Running a Small Grants Programme

This Learning Library of information has been primarily designed for philanthropic, corporate or charitable trusts and foundations currently running or considering setting-up a new Small Grants Programme (SGP) in Ireland or elsewhere for that matter. It is also designed for the use of anyone with an interest in grant programmes. The library includes guidance for setting up a SGP; managing a SGP; establishing what you want from a SGP; information on collaborations; good practice guidelines; and a series of questions posed for further consideration when implementing a SGP.

Scope & Focus

Scope and Focus

What is the purpose of your grant programme? What do you want to achieve? What issue or issues do you want to address and in what geographical location?

Why is this important?

Grantmaking organisations should outline the sort of grant programme they wish to be and what impact they wish to achieve from the outset, as this will determine the design and implementation of their programmes.

Considerations and Implementations

In defining a grant scheme’s purpose ask yourself what impact you wish to achieve. Is this best achieved through supporting the delivery of existing services and activities? Is it best achieved through helping build organizational capacity and make institutions stronger and more effective? Or do you want to change systems by having an impact on the development of policy?

It is imperative that you research what is already provided to show evidence of need for your programme. How much do you know about the cause/s you propose supporting? Who is already working to address the cause/s? Are other philanthropic organisations funding in this area? What changes are needed? How can your organisation’s support make a difference?

In thinking about how you will make a difference it is useful to define your fund’s purpose in detail.
 Can you describe the goal of your programme in one compelling sentence?
 What type of change do you wish to see?
 At what level should change appear?

Is your SGP going to respond to the proposals/applications you receive selecting those you believe to have the greatest merit? Or are you going to be focused on changing a particular service area or method of doing something? Or maybe focused on funding services where none are currently offered at all.

A further consideration is how you wish funds to be used so as to achieve the impact you desire. Consider if it is useful to impose limitations in how funding is used e.g. for specific ring fenced projects, skills development, salaries, capital projects or a mixture. Will limitations hinder or enhance grantees in achieving their objectives? Where do you want to achieve impact? Is it locally, nationally or further afield? Would it be useful for you to impose geographic boundaries?

In practice the more clearly defined the scope and focus of a SGP, the lighter the administrative burden for both the grant making body and the applicants. The wider the scope, the greater the spread and number of applications that you are likely to receive, adding substantially to your administrative burden. It also means that time has been spent making applications by lots of organisations, not all of whom will be successful. Clearly defining the purpose of your grant scheme helps you build the criteria for awarding grants and makes it easier for applicants to decide if it is appropriate to apply (see also Grantee & Grantor Process). It also helps you to build knowledge of the issue or area you wish to address (see also Sector Learning)

SGP Example
ESB Electric Aid Ireland is an example of a Corporate Social Responsibility initiative which has been effective as a targeted Small Grants Programme. Set up in 2006, staff were involved in the selection of its two priorities: Care of the Homeless and Suicide Prevention and Counselling. Having completed two, three-year terms with an annual allocation of approximately €1m, an extension was granted for a further year. Considerable knowledge of the sector in the two priority areas has been built over the years (which has been used to inform practice, including advice and guidance for applicants, and improve decision-making) and relationships developed with grantees. Review and consultations will determine the initiative’s future for 2013 and beyond. There is the prospect that new priorities will be identified, for example addressing the impact of the economic downturn, which will require the development of expertise and relationships in new fields of work. Nonetheless the experience of operating a well-managed Small Grants Programme will no doubt carry through, in particular in respect of the clarity of information on the programme, well defined criteria, and streamlined procedures.

Sector Learning

Sector Learning

How much do you know about the issue or sector you are focusing on and how will you become more expert in the area? How can you improve learning across the sector?

Why is this important?

If you have expertise in the issues or sectors you are supporting you can add value and can also make better judgments regarding the quality of applications you receive. If you are focused on a sector there may be opportunities to help grantees learn as well?

