Social transformation, one child at a time

Zanele Sibanda

As Chet Tchozewski points out in his article ‘Getting to Maybe’ in the March issue of Alliance, the real impact of a small grant may not always be immediately visible. It takes time for life-changing, systemic transformation to be realized. His article also reminds us that, by their very nature, small grants provide an opportunity to build more resilient social movements that can have far-reaching and sustainable impact. But we should not forget the huge impact that small grants have on the lives of individuals.

In ten years of making small grants to improve the lives of children affected by HIV/AIDS and poverty, Firelight has learned some valuable lessons about ‘getting to maybe’, and we have developed a theory of change that is helping us to understand that pathway, to both systemic and individual impact.

Guided by a strong belief in the power of communities to solve their own problems, Firelight gives small grants to emerging community-initiated and -led organizations. Typically started by an individual or group of individuals with ‘fire in their bellies’, these grassroots organizations mobilize community action to drive social change.

Building on indigenous systems of care and support, they mobilize and facilitate community efforts to care for sick and vulnerable children and families. But it doesn’t end there. Grassroots organizations empower community members, help ensure the sustainability of local efforts, and harness the collective power of communities to change social norms, affect policies and strengthen systems to protect children’s rights through advocacy.

When you imagine that thousands of small community-based organizations – as many as 50,000 in South Africa alone – are engaged in this process of social transformation, you realize that big changes are happening for children all over Africa.

Respecting local leadership and community ownership is fundamental. Funding in amounts that match the absorptive capacity and needs of local organizations ensures that we do not undermine community efforts. Facilitating new linkages, providing support that covers overhead costs, and investing in the capacity of grassroots organizations helps them grow into strong, sustainable organizations. Long-term partnership provides the stability necessary for an organization to take a long-term view.

Ultimately, all of this allows grassroots groups to take advantage of opportunities to affect larger systems even as they change thousands of children’s lives, one child at a time.

Zanele Sibanda
Director of Programs, Firelight Foundation


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