From the Baltic Mini-Grant Program to the Virtual Foundation:
Small Grants and Global Change

Carolyn Schmidt
Program Director, ECOLOGIA
November 2005

Note: This article refers to ECOLOGIA’s “Baltic Mini-Grant Program” (1993-2003) and “Virtual Foundation” (1996-ongoing). Detailed descriptions of each program and its funders, statistical information, and explanations of the work of different partners can be found at and author hopes that the universal human dimensions of the story will resonate with readers regardless of their political beliefs, their direct involvement in global events, or their personal experiences with charitable giving.

Caesar Chavez, the Mexican-American farm labor organizer, was the moving force behind a nationwide US boycott of grapes which resulted in significant improvement in working conditions for agricultural workers, often Hispanic migrant families. After a dynamic rally to celebrate the successes of the union, Chavez was asked by an eager young man, “So tell me, how do you go about organizing?” Chavez replied, “First you talk to one person, then you talk to another.” His questioner persisted, “Really, how do you organize?” And Chavez replied again, “First you talk to one person, then you talk to another.”

As I think back over the fifteen year time period from 1988 through 2003, during which ECOLOGIA organized and carried out the Baltic Mini-Grant Program, this quotation from Caesar Chavez keeps ringing true. Anything based on grassroots – community-based, people to people activities – must have its inception in talk. At the start, such talk is not necessarily purposeful or businesslike; it is personal, conversational, and occurs when small groups of people come together and try earnestly and excitedly to bridge the gaps between them and to make sense of each others’ worlds. This happened spontaneously, not just to us but to thousands of others, on both sides of the “iron curtain”, who took advantage of the glasnost and perestroika offered by Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s, to travel, meet each other, discover common ground, and energize each other with the excitement of living through changes and contributing to them.

In 1989, Jonas Tamulis was a physicist at Vilnius University in the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. Jolanta Tamiuliene, his wife, was an architect; they and their two children lived in a small apartment on the sixth floor of university housing. Jonas, restless and eager to put his knowledge and energy to use, met an American environmentalist for dinner in one of Vilnius’ “cave restaurants”. In the dim light, and disregarding the presence of any listening devices, Jonas talked about the problems of the Ignalina nuclear power plant. This Chernobyl-style nuclear reactor had been built on an earthquake fault in the forest and lake region of eastern Lithuania. “We are afraid – we are sure that it is leaking. The radioactive wastes are just being dumped outside, or in the nearest lake. Workers are at special risk. But we have no way to prove this. It is illegal to use private radiation monitoring equipment. And anyway (legalities aside), we don’t have it.” True to form – Americans tend to be energetic optimists – the visitor replied, “There must be hand-held radiation detectors in the US. I’ll see what they cost, and how hard they are to get.” So upon his return to the US, the American made some phone calls, found a company that manufactured hand-held detectors, and ordered one. Returning to Lithuania, the “Radalert” hidden in his luggage along with vitamins and children’s Tylenol – both unavailable in Soviet Lithuania - he gave it to Jonas.

Jonas went on to walk the perimeter of the reactor at night, charting the radiation levels, discussing the findings with the workers’ leaders and with the managers of the plant. “When I showed them the Radalert, and my records, they did not even argue. They knew they had a problem, and now they could not conceal it. We met, with the plant manager, scientists, and the union leader. We talked together about ways they could reduce the radiation leaks, which they went on to do. The key was my radiation detector, and the fact that I had my own independent way to find this information.”

That hand-held radiation detector was probably ECOLOGIA’s first “small grant” – even before there was an ECOLOGIA. The backdrop was the shifting political and social climate in Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, allowing some information – and power – to travel from the bottom up, instead of being ‘received’ by the people from their leaders. The people who pushed it forward - who made the Soviet system collapse, and the Baltic nations gain their independence – were people like Jonas, multiplied by the hundreds or thousands. The American who had bought the Radalert by charging it to his Visa card was Randy Kritkausky, the founder of ECOLOGIA.

