Pooling funds to make the money go further

Chris Allan

How do you find grassroots groups that will be able to do effective work and how do you get money out to them? The Global Greengrants Fund is a donor collaborative set up to solve the problems that many would-be donors encounter when they try to make small grants overseas. It makes small grants to grassroots environmental groups in developing countries, using Advisory Boards of environmental activists to identify grantees.

When American Roy Young first started travelling to Brazil in the 1970s for his business, he was shocked by the environmental damage he found there. Throughout the 1980s he supported dozens of small grassroots groups with cash grants. He then realized that this strategy of irrigating the grassroots could also be effective in the newly opened, resource-rich territory of Siberia. Russia holds 22 per cent of the world’s forests – more than any other nation – but with the collapse of the Soviet Union and hard economic times upon them, the Russian government was opening up its vast forests to a logging free-for-all. Young met Russian environmentalists who were working hard to promote a more sustainable solution to Russia’s economic problems, but they had little experience and no money. Just a computer or fax machine would enable us to educate and organize people to bring together the government, industry and communities to stop this disaster, they told him.

Joining forces with other donors

Following the initial successes in Brazil and Siberia, Young was determined to expand the amount of small grants available to environmental activists in developing countries around the globe. In talking to others who had encountered the same situations – in Brazil, Indonesia, India, all over the global South and East in fact – he found great enthusiasm and considerable money but a host of problems in getting that money to the activists overseas who could really put it to work:

  • How do you find these groups?
  • How do you know who is ready to do effective work and who is not?
  • How do you handle the confusing and complicated tax laws that allow you to make tax-deductible donations overseas?
  • How do you actually get money to people in places with rudimentary banking systems?

In exploring these questions, Roy started working with two other donors and with Chet Tchozewski, a long-time friend and community organizer, who had found over the years that small grants for community groups and emerging NGOs were often extremely effective both in solving problems and in building a grassroots movement. Together they started the Global Greengrants Fund (GGF) in 1993, a donor collaborative that makes small grants to grassroots environmental groups in countries where funding for such groups is extremely hard to come by.

‘Activist-advised’ grantmaking

The guiding principle of GGF is to provide modest grants of $500 to $5,000, at the lowest overhead cost possible, to carefully selected grassroots environmental organizations in developing countries. GGF lowers the barriers to international grantmaking by using the existing infrastructure and knowledge of international environmental networks that work with grassroots groups in developing countries all the time yet do not have funding available to enable them to work on common issues.

GGF has drawn together dozens of international environmental activists to establish a number of Advisory Boards – a Global Advisory Board, which recommends grants in countries where the advisers are working around the world, and a number of Regional Advisory Boards, in Siberia, the Altai Region of Russia, Brazil and China.

These Advisory Boards recommend and then monitor grants to small groups they are already working with, so the grantmaking programme does not have to create a new infrastructure to reach these difficult-to-find grantees. At the same time, the ability to support local groups financially strengthens the work of the advisers, who then have stronger in-country partners, alliances and transnational coalitions to work with. As a result GGF is able to make hundreds of good small grants a year and build grassroots movements in a way that is very difficult for other individual or institutional donors to do, and with very low overhead costs.

Advantages of the GGF system

The collaborative grantmaking model, which allows many donors, both private foundations and individuals, to pool their funds, combined with the ‘activist-advised’ grantmaking structure, solves many of the problems donors encounter when they try to make small grants overseas.

Finding the right grantees
Advisory Board members are already in the thick of local campaigns and debates, and know intimately many of the community groups who can use small grants effectively. Decisions are not made by trustees in a boardroom thousands of miles away; they are made by activists struggling with the same issues and goals as the grantees.

The use of activist advisers, often from the same culture as the grantees, also reduces the need for potential grantees to speak ‘northern foundation language’ in order to get a grant. Local activists whose talent is looking at their local situations and organizing people can thus be supported, not just those who are good at writing funding proposals or using the right vocabulary in meetings with overworked foundation programme officers.

Making the right size grants
A system of small grants allows grassroots organizations to get grants on a scale suitable to their needs and abilities. A grant of $5,000 is often sufficient to support a community organizer or an environmental educator for a year. The other main source of funding for grassroots environmental groups in these regions is the World Bank’s Global Environmental Facility, which was set up after the Rio 92 meeting to make small grants to environmental groups. The typical size for GEF grants is $50,000. Most small environmental groups cannot handle or account for a grant of that size. But experience with smaller grants builds skills and confidence that allow groups to ‘graduate’ to funding on a larger scale later on.

Keeping costs down
The collaborative nature of GGF means that the fixed costs of grantmaking are covered for all donors. The need for each donor to research potential grantees and monitor them independently is eliminated. and overhead costs tend to drop as the grantmaking pool increases. GGF makes hundreds of grants with an overhead of 11 per cent.

Ensuring compliance with tax regulations
GGF also removes the need for each donor separately to ensure compliance with US tax regulations for overseas grants. The fact that it is set up as a public charity, not a private foundation, greatly simplifies matters in any case.

The GGF model is one solution to the problem of getting funds to emerging NGOs and community groups in developing countries. Environmentalists are fond of saying that we all live downwind. With the increasing integration of the world economy, we are all affected by the rise and fall of people’s welfare around the globe, and as grantmakers we need to continue to challenge ourselves to find ways to make our money go further.

Chris Allan is Associate Director of the Global Greengrants Fund. He can be contacted by email at chris@greengrants.org

For further information about GGF, contact Chris Allan.
Tel +1 303 939 9866
Website http://www.greengrants.org


A $1,000 grant to the League of Environmental Journalists in Ghana
This grant was to train journalists on Earth Day 2000 in covering environmental stories. It resulted in a spate of articles in a variety of newspapers around the country about indiscriminate disposal of hazardous wastes into drains and bodies of water. In response, the Ghanaian Environmental Protection Agency quickly issued a statement in the media directing 21 manufacturing companies to furnish it with their pollution prevention and abatement measures within 30 days or face sanctions. The experience has generated a core of journalists committed to covering these issues and sustaining public interest in the dangers of hazardous waste disposal.

A $1,000 grant to the Siberian Agency for Ecological Information in Russia
This grant, made to a network of environmentalists and journalists throughout Altai and southern Siberia, contributed to the protection of old-growth forest in the Altai Region of Russia. Through basic analysis, public education and discussion, the group convinced the local government and the Environmental Expertiza Committee to defy all trends in Siberia, not only refusing a lease to log the forest but actually recommending that it be turned into a national park and so protected from such threats in the future.

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