July 18, 2011

Searching for Four Leaf Clovers

I just returned from Toronto, attending the Inclusion Network's Toronto Summer Institute.  As I got to know people in this amazing group of community builders and they got to know me, a number of people asked how they could find a funder who thinks big about small grants.  I wish I could say that there's one in every community, and here's the list.  That's the future that I want to see, but that's not where we are now.  There are more and more everyday, but I know for many people, finding one is like finding a four leaf clover.

I'll share what tips I offered about where to look and what signs you might see that a funder is a big thinker about small grants.  But first, I have to say that I'm perplexed about why grassroots grantmakers - the big thinkers of the small grants world  - aren't popping up everywhere.  It just seems so obvious to me that funders with community roots and sensibilities would be natural big thinkers about small grants - the type of small grants that are a centerpiece of grassroots grantmaking.  If you care about strong resilient communities - places that are friendly places of opportunity for people - and are want to invest your philanthropic dollars in ideas that increase your community's livability, viability, and ability to tackle and overcome challenges, how can you overlook the incredible possibilities that can come from relatively small investments made to everyday people to do things that they think will make a difference?  And how can you make decisions about where to focus your philanthropic investments if the intended beneficiaries of your investments - community residents - are not helping you sort through the millions of options that you have before you?  Beats me. I often write here about resistance that I spot to the small grants idea - perceived risk, reluctance to invest in the staff capacity needed, transaction cost, short-term horizon, tunnel vision on an issue - but the benefits so far outweigh the costs, that I just don't get it why some funders are so reluctant to embark on a serious exploration of how to cross those bridges.

So if you're looking for a funder who thinks big about small grants, here are some pointers of where and how to look:
  •  Look for funders who focus their work in a place - a region, a metro area, a city, or a neighborhood.  These are the funders who are often most likely to be viewing their work with a wide-angled lens, and understand the power (and necessity) of inviting everyday people into the action;
  • Look for funders who get out of the office, invite people in, work hard to build relationships with a diverse group of people, and are consciously navigating around the dollar sign that they and all funders wear on their foreheads;
  • Listen for curiosity about what everyday people are experiencing and what ideas everyday people might have, and what additional assets, energy and connections everyday people can bring to the table;
  • Listen for frustration with business as usual - with an appreciation of the built-in limitations that come with investing in programs and services as the primary vehicle for changing lives and communities;
  • Look at the grants that the funder made in the previous year, seeing if you can spot any (or many) that were made to groups instead of organizations, and that fall in the small grants range of $500 to $5,000. Or a larger grant that was made to a community-based organization who is working as the funders small grants partner - managing the small grants program for the funder.
  • Look for stories that show that this funder understands that small grants can have big impact.
  • Listen for interest in spotting and developing the people who get things going on their block - the natural "capacity finders and mobilizers" in their community, with a knack for connecting people and making the first step on a big idea seem do-able.
Some funders who are big thinkers about small grants don't call their work grassroots grantmaking.  Some don't even call themselves "funder".  Fertile ground for big thinking on small grants can be found in local governments, neighborhood resource centers, neighborhood houses, giving circles, and community-based organizations in addition to community foundations, family foundations and other private foundations - organizations who understand what happens when people in their active citizen roles connect and bring their voices and values to shape choices that affect them in very personal ways.  And know that when you spot a big thinker about small grants, you have found something better than an opportunity to apply for a small grant, something even better than a four-leaf clover.  You've spotted a funder who is thinking outside of the traditional funding box, part of making a change in how institutions with money are partnering with everyday people to improve their communities.

If you spot some signs that there might be a big thinker about small grants in your community - or even see just one of the signs that I listed above - help us spread the word and build the community of grassroots grantmakers by sharing this blog, Grassroots Grantmakers' website (www.grassrootsgrantmakers.org) or sending a note of encouragement to check out what we're learning about how to think big about small grants.  Let's make it easier for groups of everyday people to find the modest resources and institutional partners they sometimes need to move their idea into action or amplify their impact.  Let's make it so that spotting big thinking about small grants isn't be as hard as finding a four leaf clover.


  1. For a compiled list of small grantmakers working internationally, see: http://www.how-matters.org/2011/01/13/small-grants-part-2/

  2. Thanks for sharing this link, Jennifer. My work with Grassroots Grantmakers connects me primarily to funders in the US and Canada, but I know there is a lot of fascinating work in this area internationally. Your link helps to round out the picture. Do my tips resonate with you re how things look in other areas?