By the end of 1991, the Soviet Union had collapsed, and fifteen new countries were struggling to define themselves. Through their personal contacts, some of ECOLOGIA’s founders and colleagues (American, Lithuanian, Estonian) created a mechanism to replicate, on a larger scale, the connections which had brought us together in the first place – between grassroots community leaders who had the creativity, insight and drive to identify ways they could improve their societies, and ‘outsiders’ who had the complementary financial resources and organizational experience. ECOLOGIA’s “Baltic Mini-Grant Program” (1993 – 2003) brought together the experiences of American environmentalists, Baltic “greens” who had seen the power of ecological concerns for uniting citizens against the autocratic Soviet system, and an American foundation whose work was primarily in Israel, Latin America and the inner-city United States. Our advocacy for small grants was – and is – that people working in difficult circumstances can create networks of mutual trust, develop democratic practices, improve their neighborhoods and strengthen their communities, when they can operate in a framework of mutual respect, appropriate support and accountability. The challenge is to provide a management framework that honors local initiative and encourages local energy.

The argument that people in the post-Soviet societies needed American assistance to strengthen local initiative and independent (non-governmental) organizations – and to build ties of friendship between citizens of former enemy nations - was persuasive. Jack Vanderryn of The Moriah Fund decided to fund ECOLOGIA’s Baltic Mini-Grant Program. We set up Advisory Boards for each of the three Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), composed of individuals whom we knew and respected personally. Some of those personal friends made the transition to working colleagues; others did not. Advisory Board members publicized the mini-grant opportunities in their countries’ own languages, consulted with applicants, and selected the projects and groups to be funded. We allocated a fixed amount of money for each country, for distribution for community-based projects, and also an extremely modest stipend ($50 / year) and expense support for Advisory Board members. This was new to all of us. We had to work out problems and misunderstandings as they arose, tried to balance out friendship and trust, accountability and cultural differences, and the power inequalities that come when partners have differential access to money.


As we were reviewing the Estonian projects chosen for 2002, I was pretty disappointed. We in the US had retained control over the ultimate choice, since I had to approve and release the funds, but we had long since evolved from the cautious “Balts recommend but Americans have the final word” structure of the first year. Many of the projects seemed trivial to me – especially “Day of the Best Friend of Human Beings”, which involved a dog show and information about taking care of dogs. But Giedre Donauskaite, ECOLOGIA’s Lithuanian Program Director (herself a Lithuanian citizen living in Vilnius) reacted with enthusiasm, explaining that dog bites, dogs running wild, and abandoned dogs running in packs and terrorizing neighborhoods, were on the increase. With growing economic well-being, many families were now able to have a pet animal – dog or cat – for the first time. Dogs in particular were becoming a major social and physical problem in urban areas. Buoyed by Giedre’s evaluation, and also aware that my holding back the $200 for this project would not be an act of friendly partnership, I okayed and transferred the funds for all the Estonian projects.

This project followed the familiar yet always fascinating trajectory of delivering much more than had been described - or than a foreigner reading a brief summary had been able to imagine. ECOLOGIA’s $200 was matched by $300 from the local government (Nomme municipality, a sub-division of Tallinn). The proposal summary had described “an info-day for children and families about dog keeping in the town”. What the group actually did was to organize a Dog Show, and “…during the two week period before that event, volunteers from the Hobby Center, students and also local people living around the park, cleaned up the park. Nomme municipality helped with transportation. 59 dogs were exhibited, among them 46 breeded ones. Most people participating with their best friends were students aged 10 – 17. The organizers taught how to keep dogs at home, how to keep them healthy, and why it is necessary to train them. There were also specialists with service dogs, showing how dogs can help police, border-guards, etc. The educational and practical part of that event explained well to students that there is lots of fun to have a dog, but it also takes much time and work. Besides participants, there were also media representatives and video-makers. The Dog Show was also covered by one of the biggest Estonian dailies and by the local newspaper.”

So, what had this “Day of the Best Friend” accomplished? We can get analytical and say that it had strengthened “horizontal linkages”, contributed to civil society by integrating law-enforcement officers with the community, provided career-path guidance to young people, encouraged citizen participation and respect for ‘the commons’, strengthened neighborhood ties and senses of civil responsibility, encouraged local governments to be responsive to citizens, showed faith in young people as the future decision-makers of the society, etc.

But overall, the most important point is that we honored and supported the people’s initiatives - to define the problems that are on their minds, and then to develop their own solutions. Our process, rooted in respecting the choices, is profoundly empowering.


