pen and money

Date: February 16, 2017

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“A Small Group of Thoughtful, Committed Citizens”

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

  • Margaret Mead, cultural anthropologist (and Philly native!) claiming that change comes from the ground up


Third in a series on grant writing for social justice

Every big idea starts small, at least in execution, and small projects often provide grant writers’ first successful submissions and project managers’ first experiences in the field. “Small” is subjective and very different from “unimportant” – let’s call it any project with an annual budget under $100,000 – and the strength of small projects is the focus it gives to a single mission and group of people. Smaller budgets also mean less reliance on corporations or other large organizations that may compromise the mission and its messaging.

Did you think of something bigger but don’t know how to start? Try paring down the scope of your proposal. Maybe you can serve a smaller need to get started (e.g. child hunger before widespread hunger), or work in a geographically or demographically smaller area.

See if your proposal fits with apportioned funding from an organization that thinks smaller. The member-funded Social Justice Fund in the Northwestern United States always has a fascinating list of general operating funding options (not pilot programs) that gives small-project grant writers a good idea for average requirements.

Some pilot programs can start with less than $10,000 – although it’s unlikely such a small sum will carry a service project through a year. When you examine your proposal’s scope, think further down: if you don’t expect to have enough money to provide a service, what can you do with a smaller amount to support the service with knowledge, surveys, or making future grants easier to get? Penn’s Davis Institute makes their small-grant program approval process quite transparent as an example.

What if you’re not representing an approved organization, such as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit or government entity? What if you’re an individual and the first stage of your project can be accomplished more or less alone for next to nothing? What if you have to crash a deadline with an emergency grant? Yes, there is such a thing – even artists can get one – and they often go to fill a hole in an important service or respond to an unforeseen need, like a natural or political disaster.

In these cases, the room for error decreases while a lot of options open at the same time. “Sub-small” and emergency funding for individuals and small organizations tend to top out at $5,000, a tidy but acquirable sum through Kickstarter, Indiegogo, or GoFundMe (the latter being geared more to nonprofit projects). A good deal on a loan (especially one that may be serviced with more funding) might end up being the most attractive option.

It may seem attractive to use one’s own money to get things off the ground, but there is a reason there are professional grant writers (to create the project), project managers (to actualize the project), and philanthropists (to find the project). Please do not try to fund a project on your own if your socioeconomic status cannot bear it. We’ve lost too many good grant writers and project managers to ruin because they were tempted away from the role they do best. Donating to a larger organization optimizes your money and your voice; most philanthropic organizations have means for donors to communicate their opinions and needs.


Michael Mastroianni works in and teaches grant writing for organizations, community leaders and activists in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Contact him for help or to hear about educational opportunities at michael.s.mastroianni at gmail dot com

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