Interview – Nonette Royo

Based in South-east Asia, with offices in Indonesia and Northern Mindanao, Philippines, the Samdhana Institute works on rights and environmental advocacy issues including forest conservation, river protection and critical mining areas, giving mainly very small grants. Why has it chosen to work like this, Chet Tchozewski asked Samdhana executive director Nonette Royo.

First, how small are small grants? And what do you use them for?

Our grants are usually between $1,000 and $5,000 compared to the more usual $20,000 to $50,000 from other donors. Small social movements exist without funding and rely on people’s own resources and social networks to sustain them, and they need only small amounts to do very specific things. If you can weave a tapestry of such movements, they become a crucial bridge to action. That’s the significance of small grants. What is needed, in our experience, is a committed partner/facilitator, a local catalyst, someone who, by virtue of their work, can go around a particular region and talk to the community and its leaders and show them that there are things they could do without waiting for large amounts of money or external assistance.

Some of our money also goes into developing relationships between politically powerful village units and either administrative authorities or external contractors that are interested in the village. We also try to sustain important one-off actions by using the media. We try to create momentum and shine a light on crucial but localized activity. If there is any funded bilateral or private foundation activity in the area, it picks up that momentum. Time and again we have seen that the merging of local movements (helped by small grants) has proved to be the crucial element to making an impact.

We’ve also found that confidence-building small grants are important for people who have never handled cash or imagined that they could do anything ‘risky’ or outside their day-to-day activities. That type of confidence is priceless for when they move on to the next stage – community groups or youth groups or what have you.

So small grants aren’t just for small donors – given the critical effect they can have on communities?

No, they’re not. A small grant is based largely on the trust that develops out of the relationship with an organization or organizer committed to a place and sharing the people’s culture and lives. This is the entry point. Sometimes the grant takes an odd form. For instance, we provided a grant for a local organization to buy a filing cabinet. The organization was doing environmental education, and documenting some of the discussions was a way of building a trusted repository of knowledge. The crucial element is trust.

What is the role of regranting intermediaries in building these relationships of trust at the local level?

We’ve had experience of this over the years with two big agencies, USAID and the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID). With the USAID project, we learned over five or six years that the key thing with intermediaries is that they have a direct connection with what’s happening at village level. That has been affirmed by the DfID experience. DfID set up six community foundations in the different regions of Indonesia because they found that the only way to sustain what they were doing was to put in place an intermediary to oversee the process, continue what was being learned, and provide organizational support to individuals and movements.

Small grantmakers seem to use two strategies. One is a kind of magic bullet – a single grant of say $5,000 that might completely transform an issue or a movement. The other is giving many small grants over a long period to build institutional capacity. Which of these works best, do you think, and under what conditions?

It’s always a combination of these two. The first involves understanding the strategic value of supporting a key leader with a key set of actions. With the multiple-grant approach, you support the next steps, though not necessarily with the same group. It might be an emerging group that will take it to the next level. It is vital that it is seen from the perspective of the local player. National, international or global agendas can overwhelm a local agenda, and it’s a big challenge to see this doesn’t happen.

Small grants are especially helpful in developing a local agenda. A small grant does not require hours and hours of planning and perhaps losing sight of what’s important at crucial moments. Money can also put a strain on village ties if it involves powerful people holding and distributing it.

Nonette_RoyoUnder the REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) initiative, billions of dollars are now available to preserve forests in developing countries. So much money going into under-resourced forest areas could be problematic. How best can we ensure the success of the REDD strategy?

Small grants for studying a set of options for REDD funds build upon trust and ability to generate local commitment. We are lucky because we’ve got long relationships with many of the players on the ground who are eligible managers of landscapes, in areas that are recognized as key REDD forest areas. Also, we’ve been able to get a small grants facility inserted into REDD by advocating the importance of working with forest community groups on issues like tenure. The questions of who’s there, who owns the forest and who benefits from REDD are very important. Again, building trust, and working with local leaders and community organizers, will be crucial. Small grants are much more useful at this point because when everybody’s talking big funds, they can lose sight of key issues of land rights and the stewardship of resources.

So you see small grants as being critically important at this stage of development of the REDD strategy to prepare communities for handling larger sums. Do you also see them as important to enable small local groups to monitor the impact of the larger amounts of money assigned for forest protection?

Yes, that’s another role that small grants can play. Groups galvanized by small grants (directly or indirectly) have used various media for monitoring projects, and some have told us how important radio is for them. We have been studying ways to maximize a REDD knowledge network, which is emerging now, with information and expert analysis made accessible in local languages. Again, this can be done through a trickle of smaller grants because you’re supplementing rather than replacing local initiatives. Some REDD funds could usefully go towards this.

The biggest challenge is that, when it comes down to it, you have to work with governments. The system that evolved during the dictatorship in Indonesia – top-down and very corrupt – is still largely in place, so even though funding is well intentioned, it is likely to be used, or channelled, in the same old way. How will local movements articulate their rights and needs and how will the distribution of the new funding available under REDD take these into account? That’s really what it boils down to.

How do you go about evaluating the impact of so many small grants?

We need to locate, collect and piece together a lot of stories, pictures, village maps and other data with people involved in the work. When the projects finish, the knowledge then remains with the village instead of going into a black hole in a government or NGO office. You find people in different places can tell parts of the story in a common timeline. Likely, the best information is not related to this or that grant but to relationships.

What we get is a real understanding of who was involved and how the movement evolved into a strong advocacy network. If you have the relationships in the first place, you can get information from people, because it’s important to them and they preserve it. In one province, for example, the small amount that we had contributed over time had resulted in a really huge amount of information that no donor can buy. A crucial next step for us is to make it open access – not only web-based but translatable to village-based information systems.

Do you think the risk of failure in small grants is high? How do you learn from those failures?

Well, in fact both the risk and the investment are small and that allows us to take failure as it is – a failure. It is a very important means of learning. We convene reflection meetings so that people can identify where the dangers are, so we now know what to avoid. So failure has always been integrated into the whole process of learning.

Nonette Royo is executive director of the Samdhana Institute. Email

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