The immediate ground-level is the impact of specific projects in their own communities. Did the recycling program actually collect the paper and deliver it to the paper-pulping facility? Was the student art contest actually held? Did the beach clean-up really get enough volunteers to pick up the bottles, cans and other human debris? Was the nature trail completed as planned? Numbers, such as tons of paper collected, number of students’ paintings, number of volunteers, and kilometers of trail opened, can document the reality of the project, and give some sense of the number of people directly involved. Additional numbers, such as “matching funds” – amount of money supplied to the project by other organizations, in addition to those given by ECOLOGIA – can also be generated. This statistic gives a partial glimpse of the visibility and amount of support the project could garner from other organizations (governments, businesses, or other NGOs).

But the “ripple effect” generated by these projects shows that specific task completion is only the “tip of the iceberg”. When Vitalis Stepulis, a sixty-something Lithuanian who had seen his beloved oak forests cut down during Soviet occupation, is able to pursue his dream of organizing volunteers to plant new oak forests, an honest measurement of the impact must go beyond numbers of trees planted, or numbers of volunteers involved, or amounts of matching funds. When a significant proportion of the population has seen the fruits of its voluntary work – has experienced the joy of teamwork toward a community goal – its members and its culture have moved another step toward a climate of hope and confidence, toward civic responsibility, and away from alienation and dependence on authoritarian rulers or ideologies. Seeing these results – seeing the local leadership emerging, voluntary groups strengthening, and links being forged between groups of similar interests in different regions, and at different levels of government – we were seeing the emergence of a complex ‘civil society’. Our Baltic program was only one of many such influences at this time – but all had a synergistic impact.


In 1995, Jack Vanderryn’s vigilance, oversight and prodding (“What are your plans for sustainability? When Moriah money ends – which it will – how will you keep this Baltic mini-grant program going?”) led Randy Kritkausky to his next “big idea” – to use the newly-accessible Internet as a way to publicize community-based projects and look for donors in the larger worldwide community. At first, we thought we would use the Internet as a way for potential donors from the Baltic émigré community to learn about what was happening in their former homelands, and locate interesting real-life neighborhood projects they could contribute to. We also saw the Virtual Foundation as a way for those on both sides of the ocean to bypass the formalities of most traditional foundations, with their often-intimidating patrician sub-culture and intricate procedures.

With funding from a variety of those traditional foundations – whose program officers responded to the vision of transcending existing frameworks – ECOLOGIA set up the “Virtual Foundation”, mirroring the successful and tested structure of the Baltic Mini-Grant program. Instead of “Advisory Boards” deciding on projects within their own countries, the Virtual Foundation set up a “Consortium” of like-minded (and usually foreign-funded) organizations working on the ground in places such as Russia and Central Asia. Instead of a fixed pot of money for projects each year, the Virtual Foundation called for projects to be posted on its website in search of funders, and made no guarantees about funding. To a great extent, the Virtual Foundation depended – and still does – on the voluntary work of its local partners, the Consortium Members. Approved Consortium Members share ECOLOGIA’s commitment to supporting and working with grassroots local groups, and have the financial resources to work with the local groups to develop their projects, translate proposals, receive money if and when projects are funded, distribute the money and collect or write final reports. This became part of the Virtual Foundation’s chain of accountability.

Since the Virtual Foundation would be dealing with a variety of donors - and a variety of non-governmental organizations in different countries as recipients – we needed another layer of organizational accountability. A team of lawyers from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund advised us how best to set up this mechanism (working through the ECOLOGIA Board of Directors). We added ‘transparency’ by posting all of the Boardroom Discussions on the Virtual Foundation website, so that anyone who wanted to could read what each evaluator in the Proposal Review committee had to say about any one particular project, or how each Board Member had voted. Our excitement about the Baltic Mini-Grant Program transferred to a vision of providing those opportunities to people around the world- by giving the grassroots community people access to people of goodwill and moderate means in wealthier countries.

The Baltic Mini-Grant Program had focused on environmental issues – that was what we at ECOLOGIA and Jack at The Moriah Fund knew best; shared environmental concerns are ready-made for building ‘common ground’ across cultures and national borders. But as we expanded through the Virtual Foundation, we found that our partners in other regions had different priorities – and so did many potential donors and supporters. “Human Health” is a logical category for grassroots work; the Virtual Foundation has found supporters for projects such as preventing foot complications of diabetes in Georgia, and building a mother and child clinic in Uganda. So too is “Sustainable Economic Activity”, another category we added. This deals with poverty alleviation by supporting local entrepreneurial initiatives which, by our definition, draw on local resources and talents, and do not harm the environment. The Virtual Foundation funded a hydroponic vegetable project for delinquent youth in Nicaragua, and training for middle-aged Uzbek women to start and run their own businesses selling traditional food products. What these diverse projects all had in common was that they were locally initiated, to meet needs defined by the people who lived and worked in the affected communities.


