The new and improved!

Benoit Malenge goes over record-keeping with a new business leader in DRC.

Benoit Malenge goes over record-keeping with a new business leader in DRC.

This year is a big year for Spirit in Action! In 2011 we are celebrating our 15th year (1996-2011) in service around the world. The new is a perfect place to celebrate our accomplishments and continue to inform you about our regular activities. The website has new descriptions of our work and focus, vivid pictures, and regular stories featuring the people we support.

We are committed to telling you how your contributions are being used around the world and to sharing the amazing success stories from the people who receive SIA grants. Once a week, I post pictures, personal reflections, critical examinations of our work, or project updates on our blog. You can now sign up to receive an email when there is a new blog post by visiting:

Some highlights of the new site include:
Our Work – Descriptions of our programs, pictures of our Small Business Fund coordinators & more
A map of our grants – See where we have sent grants in recent year
Our Blog – Check regularly and contribute your thoughts and ideas
How You Can Help – Your contributions (financial, in-kind, prayer) are so important to those in need. You can now make secure donations online.

A big THANK YOU to Beth Craggs and Larry Denny for their support during the creation of our new website!

Please forward this email to your family, friends, and colleagues. We want to hear what you think about our new website. Share your thoughts with us on Facebook or email us at!

With joy and thanksgiving,

Small (grants) but Mighty!

This week’s post is from Jennifer Lentfer of How Matters. She has worked for several organizations that, like Spirit in Action, give small grants to developing countries. In this post she shares about what small grantmaking looks like and explains how it works.

Spirit in Action is listed as one of the organizations doing work similar to what Jennifer describes.



Thanks to probing, concrete questions from Maryline Penedo, moderator of a virtual discussion on aid effectiveness from a gender perspective sponsored by UN-WOMEN at the end of last year, I was able to better share my experience of alternative small grant mechanisms that directly support community groups. From the inside in, it’s often difficult to describe your own experience, but Maryline helped me to elaborate on the approach used by a family foundation I worked with for many years that was crafting an alternative to business as usual in the aid and philanthropic sectors. I’m gratefully utilizing her questions to create a Q & A format in the second of two posts (see Part 1 here) that attempt to answer the important questions posed by fellow blogger, Dave Algoso, “So what’s that look like? And who, if anyone, has done this well?”


Q: Could you be more explicit about what you mean by “minimum accountability requirements” necessary [to lower the barrier for local organizations to benefit from funding]?

A: The foundation’s proposal and reporting formats were specifically formulated to break down language and conceptual barriers that often serve to exclude community-based organizations from more typical funding mechanisms.  For example, rather than having to provide abstract objectives and a logframe, organizations were straightforwardly asked to respond to about ten questions such as “What are you trying to achieve?” and “What do you plan to do in this proposal to bring about these changes?” At the reporting stage, the same occurred with such questions asWhat were you able to achieve?andHow do you know if you are making progress on your goals?Every attempt was made to de-technicalize development jargon and offer questions that were easy to translate in local languages, including financial reporting.

Q: How did you find and establish communication with community-based organizations?

A: Local groups found out about the foundation’s open request for proposals through networks of civil society organizations that were contacted, but most often through word-of-mouth. Each year this foundation gets more and more inquiries, usually through email. The rise of and access to ICT in the developing world really makes these types of funding mechanisms more possible than ever before.

Q: In which language did community-based organizations have to submit their applications?

A: The foundation accepted applications and reports in local languages and even accepted those that were handwritten. They believed that in order to reach marginalized groups that were doing good work, the foundation needed to take on the expense and time of translation, rather than pass on this burden to applicants and grantees.

Q: Were there any specific requirements about the independent references requested in the application process?

A: The foundation asked applicants to provide contact information of people who knew their organization’s work, but the foundation also reached out to its network of “eyes on the ground” to verify the legitimacy of organizations. Rarely did “bad” groups slip through. Program officers were actually encouraged by the board to carry a certain amount of risk in their portfolios. From the foundation’s perspective, a couple of failed small grants from time to time was an acceptable price of doing business in this way.

Q: To what extent were staff involved in the implementation of the [grantees’] projects? Did they only follow up or did they contribute to a larger extent?

A: The role of program officers in this scenario is not confused between grantmakers and implementers, as it is in many traditional aid scenarios. The foundation firmly believed that since they were not running the programs, not on the ground, not interacting directly with the people being served, its funding did not result in its ownership of the programs. Rather, grants were seen as an investment in sound local leadership, not as a means of “ensuring that all projects are carried out in accordance with the terms and conditions of their respective contractual agreements.” (This quote is taken from an INGO job posting I just read. Ugh, I will not be applying.)

