Small Grants

Small grants were an important part of a community engagement strategy.

The role of small grants

We were unable to collect definitive information about the size of grants made by community foundations in our research. However, we know that almost all community foundations make small grants. A minority makes large grants too, but small grants are the essential stock-in-trade of the sector.

We asked people to say why they thought small grants were useful. Their responses suggest that there are three main reasons:

  • Small money can go a long way and have a big impact
  • Small grants encourage self-organizing and change attitudes
  • Small grants can support civil society groups too small to apply for larger funding

Small money goes a long way

As Monica Patten, Chief Executive of Community Foundations of Canada, put it:
"Many community foundations are small and exist in small communities where a little money goes a long way. Often a small grant is all that is needed to spark awareness of an issue or mobilize action. Small grants can be great leverage for others who feel they have the capacity to match or who can be invited to give."

To illustrate this point, the Arusha Municipal Community Foundation gave grants to 168 school pupils to cover school fees, uniform, school desks, books, as well as food for orphans and children from destitute families. The cost of giving 168 children a chance in education was US $7500, or $45 per child.

Smart use of scarce resources may be another outcome. Last year, one particularly successful grant from the Dalia Association was to the Saffa Farmers' Committee, an unregistered group. They decided to buy farming equipment and loan it out to farmers for a small fee. The 4,500 people in this farming community got access to tools they could not afford. The service greatly increased the Farmers' Committee's reputation in the local community. More people started to attend their educational programs.

Grants for small specific purposes may have wider social impact. For example, Areumdaun Jaedan (The Beautiful Foundation) in Korea provided books for migrants and migrant workers in their own languages. Called the 'Solidarity of Hope by Books Campaign', the Foundation supports migrants' rights and preserves their culture, but also builds understanding of their culture among local people. Similarly, a grant from Manukau Community Foundation in Aotearoa/New Zealand assisted an orchestra, but its wider purpose was to support an initiative of the migrant community to provide social solidarity and integration with the host community through the common interest of music. Again, the Jerusalem Foundation funded a community garden. This has been highly successful within all diverse population groups in raising awareness about environmental issues. In providing a site for local cultural events, it has brought together different kinds of people within the local neighborhood.

The book, 'Small Money; Big Impact', published by Foundations for Peace (a grouping of indigenous funders working on building peace in countries suffering from violent conflict) contains many stories of this kind from all over the world.


Small grants were seen as a means of encouraging people to step forward and take responsibility for their communities.

This perspective was found everywhere but was particularly noticeable in the former Communist Bloc where decades of 'top-down' planning had a harmful effect on people's sense of responsibility for their communities.

A particularly good example was Slovakia, where community foundations have become an important force in the country. The Association of Slovak Community Foundations reported:
"Small grants have proven to be an ideal tool to start getting people engaged. In Slovakia, there is a strong tradition to rely on the government and the 'competent' ones, since back during the socialism, every aspect of public life was dealt with on the level of national government, and the government used to take care of everything. People used to be stripped of possibilities to voice their own opinions and their input in decision-making was minimal. Small grants have served as a tool to educate many on how to develop projects, manage funds, complete tasks and provide visible measurable results on the community level, as most of the projects funded by community foundation take place on a very local level. Many of these activists now run large organizations or heavily funded development projects. Nevertheless, there are still people of all ages and constituencies who are interested in helping their communities in small ways using small grants."

Small is beautiful

The third important feature of small grants is that they allowed civil society groups to be funded that were too small to absorb large amounts of money. These groups were unknown to government or development agencies that would find it uneconomic to bear the transaction costs of small grants.

This was a common finding across the world. To give an example, according to Romania it was reported that:
"Large NGOs in our country have the possibility to fundraise and to apply for large grants from companies and institutional donors. The small initiatives do not have the knowledge and the logistics to do that. In the Romanian context, community foundations are the only way that this kind of initiatives can get support. Also, in such a way, community foundations can provide the space for the involvement of new people who are not yet associated with NGOs to participate as a part of the informal initiative groups, as volunteers or as donors for causes of interest to them."

Big is good too

We would not want to give the impression that small grants were the only kind of grants given by community foundations. There were examples of community foundations playing leading roles in large-scale change programs, such as labor market development or education reform.

Such activity was more or less restricted to North America where community foundations tended to be larger than elsewhere, but there were examples elsewhere. In the United Kingdom, for example, community foundations played a large part in the Fair Share Trust. This program funded the 77 most deprived areas of the UK, and one outcome was greater involvement of local people in making funding decisions.

The Puerto Rico Foundation played a large part in national programs, in education, economic development and housing. In economic development, among other economic benefits the Foundation had created 54 jobs and 65 micro enterprises. In housing, outputs included 99 housing units either built or under construction.

Where next

We explore community foundations program strategies that complement grants on the next page.