Considerations and Implementations

This is closely allied with scope and focus (See Scope & Focus). The research that you have carried out to ensure evidence of need will give you greater knowledge of the issue or cause you are seeking to address. The more narrowly focused your target is the easier it is for you to research and acquire knowledge and understanding. You will also learn about recognised best practices in addressing the issues. As you understand more about specific areas of activity or specific issues you learn more about the problems that are likely to occur for the projects you are choosing to support. This enables you to add value in an advisory capacity e.g. letting an applicant know that they have missed a vital ingredient in a project proposal or have underestimated the cost of some operational issue. If you are operating a grant that is focused on a specific sector or issue there may be ways in which you can build in learning opportunities for grantees to engage with each other and share learning about best practice. (See also Donor Engagement & Evidencing Impact)

Developing your understanding and knowledge of the issue or sector also enables you to develop more relevant and specific criteria for the awarding of grants (see also Grantor & Grantee Process). This can make your decision-making process less onerous and can also help applicants decide in advance whether they should apply to your grant scheme.

SGP Example
The Minority Kids Fund was a once-off fund created by the One Foundation to support the inclusion of minority children into mainstream children and youth organisations throughout Ireland.

The fund was set up in recognition of the need to learn from other European Countries and avoid having an alienated, disenfranchised group of second-generation ethnic minority children. The aim was to prioritise active outreach and learn the lessons already known about how to do this well. At the time in Ireland, there was little evidence of ethnic minority children and young people being engaged in mainstream youth and children’s organisations, so the aim of the fund was to catalyse activity and draw together the people and organisations leading out in developing practice, to capture and share the lessons learned.

The Fund amount spent was € 525,735K. It was segmented it into two categories; 1) grants between €20-€100K (54% of fund spend in the amount of €285K) and 2) grants €1-€20K (46% of fund spend in the amount of €240K). The original fund was €300K but it was recognised that by enlarging the fund, learning could be captured from different approaches and settings which would point to what works best and provide a greater understanding of the challenges to be overcome. Projects funded ranged from in school to out of school situations, from outreach type activities to strategy development which in itself accounted for 7 out of 17 of the grants awarded. The experience of a small grants programme generated some learning for the One Foundation in terms of approach, both expectations and what can be realistically achieved. Of the initiatives piloted, Yellow Flag was rolled out and continues to scale.

Grantor & Grantee Process

Grantor and Grantee Process

What is the process going to be for applicants? What is the process going to be for you in making awards?

Why is this important?

A great deal of time and cost may be taken up in administration so it is worth considering what is appropriate for grantees and for you as the grantor.

Considerations and Implementations

You will want to consider this from the point of view of the people who will be applying for awards and also from your own perspective. There are costs for applicants involved in identifying funders, preparing applications, managing their grants, and reporting to funders. Similarly for funders there are costs associated with programme design and promotion, assessment, management, and learning.

• What is appropriate for your target sector? This is connected to Scope and Focus (See Scope & Focus) and to the people or groups who will be applying to you (see Applicant Type and Support).
• How will potential applicants find out about your grant?
• What information do you need to make available to them?
• How much information do you need to get from applicants?
• How much effort is reasonable for you to ask of your applicants?

It may not be effective to ask applicants to spend a lot of time on an application unless they have a very good chance of success. If you are looking for a great deal of information that is going to take a lot of time and effort to supply to you, would the applicants be better using their time in delivering on their main mission? Maybe a staged process whereby applicants go through an initial assessment based on a short application followed by a more detailed one for those who get through the first stage would be appropriate for your grant programme. In practice staged processes tend to more useful for highly targeted programmes which are aiming to support a very small number of grantees.

What kinds of resources will your applicants have at their disposal? For example, an online application form may be extremely convenient for both you and potential applicants. But some groups of applicants may be uncomfortable with such a form or would not easily have access to the Internet. In designing your application forms you will need to consider the type of language you use and the skills of your applicants. Applicants with deep knowledge of a particular cause may be comfortable filling out an application and familiar with more complex language. Others such as voluntary groups may not have such familiarity and may even have difficulties completing a detailed application form.

