Reaching Girls at the Grassroots – A Sound Investment (Part 2)

(See Part 1 of this series to learn more about how grassroots organizations, as powerful actors that find and reach marginalized girls, are key to unlocking girls’ potential.)

So how do donors reach grassroots organizations?

The rise of and access to Internet technology makes it possible to fund small, seemingly “invisible” local groups more than ever before. Utilizing this, along with in-country networks of local organizations and word-of-mouth, makes it feasible to locate and support more grassroots organizations that are carrying out valuable programs for marginalized girls. When compared to each layer of bureaucracy taking its cut in larger organizations before funds ever reach the ground, donors can make more direct investments in girls via grassroots organizations.

Donors who want to support grassroots organizations serving girls can do so directly via GlobalGiving, or they may outsource small grantmaking via experienced intermediary funding organizations or country-based foundations. (See list here.) These are funders that have demonstrated results in finding, funding, monitoring and supporting nascent and promising grassroots organizations, enabling donors to support small, localized programs that reach marginalized girls in an efficient and cost-effective manner.

How can donors invest wisely in grassroots organizations?

1. Look and aim for “downward accountability”—Effective grassroots organizations have strong incentives and mechanisms for “downward accountability,” in which an organization includes its own constituency in decision-making about the group’s activities. Skilled intermediary funders partner with groups that demonstrate solid evidence of strong community participation within their organizational systems. Their experience shows that when downward accountability is present, theft and corruption are a rare occurrence at the community level.

2. Prioritize holistic programming—Most grassroots organizations are simultaneously addressing numerous issues facing girls in the local community, often responding to their needs and rights on an ongoing and case-by-case basis. An effective grassroots organization assesses and responds: Does a girl most need to get back into school? Or is she already in school, but struggling with an illness or with family abuse? Does she need help to boost her self-esteem and leadership skills? Does the family or community need to address its harmful attitudes or practices towards girls? Thus, activities for and with girls at the grassroots level are not necessarily project-based and most often include multiple interventions with distinct inputs and outcomes.

3. Enable grassroots organizations to remain flexible—While planning is important, donors must recognize that grassroots organizations’ responsiveness to girls’ needs is a often the most important capacity in their context, where nimble grassroots remain adaptive to arising needs, inherent complexities, and local realities of girls’ lives. This may require donors to creatively restructure and revise their financial controls to make them more “grassroots-friendly.”

4. Invest in the best—Grassroots organizations are often best placed to ensure maximum utilization of donor funds, given their mobilization of local resources and use of existing social capital and structures. Because they are working in resource-poor settings, effective grassroots organizations are made up of people who understand that a little investment can go a long way. Rather than utilizing the attitude that groups should do a lot with a little, seasoned intermediary grantmakers know that grassroots organizations can do more with more.

5. Balance breadth with depth—The amount of funding needed for a girl to attend secondary school for a year may be very different then the amount needed for her be trained as an apprentice so she can get a job, or for her to visit a nearby health clinic, or for her family to be visited regularly by a grassroots organization’s staff. Thus easily quantifiable and comparable data about girls’ programs such as cost per beneficiary is often not useful in drawing comparisons or making conclusions about the effectiveness of different interventions, particularly at the grassroots level. Consider that fundamentally changing the lives of a few girls might have a bigger, life-changing impact than helping many more girls through a shorter-term activity.

6. Know that strong programs require strong operations—As any good businessperson knows, investments in personnel and support services are key to success. The same is true for grassroots organizations. Because many are operating in resource-poor environments, operational costs are fundamental to grassroots organizations’ survival. These expenditures are not necessarily associated with any one project or specific output, but they pay the rent, keep the electricity and the phone on, and ensure people’s livelihoods.

7. With small grants, think slow money—Just as those involved in the patient capital movement, grassroots funders sponsor small projects at the community level that have payoffs not just today in terms of services delivered to girls, but also next week, next year, and hopefully in decades to come in terms of girls’ rights upheld. As investors in local leadership, donors that invest in grassroots organizations exercise a moral imperative that allows for uncertainty and potentially lower short-term “returns” in favor of long-term social outcomes.


The author, a precocious adolescent, grew up with a strong sense of community.

Because they are embedded in the communities they serve, grassroots organizations are best positioned to address the marginalization of adolescent girls. They have the ability to deeply understand and address the overlapping challenges faced by adolescent girls, their families, and communities.

Due to the nature of nascent grassroots organizations’ programs, they begin by lifting up girls in their locality, as they build confidence and capacity. Replication of funding models that reach more grassroots organizations and draw upon their insights, innovations and small-scale successes are thus vital to the thousands more vulnerable and marginalized girls around the world. It is time for donors, large and small, to commit, expand, and deepen support for girls at the grassroots.


Part 1 and Part 2 of this series on are part of The Girl Effect Blogging Campaign. You may read other posts or share your own reflection on the Girl Effect here. Follow the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #girleffect.


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  1. I have loved your focus on the grassoots outreach in this Girl Effect series. Also, your distinction between helping and serving in a post last year has made it into my own Girl Effect post because it has defined my understanding of how to serve (not just girls, but populations at large). Thank you.

  2. Dr. Nertha Nyirongo

    For a country like Malawi where the gap between boys and girls is already wide in terms of school enrolments due to poverty and cultural norms that sideline girls, things like early pregnancies and early marriages have had a toll on girls’ advancement educationally. Indeed there is much that needs to be done to not only reduce school droup-outs for girls but even more importantly, it is vital that we reach out to the girls who have had to drop out from school due reasons like early pregnancies by assisting them with psychosocial support and financial support to go back to school.
    I would like to learn more on how one can source funds to carry out such intervention.

  3. In Liberia, funding is scarce for small-scale, replicable pilot projects that focus on girls/education/sex-health-life skills in rural areas. Even working w. local stakeholders/orgs from the beginning, I’ve not been able to get my project funded, one that’s already been turned down by one of the larger donors who demand scalability.

  4. This is an interesting site which is directing all information and issues around girl-child education. In Nigeria, girl-child education is still a problem to tackle. We that are located at local state level is still battling to cater for girls education. predominately, parents sees girl-child education as a waste to the family and that after training them, they will go and build another family. Our approach is to bring out street girls that are hawking in the street, girls out of early marriages could not continue with their education, girls that out of wed-lock becomes drop out of schools etc. We need coalition groups and financial support to project this programs in the interest of our girls.

  5. Pingback: Real Impact with Saeed Wame | Good Intentions Are Not Enough

  6. I am moved by the new thinking and would be happy to be part of the team meant to take part in the development of the grassroots. I work with the youths from vocational training centers by attaching them to companies and MFIs to get loans for small enterprises in Malawi mostly girls skilled in a variety of skills

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