What You Need to Know about Small Grants

Do you work with a new or small nonprofit organization? Have you been searching for small grants recently?

If you have, there's some good news and bad news.

First, the good news. If you are associated with a newly launched organization or small nonprofit and seek grants of $50,000 or less (a common definition of a small grant), many funding agencies award grants within this range.

Now the bad news. If you have been using "small grants" as your main search term to find grants, you may be missing out on opportunities.

Are You Missing Out on Opportunities

by Focusing on Small Grants?

Using "small grants" as your search term in a donor database or search engine can lead you to miss potential opportunities for a few reasons.

  • There is no standard definition of "small grants." Small grant programs vary considerably. One funder may use the term to apply to grants under $200,000 while another may use the term for grants of $25,000 or less.
  • Funders--government agencies and foundations (family, private, community, corporate)--award a range of grant amounts. In fact, according to the Foundation Center's report, Key Facts on U.S. Foundations released in 2014, the median grant size awarded by U.S. foundations was $30,000 in 2012. If you structure your search around the search term "small grants," you risk surfacing only those funders that use the words "small grants" to describe their programs. Meanwhile, you'll miss the much larger group of funders that award grants of varying sizes.  Many community and family foundations offer grants under $25,000 but don't see it as a small grants program. It's simply their grant strategy.
  • Grant amounts are not a good indicator of fit between your organization's work and a potential funder's priorities.  There are several factors to consider when trying to identify a funding source. A funder's average grant amount is only one of the things you should look at, and it's arguably not even the most important thing. Before you search for funders based on average award size,  first search for funders that fund the type of work you do, in the part of the world you do it. If you search under small grants and generate a list of "small grants programs," but none of the funders on the list fund the types of projects you do--or they don't fund projects in the location where you work--your search hasn't generated any leads for you. On the other hand, if you start your search by generating a list of funders that are both interested in the work you do, and where you do it, then you can narrow the list further by searching for "small grants" if you want. Or, even better, after you generate a list of potential funders, investigate each one thoroughly to learn more about the types of awards they make, dollar amount and program area. You may find--even though they don't have a formal "small grants program"--that many of the donors give grants of the dollar amount you are targeting.

In addition to the risk that you may lose out on funding opportunities, focusing on small grants doesn't necessarily mean you'll be dealing with an easier application or, after the award, a less burdensome reporting process.  Small grant programs sometimes have a simple application process, but they can also require a full proposal, a detailed budget, and--once the award comes through--quarterly or biannual progress reports. Before you decide to apply to a small grants program, read through the program description carefully to make sure the grant is not only "right-sized" for your organization, but also that its application and reporting requirements are calibrated to your organization's level of expertise and resources.

If Searching for Small Grants Doesn't Work, What Does?

If you are new to grant writing, let's say you started a nonprofit organization and need a little bit of money to get going, what are you supposed to do? If searching for "small grants" isn't the answer, what is?

Searching for "small grants" isn't necessarily off of the table. You can search for small grants as part of your strategy. What you don't want to do is focus exclusively on small grants.

Searching for grants is a process. It isn't fast, and it isn't always linear. Searching under a single keyword or funding mechanism can be too limiting. Instead, think about what you do, where you do it, who you do it for--answers to these questions will expand your search terms, and ultimately, the list of potential funders you'll uncover.

If you are too specific when you look for funding, you risk missing funders that fund exactly what you do and offer grants in dollar range you want (e.g. small grants) but use different terminology than you do to describe their interests. You search under "indigenous populations" but the funder says it funds project serving "native peoples;" or you search under " sustainable agriculture" and the funder refers to "organic farming." Don't limit yourself. Use lots of approaches, sift through the results, see what you uncover.

Searching for grants in this regard is more like the process of mining for precious metals than harvesting fruit from a tree. If you want a particular kind of apple, you could visit an orchard that grows the variety you want and pick the apples.  There will be a chance the fruit isn't ripe or the tree has already been picked bare, but you know that if your timing is right, then this orchard, this tree, will give you what you want.

On the other hand, if you are mining for something, you have to sift through a lot of debris to find what you seek. There's no guarantee you'll find what you are looking for, or if you do, that it'll be in quantities large enough to make your efforts worthwhile. However, you may find some unexpected surprises: You may start digging in pursuit of one thing and end up finding something else that is much more valuable. In the prospect research world, that unexpected surprise may be discovering a foundation you've never heard of before that provides grants in your area of focus.

Regardless of whether your organization is decades old or two weeks old, whether you've never written a grant before or written 40, if you need funding, you'll have to do research. Using all of the tools at your disposal--from the Internet, to a funder database, to your professional network--you'll need to generate leads, sift through the results, and repeat. This is what it takes to uncover those nuggets of gold that turn out to be your ideal sources of funding.

How Can Newly Established Nonprofits/NGOs

Secure Grant Funding?

As with uncovering sources of grant funding,  there isn't one way to get funding if you are a new organization.

You can search for grants that self-identify as focusing on new or smaller-scale organizations (again, look for small grants but don't stop there). Another and complementary approach is to find a more established organizations with which you can partner. If you can team up with an organization that already has been successful in receiving and administering grants, you can learn valuable information about the grant process. Additionally, through partnering, you can get your organization's name in front of the philanthropic community. This name recognition will help you when you apply for grants on your own.

If you are new to the grant scene, it's also valuable to reach out to the program officers at foundations and government agencies to introduce your organization and the work you do (or intend to do). Once a funding opportunity announcement goes out funders usually do not wish to be contacted, so do what you can to get to know the funders that provide grants in your area of work before you start submitting applications.

Select Small Grants Programs

As mentioned earlier, small grant programs are diverse. Some small grant programs provide grants of a few thousand dollars while others may define "small" grants as grants of $100,000 - $200,000. Small grant programs exist to support a variety of programs from community-based projects to research initiatives.  To  illustrate the diversity of small grant programs that exist, below is a short list of programs at the community, regional, national, and global levels:

Additional Resources