• What help and advice might you need to offer?
• How can you make forms appropriately accessible?
• If you are designing online application forms consider how they will be used. Would a save and return function be useful allowing an applicant to get additional information without losing what they have already input?
• What is appropriate for you and for the resources at your disposal? It is important to consider the quantity of applications and the amount of information you may receive. In designing application forms you need to think about the information that is critical for you to receive.
• How can you guide applicants to offer you the relevant information and limit them from overloading you with information?
• How will you manage the information you receive from applicants?
• What technology can you utilize to automate the process?
• Who is available to administer applications and make decisions?
• How will you divide up the work?
• Will you have deadline dates for the receipt of applications?
• How will you acknowledge receipt of applications?
• What will be the decision making process for the granting of awards?
• How much information are you going to need from applicants in order to be able to make a decision?
• What kind of controls do you need to ensure good governance?
• Once a decision has been made, what happens next?
• How do you inform those who are successful?
• What about those that are unsuccessful?
• What feedback can you give to help those who were unsuccessful learn from the experience?
• How do you transfer funds to the recipients and what kind of assurance will you need regarding receipt and use by grantees (see also Donor Engagement & Evidencing Impact).

Do not underestimate the burden of administration of your grant programme. Look for ways to streamline the process that are easy to use for both you and your applicants. Aim for a process which will reduce incomplete or ineligible applications coming to you which waste time and money for both you and the applicants.

SGP Example
Social Entrepreneurs Ireland support people who have big new solutions to Ireland’s social and environmental problems. They provide funding and a range of in-depth support to the grantee social entrepreneurs. They award eight grants to social entrepreneurs each year; three Impact Awards worth €200,000 each and five Elevator Awards worth €35,000 each.. Awards are a combination of money and on-going support and mentoring.

As the individual social entrepreneur behind a project is one of the key factors in its success, Social Entrepreneurs Ireland place a strong emphasis on the person applying as part of their evaluation process. While the individuals can be assessed through an interview process, experience has shown that true assessment of the suitability of the applicant to the Social Entrepreneurs Ireland Awards Programme comes from actually working with them. This has led to the development of an updated selection process:
- The initial application is a short online form which can be completed over the period which the application process is open.
- Following an initial review, 40 shortlisted candidates are then brought on a one-day ‘Bootcamp’ during which they pitch their idea to a panel of judges.
- 18 applicants are then invited to attend an interview, after which eight candidates are chosen as the ‘Finalists’.
- These eight Finalists are guaranteed to achieve either an Impact or an Elevator Award, The eight finalists take part in a 3 month finalists programme during which a member of the Social Entrepreneurs Ireland team, previous award winners and external consultants work with them helping to clarify thinking around their idea and mission.
- The relationship that is built during this time and the insight into the people, their ideas and the change they can drive through their project informs the decision making on who will receive Impact and Elevator Awards.

Throughout this entire process, Social Entrepreneurs Ireland works to ensure that applicants get value out of every stage of the selection process through the experience, training and feedback they receive. The process means Social Entrepreneurs Ireland can make more informed decisions about which entrepreneurs to choose, and ultimately ensures that any investments are directed at the social entrepreneurs who will have the most impact following the award.

Scale & Duration

Scale and Duration

How big is your fund going to be, what size grants will you award? Will grants be once-off or will you support grantees over time?

Why is this important?

The size of your fund, the size of awards and the type of awards will be important factors in determining scope, focus and the process for awarding grants.

Considerations and Implementations

In some cases small grants can be very effective at meeting need and helping voluntary groups who would struggle to get funding elsewhere. In other cases a small award may make little difference and may impose a greater administrative burden on the grantee as they have to scrabble around trying to meet the shortfall.

• What size of grant will make a difference and help achieve the aims of your fund? This is closely related to Scope and Focus.
• Will the impact be achieved with a once-off grant award or would it be more effective to offer multi-year funding or other ongoing support to your grantees.

