Small is Beautiful…Grants, That Is (Part 2)

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 asWhat were you able to achieve?andHow 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.


Do you know of other donors that are give small, unrestricted grants internationally? Please feel free to share your knowledge and experience in the comments section.


Initial List of Small Grantmakers in the International Development and Philanthropic Sectors (Small grants are defined as approximately <US$20,000. Click on each for a link to their website.)

African Women’s Development Fund

Abilis Foundation, for projects initiated by persons with disabilities

American Jewish World Service


Association for the Development of Pakistan

Commonwealth Foundation’s civil society responsive grants

Cottonwood Foundation

Dalia Association, a Palestinian Community Foundation

Disability Rights Fund

Donor Direct Action

Firelight Foundation

Fondo Accion Solidaria (FASOL), Mexico

The Foundation for Civil Society, Tanzania

Foundation for Sustainable Development

Front Line

Fund for Global Human Rights




Global Fund for Children

Global Fund for Women

Global Greengrants


Go Campaign

Grassroots International

Independent Development Fund, supporting civil society organizations in Uganda

International Funders for Indigenous Peoples

The International Community Foundation

International Development Exchange (IDEX)

Kenya Community Development Foundation

KIOS – Finnish NGO Foundation for Human Rights

The Lambi Fund of Haiti


Mary’s Pence


New England Biolabs Foundation, fostering community-based conservation in Central and South American and West Africa

New Field Foundation

The Niapele Project

The Norwegian Human Rights Fund

One World Action (soon merging with Womankind Worldwide)

One World Children’s Fund

Orphan Support Africa

Rainforest Information Centre Small Grants Fund

Rising Voices

Rufford Small Grants for Nature Conservation

Spark MicroGrants

Spirit in Action

Stephen Lewis Foundation

UNDP Small Grants Programme, The Global Environment Facility

Urgent Action Fund

USAID Office of Transition Initiatives

U.S. Institute of Peace

The Violet Jabara Charitable Trust, supporting organizations working in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Palestine (Occupied Territories), Yemen, Egypt and North Africa.

The Virginia Gildersleeve International Fund

World Connect

Worldwide Initiatives for Grantmaker Support (WINGS) – check out the 144 member profiles for community foundations around the world

Note: has already registered over 110,000 local organizations and movements working on a wide variety of issues in 243 countries. They estimate that they may well be over 1,000,000 such local groups operating across the globe. Obviously more small grantmakers are needed. Please do leave comments with any other small grantmakers you may know!


Related Posts

“Smart Aid”: A cautionary note, by David Week

Waiting for Pennies from Heaven

A New Discipline for Development Practitioners

Seeing the future in sovereign local organizations – Part 2

Our Most Important Job


  1. International Community Foundation is a small grantmaker, but donor-advised, meaning that we work with individuals here in the U.S. to select worthy grantees in Latin America and the Caribbean.

    Fondo Accion Solidaria (FASOL) is a small grantmaker in Northwest Mexico, a spin off of Global Greengrants Fund. Their nexus is to fund socio-environmental projects that build local capacity to respond to emerging issues.

    Global Greengrants Fund uses a regional advisory board to recommend small grants on environmental issues. They focus on action-oriented projects with an advocacy and environmental justice lens.

    The William James Foundation funds sustainable business plans through an open competition several times a year. There are many opportunities for international organizations and individuals to enter.

  2. It is exciting to read about how to reach out the poor people while planning foreign aid effectiveness. I am really touched by how some hearts go on questioning themselves and reflecting on what they do to see extent to which they are more or less important for human beings. The originality of the topic and even the content are just overwhelming and push to wonder whether I love the poor people or not. There are many ways of seeking the divine purity; reaching out the poor people in our daily initiatives with honesty like this one I read in “Small is Beautiful…Grants, That IS” is one of them, provided that the consciousness of devoting it the glory of God is there. Unfortunately this last step often lacks and Satan enters to occupy the place the Holy Spirit left. And then desolation accompanies “good” initiatives along the project cycle. Think about it.
    May God keep you from sinning to inherit its Eternal Kingdom
    Eric SHIMA

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  4. Thanks so much for this attempt to address the issue of how to support local groups from a very practical point of view. At Peace Direct, we offer support to groups who have great contributions to make to peacebuilding, but are often excluded from fundraising from larger funders for the very reasons you have identified. For our our site, we’ve also identified some 500 peacebuilding organisations around the world, the majority of whom would struggle to navigate all the funding requirements of large donors.

