April 7, 2008

What's a Small Grant?

In my role with Grassroots Grantmakers - formerly the Neighborhood Small Grants Network - I'm asked this question from time to time:

What's a small grant?

That should be easy enough to answer, right? We have done surveys of Grassroots Grantmakers' member organizations and can talk with confidence about the range of grant size and the average grant size associated with the grassroots grantmaking programs that we follow most closely. But small is a different matter.
  • If we're talking about an established nonprofit organization, what would be small? Would a grant equal to 3 times their annual operating budget be small - or large?
  • If we're talking about a neighborhood group with $500 in the bank - collected as dues from neighbors - what would be small? Or large?

And, why are we asking this question, anyway?

  • Is it because, as grantmakers, we're thinking about our grants budget? How many small grants equals one large grant? How do we do as much as possible with available funds? Do we put our eggs in one basket or in many baskets?
  • Or are we thinking about how much effort it takes to process the grant request? Why should I spend all that time on this (small) grant when I could spend the same amount of time on this (large) grant?
  • Or, because we are in the world of money, are we thinking in terms of what money can do vs. what people can do?
  • Or, are we assuming that the size of the grant is commensurate with the size of impact, assuming that small grants come with limited possibilities and thus lower expectations?

Isn't "small grant" really a funder-centric notion, after all? A $2,000 grant is indeed small to a funder who is accustomed to dealing with lots of commas and zeros - with the total of grants awarded for the year counted in the millions, and total organizational assets in the hundreds of millions. It's certainly not small to my Dad or my daughter or my neighbor or the teachers at our local elementary school.

Perhaps instead of grant size, we should talk about grant scale. Is the grant scale-appropriate for the organization and the project? When we take off the "more money=bigger impact" glasses, it might be easier to look at the long-term possibilities of scale-appropriate grants - and imagine the impact that small amounts of money, invested in the right place at the right time - in people who have passion and a plan - can make.

A scale-appropriate grant to a fledgling organization might be $2,000. And, that $2,000 might be the first investment that anyone outside the neighborhood has made in this group - the first "stamp of approval" by a main-line institution. Is that small to the group? It's huge. A huge vote of confidence, a huge opportunity to begin moving dreams into action, a huge opportunity to learn what money can do - and can't.

I'm not suggesting that size doesn't matter - that money isn't important. Just that it's more than money. Just that size is relative. Just that we don't forget to think big when the dollars are small (to us).

What do you think? How would you answer the question, "What's a small grant?"

No comments:

Post a Comment