“Everyone [else] wants big and sound results which look very beautiful in reports…” wrote Jonas Tamulis as larger European and American funders entered the Baltics several years after our mini-grant program. Although “looking beautiful in a report” should not be the top criterion for funding a project, a highly competitive chase after funders can distort the process. As Americans have been moving toward a risk averse culture, this shows itself in an emphasis on due diligence, micro-management and bureaucratic requirements for financial reports which has the result of elbowing the grassroots groups aside. Small grants keep the focus of the work on the local community and away from international organizations. This occurs through local match fundraising but also because small grants and projects are by their nature rooted in local communities.

It’s a delicate balancing act, working with funders for your world-improving projects. You need to show that what you’re doing is really making a difference – achieving its goals. The recipients of grant moneys are under pressure to prove not only that they’ve used the money ‘properly’ (for the stated purposes for which it was given) but that they’ve achieved results. Preferably, ‘measurable results’. Preferably, ‘successful’, measurable results. We found that even with our small Baltic grants, community leaders needed help designing realistic projects that they could accomplish within their means, and working out a budget and time-table. The basics of organizing were new to people from societies accustomed to authoritarian government planning. Because we offered small amounts of money, we could encourage more flexibility and experimentation, with less apprehension all around.

Less pressure also means a greater likelihood of honesty in reporting. It’s really all right if your nature trail only went half as far as you’d planned, because you mis-calculated the cost of transporting the gravel. Next time, you’ll know what questions to ask when you figure your budget. We work to ensure that this attitude – you owe us a final report for your project, and our main requirement is that you tell us what worked and what didn’t –- is communicated to all the Virtual Foundation grant recipients, and is carried out by the Consortium Members.

Small grants encourage diversity and flexibility. Wrote Jonas in the mid-1990s,“It is very important for the new wave of new generation activists that had started coming to environmental movements in Baltic States. They need a tool to test themselves and to sharpen their teeth. Minigrants for them are an excellent school to obtain organizational and grantmaking skills….Of course, that type of the work puts extra requirements on our staff, as it requires a lot of consulting work, sometimes even teaching involving both workshops and personal approach. Some of the people who come are ‘very green’, but they learn quickly, and it pays. After three years of such experience we can honestly say that nearly every really active environmentalist in the region…had passed our school of minigrants” (February 13, 1997)

Because of flexibility, related to the small size, small grants work well for meeting emergency situations quickly: “Minigrants are flexible and quickly awarded. In cases when NGOs need money for some project to solve the problem which popped out and needs to be addressed immediately, minigrants are the only option. This is very important as local NGOs do not have money sitting in the bank accounts, and in this case minigrants provide them with the means of fast response, which is vital sometimes.”

It’s been a repeated and pleasant experience for us – in countries in every region of the world – that community-based small grants programs are much less likely to attract predators, or to require payments of bribes. Partly this is because, when projects are realistic and appropriately scaled, the amount of foreign funding is small, and is being spent on specific items (such as concrete blocks for building a clinic) which show a clear benefit to the community. The predators and scammers just don’t bother – either the ‘take’ would be too small, or the reaction of community members against them, wouldn’t be worth their effort. Finally, small grants programs, featuring the ability to write proposals and reports in their own language, provide women and other members of groups outside the “mainstream” with opportunities to develop their leadership potential, to contribute to the public life of their communities, and to be role models for the younger generation. Members of high-status groups will usually have connections with wealthier contacts, and will leave the ‘small grants’ to the less well-to-do. That’s part of the point – small grants can empower marginalized groups without overtly threatening others. This in turn helps all involved to hope that the changes made as a result of the small grant projects will be sustainable within their own culture.