    Nevertheless, our belief is that there is increasing willingness to support small groups (in our area of peacebuilding, but presumably more widely too), and what needs addressing is the ‘how’ – the sort of practical issues of how to find groups and support them that you address in this post.

  5. Here’s a interesting comment from a LinkedIn group to which I posted this article. It highlights some important, but not insurmountable challenges in making small grants. However, I think it is vital for any organization engaged in small, unrestricted grants to understand and then challenge their comfort level when it comes to risk. Key outcomes can also be discovered in small grantmaking mechanisms as grantees gain confidence to challenge the power asymmetries in their locality, as well as those within traditional aid and philanthropy.

    The commenter writes:

    “Small is sometimes beautiful, but not always. I spent 20 years in the management of small grants programs and came to the conclusion that they are high risk, but the large benefits from the winners more than justify the losses on the failures. That is true, however, only if the ex ante assessment process is strong enough to distinguish the applications with high enough reward to risk ratios to be worth funding from those with too high risks or too low a level of likely benefits.

    “After a couple of decades experience, I came to the conclusion that proposal evaluation is something that one has to learn how to do. Important aspects are assuring the neutrality of staff, selecting good outside reviewers, clearly stating the criteria for selection, providing good guidelines for proposal preparation, being sure that staff understand potential conflicts of interest of reviewers, reviewing the review process with a willingness to withhold judgment of proposals that are inadequately reviewed, providing good feedback to proponents of projects, and dealing with the issue of confidentiality of reviewers. It is hard to get to the right balance between assuring that proposals have sufficient information that they can be adequately reviewed and not demanding too much time and effort from the proponents in the preparation of the proposal.

    “In setting up the evaluation of small grants programs themselves, it is important to evaluate the portfolio as a whole rather than the performance of the individual grants. I found that it was important to see what small grants actually did, and how useful that was, rather than whether they did what they were expected to do.

    “For example, there seemed to be a great interest in small grants that demonstrated approaches that would be scaled up. I found that often the impact was more through training, publications, exchanges of information and capacity development than through scale up.”

  6. Wambui Ndungu

    Thank you for this initiative. We have been locked out by larger NGOs who usually city-based and are not bothered with the grassroots. Our governments also make it very difficult for upcoming grassroot organizations. If we could be considered for funding we can develop our own realities with an approach that we understand and bring positive change. This year I am looking for funding for Gender mainstreaming in democratic processes (Political and public office)- targeting young women (under 40 yrs). We will be having a general election in 2012 under the new constitution and women must rise up to take up major decision making positions. I would be pleased if supported to raise US$ 25,000.00 for activities that will run in 2011.
    Warm regards
    Wambui Ndungu

  7. Bertha Dick

    I really don’t know how much i can thank whoever formed the so called sustainable Development Africa, am very proud as an African woman to take part in developing the rural woman especially the widow through empowerment.
    I would wish to know how to apply for the grants please somebody to help.
    Bertha, Kenya

  8. Dr Rajeeb Kumar Sharma,

    This cannot be small because it will be of GREAT help that will enable small groups to serve the marginalised community and can change their lives to live with dignity without exploitation and discrimination.

  9. Hi Jennifer,

    Thank you for your article on “How Matters/ Small is Beutiful…Grants, That is (Part 2).” I have gone through it. It is very educative to both donors and grantees. Your list of funds is also helpful for our small organizations struggling to get small grants for our programs. However, I would like to suggest that your list should include website(s) for each funder(s)so that we may make learn more of those organizations before deciding to apply for grants.

