Interview – Jacqueline Delia-Brémond

Fondation Ensemble was set up in December 2004 with the dual aim of fighting poverty and protecting the environment. Since then, it has been involved in more than 100 projects around the world, mostly providing funding of between €150,000 and €300,000 on a three-year basis. In 2008, the foundation set up a micro-grants fund dedicated to funding smaller projects with grants of between €3,000 and €30,000. Caroline Hartnell spoke to co-founder Jacqueline Delia-Brémond about why this programme was set up and how it is working.

How did the micro-grants programme come about?

I visit India frequently, because we have several programmes there. Often local people hear about our foundation through the associations we support and ask to meet us to submit a project – I’m always looking for interesting new propositions. One day when we were in Delhi, a man representing a small association from Kerala (southern India) asked to meet us.

He arrived late and exhausted, after a long day of driving and flying, and presented the work they were doing in what seemed to be quite an efficient way: going into villages and, with the use of symbols and images, teaching people how to use water sustainably. After he finished his presentation, we asked what he hoped to get from us and he said it would be wonderful if he could have $25,000.

I felt so sorry for him because I had to explain that our procedure was so heavy, for many reasons, that we could not accept projects under €50,000 a year for at least two or three years. In addition, we always required 50 per cent co-financing – and there was no way such a small association could raise that kind of money. He left deeply disappointed, and so were we. I then talked it over with my husband, and we came up with the idea of a micro-grants fund to help this kind of association. After all, we had created our foundation to help people, in general and in particular.

Where did the money for the micro-grants fund come from?

There was no need for new money. We just adjusted our annual budget, putting aside about 15 per cent for the micro-grants fund. Half of this was dedicated to projects working in the main sectors we support (water, sanitation, sustainable development) and the other half – about €200,000 a year – to conservation of animal biodiversity.

This was a personal requirement. I’ll explain why. It is true that all our foundation’s programmes aim to protect life, but if there is a specific sector where the degradation of life is particularly dramatic and irreversible, it is animal biodiversity. Since 1850, we seem to have been going through the sixth great extinction of the earth’s history. For 100,000 years, the natural rate of extinction was one species out of 1,000 in every 1,000 years. Now it has become 1,000 times faster. 2010 is the year of biodiversity. Let’s see what happens, but I feel we have to participate in a protection effort that is not being made a high enough priority.

I also believe that it is sometimes easier to see concrete results through a small organization because objectives are more modest, more easily reachable. That doesn’t keep us from participating in big programmes led by international institutions like WWF or Conservation International.

What about the geographical spread of programmes?

The micro-grants fund allows us to work anywhere in the world, while we have specific geographical requirements for the programme fund (taking into account political stability, governance, etc). As we do not consider ourselves just as financial partners, we want to follow the implementation of each project supported by our programme fund. That’s why a member of our team visits each project every year. I was in Madagascar two months ago. So we cannot be scattered all over the world and have to focus on a few countries. In Africa, we work in Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, Malawi, Senegal and Madagascar; in Asia, we are in India and Cambodia; in South America, we are in Peru, Bolivia and Chile. With the micro-grants fund, the reporting is much simpler and we visit only if the project happens to be in one of our priority countries.

Have you had any problems with the micro-grants fund?

Up until now, no. The application process is very simple: people can download a three-page form, fill it in and send it back to us. We do not submit the projects to our commission of experts as we do for the big programmes. We collect information on the association and ask one or two experts for advice; a small committee then takes a decision on this basis. When signing the agreement, the association receives 85 per cent of the grant, with the obligation to report briefly halfway through and to send a final financial report at the end, when the remaining 15 per cent is given. Some associations like to communicate a lot, others do so only when they are asked to. That’s all. But so far, so good. Until now, we haven’t had any unpleasant surprises.

Have you ever thought about pooling your money with other donors to make small grants, like in Global Greengrants Fund for example?

Yes, we have thought about it, but it is always a bit of a problem for us, mainly because we like to choose the projects we support and we want to know how they develop. When you belong to a pool like Global Greengrants or any other, you are lost in a big galaxy, you don’t make your own choices, and it is more difficult to know the results.

The other reason is that having a large number of micro-projects sent to us is very important; our only problem is to choose among the many propositions. So even if sifting through applications and making decisions represents more work for the small staff of our foundation, that’s what we have chosen to do for the time being.

Overall, are you happy with the results of the micro-grants fund?

Yes. Every grant supports just one action, but one action plus another one plus another one means many actions. That’s my philosophy. Not to get lost in the immensity of problems. Act locally. Kissinger used to call it: the ‘technique of short steps’. In two years, we have already supported 41 micro-projects with an average grant of €20,000 each, over one or two years. Eight have been in water and sanitation, nine in sustainable development, 14 in conservation of animal biodiversity. Altogether Fondation Ensemble has already contributed to protecting 16 endangered species.

It also happens sometimes that the micro-grant is used as a way for us to try out an association, and if the result of the test is positive, we can decide to support the association on a bigger scale. But basically the micro-grants fund is not supposed to be a starter for bigger programmes; it is there to help small organizations to reach a very specific goal, to give what we would call, in French, a coup de pouce, a little push in the right direction. Ten micro-grants programmes have been completed by now and nobody has yet come back to us for more money.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

I would like to add this. Fondation Ensemble (meaning Together) has a motto: For a human development incorporating environmental protection. What this really means is that the foundation’s mission is to get involved in projects devoted to protect life, the whole of it. Access to water and sanitation certainly helps to protect human life, but do you know that if you take a handful of soil, you hold 6 billion living beings in your hand, all of them absolutely necessary to keep life on earth? We should never forget that we are all tightly bound together, and we should all work, everybody in their own way, micro or macro, to stop destruction of any life – human, animal or vegetable – on our planet.

Jacqueline Delia-Brémond is co-founder, with her husband Gérard Brémond, of Fondation Ensemble. Created in 2004, the foundation has three main programme areas: water, sanitation and sustainable development in developing countries. The programme fund, for larger, long-term grants, represents 85 per cent of the foundation’s annual distribution, with the remainder dedicated to the micro-grants fund.

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