‘Smart risks: how small grants are helping to solve some of the world’s biggest problems’ – edited by Jennifer Lentfer and Tanya Cothran

Reviewed by John Harvey

Smart risks: how small grants are helping to solve some of the world’s biggest problems has an unusual origin story.

One of its editors, a passionate writer herself, put out a call to colleagues to join a writers’ collaborative for international grantmakers, its aim being two-fold: to use creative writing as a tool for learning about global philanthropy, and to document the impact of ‘small grants’, a topic not well covered within mainstream philanthropic and development literature.

The result of this endeavour is a new publication that should be of great interest to the global philanthropy community. In all, more than 20 individuals with a combined development-related experience of over 125 years contributed.

Documenting their many lessons learned – often after disappointment and failure – is indeed an important contribution to our sector.

The ‘smart risks’ of the title vary somewhat from author to author, but the common ground among all is this: making a contrast with conventional development aid and global philanthropy, the editors state that ‘Smart risks start “where people are” and support the local processes that build upon communities’ unique strengths, resources and ideas.

Smart risks also require trust in the analysis and strategies of grassroots partners and the courage and humility to accept that the best solutions often come from the ground up.’

As every author shares, such letting go is much easier said than done. The book’s chapters document numerous impediments: bureaucracy, a Western preference for linear processes, an inability to trust, intellectual and cultural arrogance, ‘obsessive measurement disorder’… the list of challenges is indeed long.

While all authors assert the primacy of local leadership, some acknowledge that outsiders can, under the right circumstances, bring value. Among the assets highlighted are the ability to connect and convene, to bring models and lessons learned from elsewhere, and to ask questions that insiders may not be able to.

The book’s chapters are, for the most part, case studies, anecdotes, and stories. Not surprisingly given the book’s origins as a creative writing collaborative, the writing style is non-academic and somewhat journalistic, chapters often opening with a personal scene-setting paragraph. A number of text boxes scattered throughout add practical advice and are strong additions to the main chapters.

The book’s subtitle, referring as it does to ‘small grants’, is not ideal. While all the chapters happen to describe experiences with small grants, what is most important in the stories is not the how much, but the how: the ways in which enabling a local community’s strengths, resources and ideas best guarantee success.

Indeed, one quite refreshing chapter pushes back on the cult of small grantmaking: ‘There are times when small is too small. Where communities have historically been under-resourced, it is important and strategic to guard against over-romanticizing small grants and sacrificing impact.’

My hope is that this subtitle doesn’t dissuade larger grantmakers from picking up this book. Truly, the key learnings in this worthwhile publication are as vital to the Gates and Wellcome Trusts of the world as they are to the smallest of grantmakers.

John Harvey is founding principal, Global Philanthropy Services. Email johnharveyinafrica@gmail.com

About the book
Published by: Practical Action Publishing
Price: Hardcover $67.80
ISBN: 9781853399312
To order: developmentbookshelf.com

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