When a program officer’s key function and skill set is developed to identify and support local organizations that effectively strengthen the community’s capacity to address its own needs, the donor-grantee relationship fundamentally changes. When the level of community ownership of a program or organization is adequately established, a certain amount of trust can then be relied upon for accountability in a small grants scenario. It is also worth mentioning that in my experience, the smaller the organization, the easier is to observe community ownership as there are key personal relationships to which leaders are held downwardly accountable. Unfortunately, this is counter-intuitive to unexamined thinking and practices in the sector that remain leftover from modernist and racist approaches to development.

Q: Were staff responsible for conducting any evaluation of the projects and if so, what was the nature of this evaluation?

A: Formal evaluations were not a part of follow-up. Consider that the price of an evaluation for even a US$10,000 grant would probably exceed the amount of grant itself. Therefore, the foundation focused on helping grantees develop proportional expectations for their own monitoring throughout the partnership. Foundation staff critically analyzed grantee reports and renewal proposals, and conducted site visits in order to determine the extent of responsible use of the foundation’s funds and locally-mobilized resources, empowerment of communities and families, holistic programming, and demonstrated outcomes.

The foundation’s grant “loss” rate was approximately 1 percent, meaning that they were able to verify that 99 percent of grants were used for the purposes for which they were intended. This demonstrates the strength of due diligence within its grantmaking mechanism, and the skill of the program staff in identifying and supporting promising and effective grassroots organizations.

Q: Were these community organizations supposed to learn by themselves?

A: Capacity building funding was available through the course of partnership, but more importantly, the foundation supported a peer-to-peer learning approach, in which grantees could establish their own supportive relationships and learning strategies with other civil society organizations. Program officers were not expected to act as technical “experts” engaged in skills transfer. Rather they were expected to identify and highlight the learning that occurs within local organizations naturally, and also to ask questions that enabled groups to reflect on their own accomplishments in social change at the local level.

Q: What was the length of the grants?

Even though grants were small (<US$10,000) and short-term (annual) in most cases, partnerships were designed to be 7-10 years, which is what I think is really necessary and realistic to help local organizations firmly establish themselves as civil society institutions within their community.


Initial List of Small Grantmakers in the International Development and Philanthropic Sectors
(Small grants are defined as approximately <US$20,000.)

African Women’s Development Fund

American Jewish World Service


Cottonwood Foundation

Disability Rights Fund

Firelight Foundation

Front Line

Fund for Global Human Rights


Global Fund for Children

Global Fund for Women

Global Greengrants


Grassroots International

The International Community Foundation

International Development Exchange (IDEX)

KIOS – Finnish NGO Foundation for Human Rights

The Lambi Fund of Haiti


Mary’s Pence


New Field Foundation

The Niapele Project

The Norwegian Human Rights Fund

One World Children’s Fund

Rising Voices

Spirit in Action

Stephen Lewis Foundation

UNDP Small Grants Programme, The Global Environment Facility

Urgent Action Fund

The Virginia Gildersleeve International Fund


Related post:

SIA Small Business Fund – explained

Thank you from SIA & Updates from Uganda

Happy New Year!

I wanted to take this opportunity to thank everyone who contributed financially to Spirit in Action in 2010. Your contributions helped us exceed our end-of-the-year $10,000 goal (we raised $13,341 since November!) In the whole of 2010, 92 individual donors gave for a total of $31,616. Wow! Spirit in Action is blessed to have so many supporters.

Thanks to our generous matching donors from the SIA Board of Directors, your gifts will go twice as far toward helping us expand our micro-grants, self-help programs, and solar cooker projects.

Because of your support, we’re able to help grassroots community organizations around the world improve their villages through skills training, micro-savings programs, and small-scale, responsive financial support.

The latest Business Reports I received were from coordinator Nalu Prossy in Uganda. She trained five new small business groups in June 2010, including Mariam Nakidde’s Maize growing business. Three months after a $100 initial grant from SIA, the business has generated $58 in profit. Perhaps most importantly, “It has made them to plan for their future,” reports Ms. Prossy.

Thank you —without your support, projects just like this one would not be possible. If you donated in the first quarter of 2010, it is possible that your donation directly helped Ms. Makidde’s business!

We also welcome your prayer support for favorable farming weather in eastern Africa this year!

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