It started out as an experiment. Entrepreneur Ariel Nessel decided to give away $1,000 a day, every day, to grassroots social change agents around the globe hoping it would make a difference. Did it work? Yes, but not how Nessel ever expected.
The Pollination Project (TPP)—the nonprofit organization borne out of Nessel’s experiment—has become the leading proponent of micro-granting, the practice of awarding small grants (typically between $1,000-$5,000) to committed individuals around the world. These individuals—who have often never been funded before—are carefully vetted to ensure they have demonstrated a passion and a plan for making a difference and that their projects align with The Pollination Project’s mission to “spark goodness and unleash compassion” around the globe.
Micro-granting may seem like a crazy model upon which to build an entire organization, but “small grants matter” might be the mantra that the world of philanthropy needs in order to become more effective. Here are four reasons why:
In an era where public and private foundations are spending millions (if not billions) of dollars on important causes that require long-term actions—like curing cancer, solving homelessness, and purifying water—$1,000 may seem insignificant. But we’ve found the exact opposite to be true: by providing these small grants to grassroots changemakers who wouldn’t qualify for funding from larger institutions, TPP invests in, and infuses belief into the hearts and minds of, its grantees.
This statement of belief serves as a shot-in-the-arm, a catalyst for grantees to launch daring, innovative projects in and for their own communities. Instead of telling people what they must do in order to receive the grant, TPP uplifts and empowers individuals to create change in their communities, knowing that many of the issues communities face are best solved by those directly affected. The result is impact that is immediate, significant, and astoundingly effective.
In Ghanam Edith Mborate used her grant to educate more than 4,000 young people on teenage pregnancy, unsafe abortion, and contraceptive usage in Ghana. Toti Jean Marc Yale, another TPP grantee, taught students about animals and why they must be protected in the Ivory Coast. Ijeoma Ugwundi screened and treated 350 patients for diabetes in Nigeria.
In other words, ambitious and committed individuals can make micro-grants go a long way to helping those in need—and when we look beyond elite cultural centers of power, $1,000 goes a long way!
These results are not extraordinary. Every day, we receive reports of similar impact made by individuals across the globe, who have chosen to dedicate their efforts to their own communities. The notion that “small grants matter” is represented in our grantmaking model, which we refer to as “pollination philanthropy”—a democratic model of peer-to-peer decision-making in which we rely on a global network of grantees, community partners, and volunteer advisors to identify the grassroots project leaders who will be awarded grants. This transition from a transactional model of grantmaking to a relational one is significant: it allows us to provide support to our grantees in both financial and non-financial ways, including support for capacity building and fostering collaboration so that they may succeed beyond our initial commitment.
In addition to being effective, micro-granting is practical: awarding $1,000 to an individual is extremely low-risk. Even if a grantee doesn’t fulfill the goals described in his or her initial grant application, the negative effect on our organization is negligible. We have found, though, that the concern that grantees may not use their grant award appropriately is misplaced: in 2018, 94% of our grantees successfully followed through on their projects.
Moreover, we provide them a “foot in the door,” enabling them (with our initial investment) to leverage their grant into more funding and team-building—especially when they take advantage of our global network of grantees and community partners. Many of our grantees have also gone on to win prestigious international awards and garner national and international media attention.
Philosophically, micro-granting is also a much more equitable method of grantmaking because it is distributive: it provides an equal foundation to individuals who wish to improve their communities. For The Pollination Project, this is imperative. Our theory of change—how we believe we contribute to the change we wish to see in the world—is based on the idea that empowering individuals is the best way to improve communities. Our hope is that the success of our grantees will inspire a shift in philanthropy, where small grants will be understood to have an oversized impact.
As Ariel Nessel, founder of TPP and president of the board says, “Giving a small grant to the right person in the right place at the right time of their growth truly makes all the difference in the world.”