Bigger than Small: What Defines a Small Grant?

This seems like a straightforward question. The Wiengart Foundation in Southern California, SIOP Foundation, and the Wienberg Foundation, all have small grants programs, yet they all have different parameters. In addition, The National Institutes of Health has a small grant program that is limited to $50,000. The Global Greengrants Fund averages $3,500 in their small grant program. The Peter and Elizabeth C. Tower Foundation’s small grants program is capped at $30,000.

It quickly became obvious that “small” is relative. Clearly, the definition of a small grant is not as straightforward as I thought.  With that in mind, I attended the Grants Managers Network Conference in New Orleans this year, intent on asking my colleagues what they think a small grant is.

There were more than 750 grants managers in New Orleans for the GMN Conference. Large foundations like Ford, Gates, and Helmsley rubbed elbows with corporate foundations like Cargill and Mutual of Omaha, who sat next to small, local charities like Arbor Philanthropy and the Minneapolis Jewish Federation. It was the perfect setting for me to find out how other grants managers define a small grant.

I asked my colleagues a simple question, “How do you define a small grant.” This simple question led to some interesting answers and discussions. Some said “small” was anything under a million dollars. A million dollars is a lot of money to most foundations. That one surprised me until I learned that that particular foundation rarely makes grants under a million.

One million dollars can certainly do a lot of good. However, anything under a million dollars covers a lot of ground. Others said under $50,000 qualifies as a small grant. That answer came from a medium-sized foundation, one that makes both large and small grants. Contextually, that makes sense, but to me that still seemed too big. The most common answer I received was anything under $10,000. That corresponds with my own, arbitrary, definition.

The most interesting answer I received was “When does due diligence kick in?” Do we as organizations have a threshold for more due diligence on grants? If so, when that line is crossed, when we dig deeper to learn more about the grantee, then it is no longer a “small” grant. Some organizations simply verify the nonprofit status of their grantees and send the money. For them, that is a small grant, because they are satisfying the basic requirements.

But when funders start gathering more details, like lists of board members, audited financials, governing documents, and 990s, then it becomes bigger than small. I had not thought of it that way. In every organization I have worked at, we collected the same information, regardless of size. I asked others and they too were intrigued. They also collected the same data, regardless of size. I liked this answer, but I realized it only works if there is a threshold for more due diligence.

Defining a small grant is difficult, and I did not leave New Orleans with a straightforward answer. “Small” means different things to different people, yet there is some consensus that anything under $10,000 is a small grant. I’m excited to delve deeper into this issue, and I’ll explore the impact of these small grants in my next posts.




Erik Josephson

Erik Josephson is the Senior Grants and Contracts Administrator at Capital Impact Partners. He is also on Capital Impact’s Corporate Contributions Committee, and has over eight years of firsthand knowledge of how small grants have a significant impact on the receiving organizations.

Any views or opinions represented in this blog post are personal and belong solely to the blog writer and do not represent those of people, institutions, or organizations that the blog writer may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated.

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