The size of grants you award should also help determine the complexity of the Process (see also Grantor & Grantee Process) as it is not efficient to impose a high transaction cost on an applicant for a small grant.

SGP Example

The Cork Street Fund is a legacy of the old Dublin Fever Hospital in Cork
Street which had set aside a fund to provide recovered patients with newclothes as their old ones would have been burned. The assets were subsequently invested to form the Cork Street fund which was established to provide for the sick, poor and needy of Dublin.

The fund provides small grants to organisations serving the Greater Dublin area with a leaning towards identified projects that may not get funding easily elsewhere. On occasion the fund makes grants to larger organisations for specific smaller projects. The test is whether the funding provided will enable the grantee make a difference to the sick, poor and needy of Dublin. With limited financial resources the fund tries to assist a broad range of organisations.


A totally different type of grant making organisation is Social Entrepreneurs Ireland, which supports people who have big new solutions to Ireland’s social and environmental problems. They provide funding and a range of in-depth support to the grantee entrepreneurs. Eight grants are awarded to social entrepreneurs each year; three Impact Awards worth €200,000 each and five Elevator Awards worth €35,000 each. They have learnt that deep involvement with their grantees drives more effective change and a better return on investment. The Impact Awards are provided in tranches over two to three years and supported by valuable advice, mentoring and other services from Social Entrepreneurs Ireland. Elevator Award winners are supported over a period of one year. They may apply subsequently for an Impact Award if they have developed their projects sufficiently. The focus of each of the Awards is to directly support the social entrepreneur, as they are the critical driver of the project, especially in the early stages of development.

Applicant Type & Support

Applicant Type and Support

Who are you going to fund? There are different types of applicant that you could fund such as voluntary groups, charities or individuals so which do you support?

Why is this important?

Deciding the type of grantee you will make awards to is closely allied to your focus and scope (See also Scope & Focus) and helps you to design the criteria for awarding grants and for following up on those grants.

Considerations and Implementations

It also clarifies who can apply for grants helping potential applicants decide where to use their time effectively in making applications.

• What type of grantee is going to achieve the goals of your fund?
• What kind of assurance do you need that the funds will be used correctly? Are you happy for funds to made available to an individual or must the grantee be an organized group with defined governance procedures?
• What kind of follow-up will you need or want to do to check on the use of the grant? (See also Donor Engagement & Evidencing Impact)

SGP Example

The primary aim of the Sisters of Mercy’s Solidarity Trust fund is to help promote a more just, peaceful and humane society by funding projects within particular categories. These include prisoners, ex-offenders and their families, victim/survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse, initiatives involved in integrating new communities into Irish Society, projects focused on educational disadvantage, groups addressing mental health and addiction issues, homelessness and older people living in isolation, especially in rural areas. As the sisters aged they were less able to engage in the work they had been doing in supporting people encountering these issues. So instead they decided to set up a fund in 2000 to support other people doing this work. Initially the fund offered a number of grants to support immigrants in third level education. However they found that this needed to be continued over the three years of a degree course to have the desired outcome and used up substantial funds. So they made a decision to fund only specific projects or initiatives run by structured organisations that have a charity number and an organisation bank account. Such structured charities are considered to be more likely to have longevity and prospects for future funding meaning that the grant from the Solidarity Trust will support work that is making a difference

Collaboration & Infrastructure

Collaboration and Infrastructure

It may be useful to consider how you could work with other agencies and grant programmes.

Why is this important?

Collaboration with other agencies or grant making programmes may increase the effectiveness of your grant making and create greater impact.

Considerations and Implementations

Examples of collaboration could be:
• Partnering with another grant programme to co-fund a project or cause or more effectively reach a particular sector or community
• Partnering with an organisation to pool skills
• Recommending another grant scheme to an applicant or even transferring applications to another grant scheme.
• Structured partnership agreements or less formal arrangements.
There may be opportunities for grant making organisations to collaborate on the application (see also Grantor & Grantee Process) and reporting process (See also Donor Engagement & Evidencing Impact) so that the applicants and grantees could use the same template forms thereby cutting down on their administration. Think about how you could network with other agencies or organisations that could help you achieve your goals more effectively.

