How to Measure a Drop in the Bucket

Late last year, Mark Zuckerberg announced he was donating 99% of his Facebook stock to charitable causes over his lifetime. This was not the first time he donated large amounts of money, nor is he the only one to do so. J.P. Morgan Chase has pledged over $100 million for the next five years to support their work in Detroit. This year, the Gates Foundation is giving $1.5 billion to support vaccine development; last year the Ford Foundation gave $18 million to support international education efforts; and the Hewlett Foundation gave over $32 million to support research into global climate change. Federal grant programs can also be in the million-dollar-plus range.

These grants grab headlines. Their amounts are staggering to think about. Billions of dollars have been poured into various projects, and all that money has changed the lives of countless people and made a difference in a myriad of ways. Yet, I wonder, does all that money have the same impact as a smaller donation?

Within the philanthropic world, discussions have been going on for years about the impact of grants on the organizations they fund. As a whole, the number of small foundations, with a small staff and modest budgets, far outweigh the larger foundations. These foundations simply do not hand out million dollar, or even hundred thousand dollar grants. Many of my colleagues handle “small” grants, the ones that are only listed in an annual report. Does that mean that these small, hundred-to-thousand dollar grants are not as transformative as their jaw-dropping cousins?

Given this conversation, how often do we as grants professionals think about small grants, even if we work mainly in that area of the funding spectrum?  How often do we stop and think about the impact a small grant can have? At a very basic level, what defines a small grant? Is it anything under one hundred thousand dollars? Or is it anything under fifty thousand? Or is it more arbitrary? The Nonprofit Times recently covered this topic, and provided a basic framework for weighing the potential of a small grant. In the article, Holly Thompson of the Grantsmanship Center is quoted as saying “small grants that are in the nonprofit’s sweet spot can accomplish a lot with a little.”

So how do we make sure our small grants are hitting that “sweet spot”?  I’m excited for the opportunity to write for GMN. These topics are some of the areas I look to explore in upcoming blog 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.

4 Responses

  1. Patty Arroyo says:

    The ocean is a collection of small drops …

  2. Adriana Jimenez says:

    Great post, Erik! At Surdna it’s often the “small” grants (i.e. those that don’t require board approval) that allow us to be more experimental and innovative or fund new projects/organizations. This doesn’t make them less strategic but it does allow us to streamline our work by using a faster approval process and shorter application form.

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