National policies, in areas as diverse as health care priorities and environmental protection, gender relations and military alliances, are driven by decisions ‘from the top’. Public policy formation and analysis are attractive fields that engage intellectuals and politicians, advocates of social change and advocates of traditional values alike. Countless publications, conferences, organizations, and degree programs are devoted to national and international policy issues. Leaders, parties, businesses, and politically aware publics focus attention on these matters: Will logging for export be banned in national forests? What about on private property? Will AIDS tests be required of prisoners? What language(s) will schools be required to teach in? When up against the large-scale impact of such policy decisions, it may hard to get excited about yet another local campaign to recycle batteries, nature-trail to be constructed by a youth group, maternal health clinic, or consumer group’s publication of a booklet about food additives. However, there are several reasons why exactly such community-scale local activities have major long-term consequences for public policy.

Those national policies need to be implemented locally and regionally if they are to have any meaning, or any purpose. But such local implementation will be subverted – by inertia, lack of knowledge, lack of support, corruption, - unless there is local ‘buy in’ to the goals and methods. When a new policy involves changes in existing attitudes – which every significant new policy does – developing local support is crucial, and does not come easily. Local initiatives can respond to, and develop, activities which support the new policies – or they can subvert them through inertia. Very often, local leaders can identify the need for change, and will take risks to act. They understand the problems, and know the key leverage points needed for solutions. For example, HIV/AIDS is transmitted by sexual contact, among other methods, and prostitutes are a particularly vulnerable and significant sector. One Lithuanian small-scale public health project, designed by a health care worker who knew and worked with this population, provided “health kits” to prostitutes who worked the area around the train stations. The Health Kits consisted of condoms, explanations of how HIV/AIDS is transmitted, and invitations to visit an outreach health clinic. This project could not have been carried out without enough local understanding to reach out to a stigmatized and marginalized population, and enough local initiative to counter the Catholic Church’s prohibition against condom use.


Driving past a car accident in Vilnius sometime in the late 1990s, Jonas and I got into a discussion about accident rates, drunk driving, the changes in the US laws to make it a more serious offense, and so forth. Jonas said that Lithuania had recently passed a law requiring 0% blood level alcohol for drivers. When I responded, “Wow, that sounds great”, he demurred. “Caroline – you are wrong. This law is so harsh that people won’t obey it. What is the use of such laws? Since Soviet times, our people have learned to disrespect the laws. To change our system, we need people to respect the laws.” The impact of written laws and constitutions depends heavily on how they are actually carried out ‘on the ground’. Often official rulings are ‘necessary but not sufficient’ to bring about change. For example, a law forbidding tobacco sales to children may exist on the books, but if store-clerks break it because their customers expect them to, or if vending machines are put in to circumvent the law, the intent of the law is not fulfilled. Many people struggling today with the legacies of an authoritarian (in the case of the Baltics, a Soviet) tradition have experienced a profound ‘disconnect’ between the letter of the law and its enforcement, and between the spirit of the law and its result. This is part of the explanation for Giedre’s reference to her country, Lithuania, as a “country with no volunteer tradition”, despite the fact that unpaid work on one’s own time for the public good was a part of everyone’s experience under Soviet rule.

Consider the reflections of Alexis de Toqueville, a Frenchman who traveled in the United States in 1830, seeking to understand how locally-focused New-England-style American democracy worked differently from the centralized French government: “Th[e] man [living under an authoritarian system] who has so completely sacrificed his own free will does not, more than any other person, love obedience; he cowers, it is true, before the pettiest officer; but he braves the law with the spirit of a conquered foe, as soon as its superior force is withdrawn: he perpetually oscillates between servitude and license. When a nation has arrived at this state, it must either change its customs and its laws, or perish: for the source of public virtues is dried up, and though it may contain subjects, it has no citizens.” (1) These ideas are something to think about when looking at a community-based project such as a park clean-up proposal. This idea is not necessarily an innovative entrepreneurial breakthrough – but does it need to be? Park clean-ups are a predictable first step toward citizens re-claiming their community and taking initiative, rather than waiting for “authorities” to act. Vandalized signs and benches and grounds littered with garbage send a clear signal of lack of community involvement.

My favorite example of a well-intentioned international aid effort that was a total failure was a gift by the Norwegian government to an inner-city region in the South Bronx, New York. The night after the ribbon-cutting ceremony on a brand new soccer stadium, local youths broke in and trashed – demolished – the new stadium. This destructive and negative reaction was a shock to the political leaders who had smiled proudly during the dedication ceremony. The article in The New York Times brought about sadness and shame, as well as anger: what had possessed the very people for whom the sports center was designed to destroy it? But then I thought it through.

