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Jan Lee headshot

Aetna Foundation Sponsored Series

Building Healthier Communities

Microgrants Make Big Impacts for Local Communities

By Jan Lee


When the Christopher Reeve Foundation was considering how to increase support for caregivers who provide home care for paralysis patients, it came up with an unusual idea: Why not create a grant-making program for healthcare organizations so they can offer their specialized support to family members who need to take time off?

The foundation knew that burnout is a frequent challenge for caregivers, especially those faced with caring for individuals with paralysis. It also knew there was a dearth of government funding for such support, and private respite care is expensive.

So the foundation launched its Respite Care Grant Program last month to help organizations with an interest in providing fill-in care for family caregivers. The grant program will help fund respite care for at-home caregivers, while providing income for home care agencies that serve as the professional backbone to home care.

While the Christopher Reeve Foundation’s new grant program sounds unique (and it is), its altruistic goals aren’t. Philanthropy has been around almost as long as humans have, serving an often indispensable role in ensuring community resiliency.

Plato, in the 5th century B.C., directed his nephew to sell off his farm after he died so the money could be used to support students and faculty at the school he founded.

Roxelana, the wife of the Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, used a charitable trust to give support for widows and orphans in Jerusalem during the 16th century.

The ethos of philanthropy cuts across all cultures and religions. And its value can be found in the literature and founding principles of all major religions, including Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism.

Here in North America, the concept of providing grants for community improvement has been an integral part of sustainable growth in big and small neighborhoods. The JM Kaplan Foundation, for example, has funded support for human rights, environmental conservation, civil liberties and the arts. And for the smaller but equally important endeavors of the First Nations Development Institute, philanthropy has served as an essential tool to bettering America’s cities, rural districts and families.

But each one of these unique organizations has, at one time or another, faced the same challenging questions: What is the best way to create a funding program that will benefit my  target community? How do I determine whom to fund? And how do I build longevity into my program?

Grant-making: A community endeavor

How you approach that first question will help ensure your grant program stays strong and successful, said Aaron Dorfman, CEO and president of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.


Determining your priorities before you decide whom to fund is critical to being an effective grant-maker.

“We too often see people or organizations with good intentions, who say ‘we just want to help everyone in our community!’ Well, the fact of the matter is: That is usually not possible,” Dorfman said bluntly.

“Most grant-makers have very limited budgets in comparison to the issues and challenges they are seeking to address. And so, in trying to help everyone in the community, often philanthropy will end up doing very little good for anyone. So it is a far better strategy to be intentional about which communities you are seeking to help.”

The First Nations Institute, for example, developed its Nourish Native Children, Feeding Our Future grant program in order to help Native American communities expand their child nutrition programs. The funding targets children ages 6 to 14 living in Native American communities.

The specificity of the grant program not only makes it easier for grantees to understand the qualifications they need in order to apply (i.e., an existing nutrition program for Native American children), but it also tells donors that the grant-making organization already has a fact-based plan for improving the economic conditions in certain communities.

Dorfman also said it is important for potential grant-making organizations to think carefully about the kinds of benefits they want to bring to their communities.

“We also see too little philanthropic support in general that is intentionally seeking to benefit the most vulnerable and marginalized communities: low-income communities, communities of color, women and girls, [and the] LBGT community,” Dorfman explained.


Don't be afraid to take chances

Ensuring that your grant program will be helpful and useful within your community is also important, advised Dorfman, who said grant-makers are often afraid to step out of their comfort zones and consider projects that may seem bold or even controversial.


“I think a mistake grant-makers make is that they don’t take enough risk,” Dorfman told us. "If a few of the grants you are making don’t make you just a little bit nervous about ‘I don’t know if this is going to work out,’ then you aren’t taking enough risk. If you are only making safe bets, you aren’t going to make transformative change in your community.”

The collaborative arts organization South by Southwest, based in Texas, is known for its unconventional grant projects. This year’s SXSW community grant winners include a mobile child-minding unit for kids whose moms work in film and a project that uses music and camaraderie to help veterans talk and heal from their wartime experiences.

“You want to have some of those kinds of groups in your portfolio along with safer, more traditional groups,” Dorfman advised.

Designing a grant application process to match and reflect its financial benefits is also important, he explained, adding that there is a risk with making the application process too burdensome, especially for smaller grants. Applications should reflect the award that is being offered. Subjecting your grantees to hours of work to apply for a small award can send the message that you aren’t really in touch with the needs of the communities you are soliciting.

Multi-year grants or single-year?

Many applicants have recurrent funding needs. A nonprofit theater program, for example, will probably be looking for funding next year as well if it’s expecting to continue to grow. Offering multi-year grants rather than single-term funding allows the applicant to look ahead and plan for the future. That look-ahead approach assures a better use of your investment in their project.


“The evidence is clear that long-term support that is unrestricted does the most to contribute to impact and effectiveness of nonprofit grantee organizations. And far too few philanthropies provide that kind of funding,” Dorfman told us.

He said a lot of corporate grant-makers think that by offering single-year grants (with or without an option to reapply), they are making their funds available to more eligible applicants. The truth is that single-term funding can make it harder and more expensive for startups to survive.

Build a sustainable program starting at the top

For companies and foundations, building a resilient grant program -- like many business initiatives -- often starts with the top leadership of an organization. Dorfman said it is critical to the longevity and success of a grant program that the organization’s leadership is fully behind the effort and has “buy-in” to its continued success.


“Make sure there is deep commitment to a grant-making program from the top executive of the corporation, that they understand how this is not just ‘a nice thing to do,’ but this is in fact essential to the values and the DNA of who the company is and what it stands for in the world.”

Dorfman said organizations that see the grant funding program as integral to their corporate culture and identity have a better success at maintaining a strong, resilient program that meets its goals and contributes to its community

And it’s also important to remember that a grantor’s responsibility doesn’t end when the money is awarded. Encouraging a good rapport with your grantees can have a lasting impact on your program’s longevity and success as well as theirs. Keeping an open door and being willing to dialogue with grantees demonstrates that the relationship doesn’t end with a check; you are invested in and want to be part of their community endeavor. It’s all part of “being a good grant partner,” Dorfman said simply.

Grant programs have a plethora of online resources at their fingertips these days. The NCRP publishes a list of what it considers to be the top criteria for potential grantors to consider, along with periodic studies and findings about best grant-funding practices.

Peak Grantmaking (formerly Grant Managers Network) also helps with the nuts and bolts of setting up and running a grant program. Project Streamline (part of Peak Grantmaking) helps grant providers simplify and direct their strategy and processes. And for those looking for tips on how to create small community grant programs, Exponent Philanthropy is a wealth of information.

Dorfman’s final advice: “Keep it simple." Grant funding is a learning process like everything else. “Start funding some really good things, and learn as you go and as you grow your philanthropy.”

Flickr images - Lance Cheung/USDA; George Dutton/USACE

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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