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ARTICLE Big Change from Small Change: One Funder’s Perspective

Over the last 20-plus years, The Covenant Foundation has received thousands of inquiries about how we make funding decisions and how the results of our grants bear out in the field. We’ve compiled data culled from conversations with hundreds of grantees and we’ve learned much about the behaviors and preferences of grantee organizations. But there is one repeated trend we’ve noticed: a preference for large grants over small. In fact, when the granting scope is described, most institutions tend to go for the largest grant amount over the longest period of time.

However, we have also found—through our research, outgoing interviews with grantees and results of grant success over the past eight years—that it is not unusual for organizations to do much better with a smaller short-term grant.

In 2007, The Covenant Foundation introduced a new category of smaller-scale grants, called Ignition Grants, which provide up to $20,000 of funding for a single year. As the name suggests, these “Ignition Grants” are intended to spark innovation and to allow organizations to “explore new, untested ideas or determine how established practices can become even more effective.” Since the stakes are not as high as in the case of larger grants, this type of grant allows an organization to test the waters.

Consider:

  • Smaller grants can begin a conversation
  • Smaller grants lower the risk and allow dreams to grow

As one Covenant grantee put it, “[T]he grant provided the incentive/‘ignition’ for us to think through the program and become more reflective. It helped us formalize the program and take it to the next level. It was mission specific programming-a growth experience for our organization.”

Seth Godin, an entrepreneur and blogger who thinks about the marketing of ideas in the digital age, speaks about testing the waters this way:

“Perhaps it’s better to commit to wading instead. When you do a small thing, when you finish it, polish it, put it into the world, you’ve made something. You’ve committed and you’ve finished.

And then you can do it again, but louder. And larger. It’s easy to be afraid of taking a plunge, because, after all, plunging is dangerous. And the fear is a safe way to do nothing at all.

Wading, on the other hand, gets under the radar. It gives you a chance to begin.”

More on What We’ve Learned

First and foremost, a program’s success depends on educators who believe that Jewish education is a positive force in changing times. These people are situated on the cutting edge of Jewish communal life, and are passionate practitioner activists who do not accept the status quo. Their actions show that they are ready to take risks, to push back boundaries, and to boldly seek out and experiment with new possibilities. The most successful projects are conceived by visionaries who translate their dreams into realities, or who have the wisdom to surround themselves with a capable team that can do so. Both parts of the equation, vision and implementation, are necessary.

We’ve also learned that programs cannot succeed in isolation, but are dependent on networks, collaborations, and community support. Basically, people support what they help to create. As a result, gathering a coalition of supporters to be part of the process ensures that there are supporters as the project evolves, and makes the task of recruitment far easier. Creating change in an organization or community, while challenging, can be accomplished through a combination of effort, support, and inspiration, leading to constant discovery and celebrating it.

Tamara Ingram, Group Executive Vice President at Grey Group puts it this way:

“Today’s world is amoebic, biological, organic. It’s less about the perfect solution than about constant discovery.”

When Does a Gift Become a Burden?

The question of when a gift becomes a burden is central during the Covenant Foundation grant selection process.

We have watched in dismay as projects and initiatives that showed great promise eventually fizzled and in some cases even caused strife within an institution. The lesson: be careful what you wish for—receiving a grant, large or small, raises the stakes on success because not only are there dollars at risk, but also the currency of self-esteem and reputation.

This Foundation assesses not just a project’s merit, viability, and durability, but also the ability of the environment to support it—and we ask potential grantees to do the same. We ask several questions to help uncover the most potentially successful partnerships:

  • Is the project mission aligned with its host institution, and does the host institution have enough in the organization to support it?
  • Is there truly a partnership between the idea champion (meshugah l’davar) and the leadership of the institution?
  • Can an organization institute a new and/or exciting program without exhausting the staff, or diminishing the works of others?
  • Is it possible to create a team that can carry on the work beyond the life of the grant even if an entire staff or group of teachers may not be ready or interested in the new work?

Grant recipients, many of whom have very limited previous grant project experience, not only have to be willing to learn about how to propose doable projects in a clear and concise manner, and how to articulate and craft measurable goals, but also must learn how to administer and implement their projects in the context of ongoing institutional work while simultaneously monitoring and documenting their accomplishments.

In many instances institutions are much more facile at managing these smaller grants.

Regardless of the scope or breadth of a project, turbulence in the host institution inevitably stresses a project; when there are staff changes and the founding visionaries leave, projects founder; when practical implementers are unavailable, most times very promising ideas cannot get off the ground.

A final question:

When all is said and done, is the risk of getting a grant worth the time, effort, and the possibility of failure?

As another Covenant grantee put it:

“Getting a grant gave me a greater sense of purpose. It helped me understand that I wasn’t acting in a vacuum. That an organization outside of my institution was endorsing my work drove home that I was doing something for the greater good for my world, a greater sense of Tikkun Olam, as opposed to ‘my little olam.’”

Returning to Seth Godin once again: “The tiny cost of failure…is dwarfed by the huge cost of not trying.”

Dreams fade away because we can’t tolerate the short-term pain necessary to get to our long-term goals.

Delighting a few with an idea worth spreading is more valuable than ever before.

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