How had the youths interpreted the message of this gift? Not as a step toward their own empowerment – but as a gift to people who couldn’t do it for themselves, and who had not been consulted as to their ideas for bettering their neighborhood. To avoid contributing to a culture of dependency or shame, gift-givers must tread cautiously. One of the best ways to avoid such disconnects is to really engage the people whom a project is intended to serve. Grants programs such as ECOLOGIA’s seek to nurture initiative and encourage organizations coming out of the community itself, by standing behind the idea of supporting “projects of the recipients’ own design”. In this way, community ‘buy-in’ leads to respect for the project for the public space created by it, and for the laws that protect that project.


When outsiders (foreign funders) are working in countries whose governments and policies they do not want to challenge, they may choose to fund non-controversial issues (like education / conservation, rather than opposition to nuclear power plants, or exposes of corruption). Their underlying purpose may be to build ties of friendship, or through programs such as educational and artistic exchanges, develop cross-cultural understanding. These motivations are completely understandable, though they may have the unintended results of strengthening the more conservative sectors in a nation, and placing the more change-oriented leaders and groups at a comparative disadvantage.

On the other hand, outsiders may, with all best intentions, impose requirements without being aware of or concerned about the personal risks taken by the people who live there. One very simple example of this is a funders’ requirement that they be credited in all publicity (newspaper articles, press releases, printed reports, etc.). Completely understandable in a Western context, such a requirement can pose serious problems for recipients in a country, such as China, where foreign funding may be viewed askance; recipients of foreign funding may be seen as having ‘sold out’, or be targeted by predators who assume that if they receive foreign funding, they may also have cash, computers or other assets to take.

Outsiders may want (following their own agendas) to fund /promote more challenging or activist activities in authoritarian or highly traditional societies. Setting requirements, such as “50% of funding must go toward programs designed to improve legal services for women” can be very useful – crucial - to ensure that this underserved area receives attention. But unintended consequences of such ‘funder driven’ requirements can be to further marginalize the groups which carry out this work within their own societies, especially if the foreign funding is given a high profile.


Small grants, community based projects, flexibility, local initiatives – these have the common theme of diversity and variety - the opposite of centralization. Alexis de Toqueville's analysis of this dynamic is elegant as well as right to the point:

“The partisans of centralization….are wont to maintain that the government can administer the affairs of each locality better than the citizens could do it for themselves: this may be true, when the central power is enlightened, and the local authorities are ignorant; when it is alert, and they are slow; when it is accustomed to act, and they to obey….But I deny that it is so, when the people are enlightened, awake to their interests, and accustomed to reflect on them….I am persuaded that, in this case, the collective strength of the citizens will always conduce more efficaciously to the public welfare than the authority of the government.

"... I know it is difficult to point out with certainty the means of arousing a sleeping population, and of giving it passions and knowledge which it does not possess; it is, I am well aware, an arduous task to persuade men to busy themselves about their own affairs. But whenever a central administration affects completely to supersede the persons most interested, I believe that it is either misled, or desirous to mislead. However enlightened and skillful a central power may be, it cannot of itself embrace all the details of the life of a great nation. Such vigilance exceeds the powers of man. And when it attempts unaided to create and set in motion so many complicated springs, it must submit to a very imperfect result, or exhaust itself in bootless efforts.

"Centralization easily succeeds, indeed, in subjecting the external actions of men to a certain uniformity, which we come at last to love for its own sake, independently of the objects to which it is applied, like those devotees who worship the statue, and forget the deity it represents. Centralization imparts without difficulty an admirable regularity to the routine of business; provides skillfully for the details of the social police; represses small disorders and petty misdemeanors; maintains society in a status quo alike secure from improvement and decline; and perpetuates a drowsy regularity in the conduct of affairs, which the heads of the administration are wont to call good order and public tranquility; in short, it excels in prevention, but not in action. Its force deserts it, when society is to be profoundly moved, or accelerated in its course; and if once the cooperation of private citizens is necessary to the furtherance of its measures, the secret of its impotence is disclosed.” (2)

De Tocqueville presents strong arguments in favor of local citizen empowerment – within the framework of the rule of law and a culture of respect for the individual. In the long run – and especially when a society faces new challenges – an empowered and confident citizenry is the best hope for change and survival.

