A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Making a Big Impact With a Small Grant

By Gary Castagnola, Ellen & Clarence Peterson Foundation

During the initial years of our foundation, beginning in 1986, none of our trustees had any prior experience serving on a board of directors for a nonprofit organization. Our accountant told us the dollar amount of required distribution and we divided the dollars among the directors. Each of us then selected a nationally known qualified organization for our grant dollars.

After a couple years, none of the grantees ever sent even a postcard of thanks. Our dollars were indeed a drop in the ocean. Thereafter, we focused mostly on giving to local and much smaller organizations that each of us had encountered. This shifting of our resources had an immediate impact on both our grantees and our fellow board members.

Along with money, some of us came to know the grantees on a local and personal level, helping them with our business and management expertise. We could see the results of our efforts and leverage our dollars beyond anything we would have experienced by simply sending a check in the mail.

To illustrate one program in particular, a local, small food bank contacted us to ask for help with capacity building. They needed additional storage to place food goods for a growing population of homeless and underserved families in an extremely depressed community in south central Los Angeles. Rather than rely on a written grant request, we visited with them and came to understand their needs.

Subsequently, we purchased a large shipping cargo container and immediately quadrupled their food storage capacity. In addition, over the years we purchased equipment and volunteered directly to contribute our time, share our experience, and help them build a sustainable and growing community service program.

When we began our engagement with this grantee in 2007, they provided food and clothing for 941 households, with a population of 3,308 residents. Last year, they provided food and clothing for 8,109 households, with a population of 36,379 adults and children. Additionally, they are now providing a wide array of family services including counseling, transportation for medical and legal needs, after-school programs, health fairs, and so on. A small, initial grant in the amount of $3,000 for a storage unit, combined with volunteer time has been very effective indeed.

My advice to those of you on the grant maker side of the equation with an interest in leveraging the impact of the size of your grants is to become more closely involved with those you serve. You will never wonder about the effectiveness of your time and treasure. Moreover, the personal rewards you reap are so much larger than any dollar amount you may grant.

Gary Castagnola is a member of the board of the Ellen & Clarence Peterson Foundation, which was established in 1986 to support a variety of local, grassroots nonprofits, primarily in the southern California area. He earned his B.S. in Business Administration in 1965, and certification as a Certified Financial Planner from the University of Southern California. He worked in the insurance, stock brokerage, and mortgage banking industries until retiring in 2008. He now devotes his time to consulting with nonprofit organizations.

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