    Matumaini Mapya as a current Firelight grantee has, for a long time, worked with and know you well as a person interested in seeing small organizations like ours have grants to implemt their programs in order to achieve their goals.

    Thanking you again for your article.

    Best regards,

    Gosbert Kaserwa

  10. Eleves Pendame

    I am glad to inform you that your work will give us fruits after long time. if it were possible you more organisations personery and it would be better to link the donor to those CBOs so that what little they can offer as a grant will reach the needy
    So far keep on looking for the betters of the needy as those from Malawi and Chilimba as well
    Do not give up you ambition
    thank you once more

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  12. chewe mulenga

    The information on small grants is a positive way of helping community based organization which should encouraged. We are proud of the information and we look forward to receiving more thank you.

  13. hi Jennifer
    let me say thanks for all i work with map mathare and voice of mathare and i was the one how published an article of upendo education center my concern please assist me in this process of calling for grants so that we can aleast help this young generation

    tel 0715537244

  14. Excellent points. Really enjoyed reading this.
    The impact of ICTs to work with community foundations is almost underrated, despite all the hype around the Internet. We at the Association for the Development of Pakistan still get project proposals, dozens per month, almost exclusively through email. While this is obviously not ideal,it’s inevitable since we don’t have an established office in Pakistan, to save on administrative costs.
    The community ownership and trust are,again,absolutely critical to the long term success of any project. Very interesting that your partnerships are designed to >5 years long.

  15. Thank you all for your posts on this artical. our CBO called CARDI UGANDA has ever benefited from a small grant offered by Green Grant Fund amounting to 3,000 US $ and though it is small, it helped us to up scale the environment conservation and management activities through sensitizing rural farmers and advocating for integration of agro-forestry activities in all CBO/ NGO activities and programs in my district. as a result, by laws have been passed by local governments and NGOs to allocate a budget for planting more trees. more trees are now being planted. remember that farmers are the custodians of vegetation natural resources in the world and when we target them them conservation of the enviroment can be realized. thanks to GGF for their user friendly services on writing short proposals and how to obtain funding.


  16. Peace Corps Volunteers in Senegal and across Africa are great partners to local communities, groups, NGOs, helping to build managerial capacity and network them to sources of small grants. For example, Peace Corps/Senegal Volunteers (see and their communities have completed more than 100 small scale, but deeply impactful, water and sanitation projects over the past two years with the support of the NGO Appropriate Projects. See:

  17. I wish I had know about this type of arrangement when I did my work with the Lao Disabled Women’s Development Centre in 2005. They needed an amount of no more than US$1,000 per month to be completely solvent and able to achieve their goals.

  18. our self called st,peters social service & Development Trust. we serving for rural poor needy childrens education development projects and community development projects and women and girls development projects. we are seeking funding supports for our projects, kindly consider our appeal and provide grant supports to us, for contact :

  19. Nadia

    Hi! No need to publish this comment. Blair Glencorse told me about your blog and this list. You should add U.S. institute of Peace. I also just tweeted one of your pieces – @NadiaNavi. Awesome work!

  20. Fred

    I am writing my masters essay on emerging donors and the focus is on china and india. I think i am just going to change the content of the essay to talk about what this organisation is doing. Though i am writing to inquire why the percentage of failure is vey low about 1%? What is making the failure to be just very low compared to other donor funde projects?

  21. One word comes to mind first @Fred…approach, approach, approach – HOW matters. When more genuinely equitable partnerships occur, when donors invest long-term, when the relationship to “risk” is healthier, when the focus is on organizational strength rather than activities, when the people being served are actually invested in how the money is used, when outsiders know how they can best be helpful and then “get out of the way,” when failure is defined not by how every cent is used but rather by how people themselves view the outcomes, MUCH more is possible in aid partnerships. A deeper understanding of organizational development within the context of community-based organizations (CBOs) in Africa is key to unleashing the potential of these organizations – indeed, a needed bit of research.

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