Accepting this reasoning, and understanding the value of small grants – what is needed to carry out a small grants program effectively? It’s time to tackle the “S” word – sustainability. This complex concept has many uses, definitions and connotations. I’ll be using it here in two different meanings.

The first meaning is the extent to which a community-based project will be sustainable within its own society – can it become self-supporting through contributions from local or national rather than international sources, can it generate enough volunteer labor to carry it out, can it be a spring-board for more ambitious projects, will its positive changes continue? Will people’s attitudes and behaviors change in the desired direction? For example, will poverty-related malnutrition be reduced, or will educational opportunities for girls increase? These are all intriguing questions, related to questions about “effectiveness” or “success” of a project or program, and how to measure those things. Every organization which supports social change programs, at any level, has its own reports and studies, and its own reflections on what works best in their context. I have advocated throughout this paper that small grants can be highly effective in many situations, and for many reasons.

The second meaning of sustainability is the extent to which programs and organizations that do this work can continue to operate. Much of the value of ‘small grants’ is not in the amount of money itself – the tremendous added value comes from participation in the network which gives advice and feedback to the community leaders, evaluates proposals, tracks reports, and (in the case of programs such as the Virtual Foundation) locates donors. Effective small grants programs that reach grassroots community members require an organization on the ground – literally, speaking their language – to separate the real community leaders from the opportunists. They need oversight to promote accountability; they need experienced staff to be available to troubleshoot when groups implementing projects need assistance. They need money for international travel, for e-mail, for phone bills, and for salaries. They need money to explain the projects, to seek donors, to work with grant recipients and donors to encourage two-way communication, to track the short and long term impacts of the grants and projects.


An artist may paint a dramatic and moving picture, or a musician compose a hauntingly beautiful song, without being fully conscious of all the influences which have affected her. Indeed, often the strongest influences are those which operate outside the direct frame of reference of the artist or musician. In a similar way, a long-term perspective reveals that the unanticipated consequences of grants are often the most valuable and dramatic. These impacts are typically not fully apparent at the time, even to the grantees, who often are too much in the middle of things to be able to stand outside and put their actions in a larger framework.

Based on our experience over the years, we have developed the following criteria for evaluating the “ripple effect” impact of a specific project:
To what extent did the project:

  • meet the needs of its community; solve a problem or otherwise have a real-life impact?
  • create a model that is in fact being replicated or adapted?
  • develop local capacity as opposed to foreign dependency?
  • develop leadership skills that can be applied elsewhere? create enduring partnerships or alliances within the community?
  • enhance the participants’ self-confidence, trust in neighbors, and a willingness to continue engaging in civic life?


Two examples of the ‘ripple effect’ of small grants in China indicate their power.

In 1996, a Chinese visitor to ECOLOGIA’s USA office was captivated by the Baltic Minigrant program. Jin Jiaman took the concept back home to China, along with several pages of our Baltic Mini-Grant project summaries, and got back to us with some project proposals. The Chinese projects – bird-watching and tree-planting– posted on the Virtual Foundation website, quickly attracted donors. We found out later that the first two such projects through the Virtual Foundation - “Adopt Trees” ($792), and “Bills and Feathers” ($550) had enabled the formation of an independent Chinese environmental volunteer organization – Green Earth Volunteers. These strategically targeted small grants provided the support for volunteer projects around which the group grew. Looking to long-range impact, this support at a crucial time rewarded and inspired the co-founders of Green Earth Volunteers to stay with it and develop it further. By 2005, GEV’s River Watch Network, headed by award-winning environmental journalist Wong Yong-chen, had become a model world-wide for effective use of scientific evidence, public information and positive relationships between an independent organization and political authorities. By 2005, the Global Environmental Instititute, headed by Jin Jiaman, had become a leading independent scientific organization partnered with Worldwatch Institute.

The “Rabbit King” - In 1985, Ren Xuping of Dayi County in Sichuan province, a young rabbit breeder, received 48 specially bred rabbits from Heifer International, along with training about their care and breeding. The Heifer International concept of ‘passing on the gift’ requires that original recipients locate others to train and donate a small group of rabbits to get started. Over the past twenty years, the “Rabbit King” has involved over 300,000 farmers in successful rabbit breeding for meat and fur, enabling them to earn income and increase local food sources.

Mr. Ren’s was one of four families which received some of the original rabbit shipment. According to Heifer International, “The total cost paid by HPI since the start of the project in 1985 up through 1993, including the cost of shipping the original rabbits, was US $43,000. Through Passing on the Gift, this comes out to a net cost of US $19.66 per family to HPI for the rabbits, training, some equipment and supplies!….The success of the program would not be possible without the Sichuan Province Bureau of Animal Husbandry, the Dayi County Bureau of Animal Husbandry, the Dayi County Rabbit Association and its director, Mr. Quan Youqing, nor the extension workers who assist the farmers with management, record keeping, and Passing on the Gift”. This is only one measure of the sustainability of a program, but an important one.…Today, Dayi County is well-known throughout China for its quality rabbits, and is a source of breeding stock for more than 23 provinces. The involvement of the families from the early stages on has been a major force in sustaining this "chain of life".

The following factors are crucial:

  • appropriate scale of grant to the capacity and context of the recipients (too much money can overwhelm a local organization and make the volunteer labor and local contributions seem trivial or unnecessary);
  • identification of key individuals with leadership ability and follow-through, who can make the best use of the grants and foreign contacts while remaining rooted in their own societies provision of necessary back-up and support (shown by the organizations which support the rabbit breeding programs on the ground in China; shown also by the work of Virtual Foundation Consortium Members to provide encouragement, project development advice, translations, etc.).

A substantial infrastructure exists behind every successful small grants program, to ensure the above activities.


Much international news coverage over the past several years has focused on seemingly intractable world problems: increasing economic inequality between and among nations, the growth of terrorist activities targeting civilians, and the persistence of human poverty, disease and malnutrition. The amount of money spent on international aid in the past several decades does not seem to have had a significant impact on many of these structural problems. Aid channeled through national-level politicians can be diverted for their private use, as can income from sales of national resources such as oil to multinational corporations. Authoritarian governments use this money to further strengthen themselves by intimidating political opponents and independent organizations, driving many legitimate protests underground. Corruption is frequently identified as a major factor in keeping back the development of many countries. International aid organizations, such as Unicef, UNDP and the Global Fund for AIDS, need to accommodate corrupt and repressive governments if they are to do any work in those countries at all. Much aid is used at least as much as a tool for maintaining alliances between governments, as to tackle serious problems of resource inequality and barriers to development. Particularly when those in power are benefiting from existing inequalities within their societies, the will to tackle the causes seriously may be lacking.

Crucial infrastructure – transportation, communication, education, tsunami warning systems, etc. – requires investment on a large scale. However, large projects planned and carried out from the ‘top down’ do not necessarily have any connection with the societal and community networks needed for long-term growth and stability. Indeed, the large projects may disrupt existing networks; this is one of the very negative long-term consequences of projects such as hydroelectric dams, which can disrupt neighborhoods, villages and communities through the process of forced relocation.

The people most in need of development – those marginalized by poverty, isolation or minority status – are often most in need of ‘social capital’. Social capital is the social infrastructure - the foundation of all cooperative human activity. To build social capital, a neighborhood, minority ethnic group or country needs trust in others and in social institutions, and reliable communications channels. Some communities have plenty of networks and ingenious sharing patterns among themselves, but lack ‘vertical contacts’ – they are not integrated with the economically or politically dominant groups, and thus lack access to significant resources. Groups which are marginalized within the nations they live, may well turn to outside sources of inspiration or validation. This dynamic can lead to serious problems – as when second-generation Muslim immigrants grow up alienated and isolated from European societies.

However, this dynamic can also point the way toward constructive engagement. As we’ve seen in the Soviet Union and in China, connection with a supportive ‘global civil society’ can energize people within their own communities. Small grants such as those supported by the Virtual Foundation engage people to organize volunteers and to identify and act on their own initiative. Beneath the ‘radar screen’ of networks of corruption or politics, appropriately scaled, targeted and supported community-based grants can ripple out into widening circles, connecting people of good will and vision across the world.

(1) Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York: Penguin Books USA, 1984) Book 1, p. 68
(2) Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York: Penguin Books USA, 1984) Book 1, pp. 66-67. (3) [References: Downloaded July 28, 2005]
For additional information on the Rabbit King, see “Rabbit King Reaps a Rich Bounty”, by John Schauble, The Age (Australia) at

Last modified by: C. Schmidt on 11-Nov-05