scale programs. Instead, we need to create more easily accessible and wider-reaching funding opportunities for local groups. I would advocate that all donor organizations and/or aid programs return to or start devoting a small percentage of their budget to creating and administering small, responsive grantmaking mechanisms. The first step will be to learn from organizations already engaged in this type of support to local organizations.

A Boston-based organization, GHETS, disseminates micro-grants in the range of US$3,000-$5,000 annually to doctors, nurses, and professors of health sciences to enhance local infrastructure and initiatives all over the developing world. An example of GHETS’ microgrants in Egypt initially funded a workshop requested by a faculty member at Suez Canal University. Dr. Amany Refaat noted a gap in the care offered to women coming into community clinics with complications related to FGM. She observed a lack of education at the medical school that prepared students to treat and be sensitive to patients’ issues regarding FGM. What started out as a single workshop funded by GHETS is now part of the national curriculum.

Caroline Mailloux, GHETS’ Executive Director, shares that “In our experience, promoting the micro-grants model promotes scalability, local ownership, and a training/service component. Smaller sums are wired easily directly from GHETS to [grantees’] academic institutions and don’t get lost in the budget lines of huge corporate or foundational grants. The funds are accessible and partners are able to re-apply to continue to grow the small, community-based initiatives.”

The usual objections to small grants, namely that they’re not strategic or impactful enough, that they are too costly to administer, or that local leaders are all corrupt and self-serving, need to be more closely examined. To truly bring about people’s improved well-being, efforts are needed (and worthy of financial support) at all levels. Grants of all sizes are needed, but small grants for local groups continue to be largely overlooked. While transactional costs for small grants can be the same as large grants in some cases (which has been researched in the case of foundations, but not yet compared in the NGO sector that I know of), those administering small grant funds argue that smaller grants are worth it because they provide more readily apparent social changes that are vital to lasting structural change.

Clearly, we can and should continue to gather more empirical evidence to back up these claims. Yet from my personal experience and perspective, the relative risk of “losing” US$500 or even US$5,000 on the rare someone who had less than purely altruistic motivations (is there even such a thing?) was nothing when compared to the waste I saw within the system. The moral argument for small grants becomes stronger if we truly represent the proportion of funding lost as each layer taking its cut before development aid funding ever reaches the ground.

Few would disagree that local leaders with the all-important expertise and resolve to create change their communities should be excluded from the development process. But donor staff and development practitioners should no longer tolerate a system that makes such leaders wait for the average-sized international grants to trickle down to them, marred by donor restrictions and burdensome requirements.

As Chet Tchozewski writes, “We all want to support the kind of people whose good work would not stop if you paid them to quit. That’s what small grants can do best.”


Part 2 of this post further concretizes small grantmaking mechanisms and provides a list of other international funders who offer small, responsive grants to grassroots organizations.


Related Posts

Changing the system…from the ground up

Waiting for Pennies from Heaven

Spotting Community Ownership

Listening to People on the Receiving End of Aid

Seeing the future in sovereign local organizations – Part I


  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention How Matters /  Small is Beautiful…Grants, That Is (Part 1) --

  2. This is definitely the ONLY approach worth considering when practical measurable outcomes are sought in the development arena…

    I recently posted an article on the account of Civil Society organisations in their capability to take the lead since they reflect more than previous representatives a more diverse composition… in this paradigm shift there is definitely a great deal of accountability in the face of all the resources supposedly invested and that to date poverty and land degradation are stifling the rural actors…leading to food scarcity across board…

    Until a consensus is reached, development will still lag behind despite resources committed to development itself…

    Demba Ndiaye.
    Intl. partnerships

  3. I appreciate that you talk about grants in this post, rather than loans. So much of the talk about “micro” support has been about micro-loans, ignoring the benefit and impact of grants to community organizations.

  4. The arguments behind Small is beautiful is very well accepted. Simple grant making mechanism is practical, results oriented.peoples’ organizations like Cooperatives/Past Pupil’s Associations of Schools have been reliable community based organizations. I can recommend trustworthy organizations doing good work for the benefit of the needy children and women particularly.Funding sources can see the results easily.

  5. Like GHETS, the Virginia Gildersleeve International Fund’s gives grants of $1,500 – $5,000. Our 40 years of small grant-making supports your belief that small grants are beautiful. To cite just one example, one of our grantees told the Kolkata Mirror in November 2009, “Had it not been for VGIF we would not have been able to grow from a small group of 25 to an 850 member organization. Help came from VGIF in 2006, USD 5000 for a year, and since then there has been no looking back. We’ve been able to generate many self-funded programs like pickling, tailoring, medicinal plant cultivation, literacy, and a small pre-school to name a few.” Mrs. D. Leelavathi, President,
    Rural Development Women Welfare Society (RDWWS), Andhra Pradesh, INDIA

  6. I echo the sentiments expressed in the article. GO Campaign has great impact on orphans and vulnerable children in communities through small grants to local leaders and it is easy for GO Campaign’s donors to follow up and see that impact.

  7. Pingback: Insight on Conflict > Zimbabwe: a light in the darkness

  8. Mrs Analogbei christyanah tope

    small grants is beautiful,this article has given me comfort that there is hope for the grassroots, who really needs help.when donor agencies gives small grants to start or followup projects at the grassroots level, it give them a sense of belonging and ownership of the project and believe me, they will work hard to see that the project work not only that they will expand it to the recognition of the respective governments.there so many people to help in Africa,i believe small grants will work too in Africa.

  9. Very nice article. Big grants are for big issues and go to large organisations or through government. In countries like India, many, if not most, of the larger organisa-tions are less productive; and the govt. mechanism is next to junk! Funders should understand the chemistry of the people and administration of a country, before setting their approach towards Small, Medium or Big funding or may be a mixture of them. At the same time each grant should be measured by the effects on the beneficiaries/ communities rather than going through the reports generated by the funded organisations. Once the mechanism is transparent & logical, the system itself will change in due time, and loopholes and level of corruption will automatically decrease.

  10. Maria Mullei

    I agree with giving small grants to grassroot organizations. You could be surprised that some of the best innovative ideas that can drive the vision of developing ccuntries are with grassroot people. But just because we have negelected, discouraged and showed them that they cannot make it,they sit on their talents.
    Developing countries population is relatively young and youth should be included in the development process, like talent search. Football tourments should be organized to identify those talented in soccer. Other talent search in the offing include: athletics, dancing, singing, and acting among others.
    This would keep the youth and the public in general engaged, hence drinking and drags would go down.
    In the final analysis ” It is what people want that matters”

  11. Pingback: Round up of stuff that works and stuff that doesn’t: partnerships, taxes, evidence, and failure | Dave Algoso [UNDER CONSTRUCTION]

  12. Since 2009, our organization has made tremendous progress and achievements in its work simply as a result of small grants raging from individual donation of $10 to $ 5,000. This article has good stuff that works for small organization!!!!

  13. Small & informal is definitely trashed in contemporary development – yet, as the blog recognises, they indeed hold true and sustainable answers to enduring chronic poverty. I’m starting to see big donors like Dfid talk of CS programming that will consider grassroots organisations – I’m not sure they have taken time to break-down what grassroots CSO entails – In many cases grassroots = operating from rural as opposed to urban settings. But an organisation can be rural and still be elitist.

    This blog was written years ago – and I’m not sure we have seen enough progress from the big players.

    It will take an organisational revolution before big institutional donor give money to my mothers burial group!!! Those within the donor Eco-system that want to see change, simply don’t gave the critical mass as yet – we should all continue challenging the status quo

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *