Entering a whole new world

Caroline Hartnell

A few days ago (8 February), I read an article in the New York Times by Susan Dominus about the Secret Society for Creative Philanthropy. Five years ago, Courtney Martin, a Brooklyn-based writer, was shocked to find herself in possession of a six-figure book advance. She wanted to give a chunk of it away, but was not sure how. So she chose nine thoughtful friends, gave them each $100, and told them they would be expected to account for what they had done with it at a gathering a month later.

I noticed the story because it reminded me instantly of Marion Rockefeller Weber’s ‘flow funding’, which she talks about in this issue of Alliance. One of the most rewarding things about being editor of Alliance is the way each special feature draws you into a whole new world – in this issue, the world of small grants. As more contributions come in, patterns start to emerge. Although a ‘small grant’ may sometimes be simply all that a small foundation can afford, for many of those dedicated to making small grants, like Chet Tchozewski, guest editor for this issue, there is a very particular way of thinking about them.

With so much emphasis on measuring impact and low transaction costs, the value of small grants is easily overlooked. They can enable an organization to reach a very specific goal, to give what Jacqueline Delia-Brémond calls ‘a coup de pouce, a little push in the right direction’. They can allow a funder to test where their priorities should be moving and experiment with different ideas. They can be given to trusted individuals to give away as they think best. You come across words like ‘intuitive’, ‘creative’, ‘visionary’. It is easier to take risks with small grants, says Stephen Pittam, because the amount to be lost is small.

And the amount to be gained is huge. Susan Dominus’s description of ‘the ripple effect that so often gives small, charmed gestures reach beyond their scope’ could easily have come out of one of the articles in this issue of Alliance. The ripple effect, the butterfly effect, capillary philanthropy, bio-mimicry – metaphors of the natural world abound, and suggest a very distinct way of thinking about impact.

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