SGP Example
An example of a structured partnership arrangement was the collaboration between The Atlantic Philanthropies and Age & Opportunity in the delivery of the pilot phase of the ‘Get Vocal Programme’. The pilot was in effect a Small Grants Programme with a specific sectoral focus on older people. The partnership enabled The Atlantic Philanthropies, a large-scale strategic funder, to reach local groups in order to address an identified weakness in the sector and help build capacity, in particular in relation to advocacy. The pilot phase created a platform for a sustained and substantial investment in the sector by The Atlantic Philanthropies over a further four years.
Another structured collaboration was The Parent and Toddler Group Initiative (2006- 2008), a partnership between the Katharine Howard Foundation and the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. The initiative released public funding and support for a strategic small grants programme which was designed to influence practice and child and family policy. The Katharine Howard Foundation designed and developed the scheme which supported 569 groups, allocating funding of €451,118 and importantly was able to hand over a database of all parent and toddler groups in the country, information packs and guidelines for groups, and a well developed and structured initiative for mainstream funding through City and County Childcare Committees.

Donor engagement & Evidencing Impact

Donor Engagement and Evidencing Impact

How much contact do you need to have with the people or organisations you award grants to? How much follow up do you need to have?

Why is this important?

Some grant schemes may have the need or desire to follow up closely on how money is spent and what impact your grant had; others to a lesser degree

Considerations and Implementations

Your decision regarding follow up and tracking of your grant will probably be related to the size of grants you are awarding, the size of the grantee organisations, your knowledge of the grantee organisations and the resources at your disposal to conduct such follow up (see also Scale & Duration). There are good reasons for follow up and tracking but there can also be reasons not to do it or to be selective about which you follow-up on.

Following up on a lot of very small grants may not be practical if it puts a strain on resources that would be better deployed elsewhere. That strain on resources may apply to both your organisation and to your grantees’ organisations.

• Do you have the resources available to follow up and check on the use of funds?
• Is your follow up going to be by means of a visit to a grantee site, a report from the grantee, the completion of a form by the grantee?
• If a report or form from the grantee, do you need this to be accompanied by receipts and do you need it within a specific timeframe?
• Do your grantees have resources who can report back to you and provide information or would their time be better spent on the delivery of their mission.
• What do you know about the grantee organisation or person?
• You may decide that good governance obliges you to follow up on some grants more closely than others.

Tracking what happens after you award a grant can help you to gain an understanding of the difference your grant made. This can be very useful in attracting more funds from donors and attracting new ones as you can prove the worth of what you are doing. Such understanding of what happens after the grant is made also adds to your learning (see also Sector Learning). The act of providing information can be a useful discipline for the recipient in managing a project and encourages them to reflect on their use of a grant and learn from this. There is much to consider in determining your level of engagement with grantees and it is worth thinking about what constitutes an appropriate balance for your grant programme.

SGP Example
Both The Ireland Funds and The Community Foundation for Ireland are actively engaged in fundraising and donor development. Evidence of impact is invaluable in attracting and cultivating donors. This has been achieved through the establishment of issue specific funds e.g. The Community Foundation’s Women’s Fund, or through a broader campaign such as The Ireland Funds’ ‘Small Grants – Big Difference’. The extent of the scope and reach of these programmes means however that they attract high numbers of applicants, requiring a highly efficient administrative system and inevitably some levels of rejection and disappointment. The down-side with high volume programmes is that there is less scope for systematic learning. They do however offer the potential to build funds in order to continue with support in specific areas, and on occasion to identify ‘bright spots’, and to scale up projects. Both organisations are essential players in the Small Grants Programmes infrastructure with considerable knowledge of the field and emerging areas of need, and can act as vehicles through which Small Grants Programmes can be developed and expanded.

Philantropy Ireland
×
MENU