Grant-making as capacity building concept
It will be almost 10 years since the European Commission (EC) has introduced the financial support to third parties (reading distribution of small grants) as the capacity building approach within Calls for Proposals mainly (but not exclusively) targeting civil society actions. However, considering my experience from Croatia, Western Balkans and Turkey, I will reflect in this article mainly to capacity building of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs).
The story behind this decision relates with the need to provide response to capacity building mainly based on the training activities missing then often the actual application of the new knowledge in practice due to lack of funds for local actions.
Also, that was the response to complaints of mid-size and smaller organisations since they were not eligible to apply for specific EC grants due to the lack of required financial, operative, and technical capacities.
From my experience as the Monitor of the EC grants, I can confirm large disparity of feelings and expectations of CSOs of all sizes regarding accessibility and implementation of EC grants including:
- Larger organisations were frustrated because they could not find proper partners among local CSOs for their actions and they were feeling burden of involving mid-size and small organisations as the partners of the EC funded actions due to their limited capacities.
- Mid-size organisations were in the situation at which they are not small anymore but also not enough big and developed to apply for EC funds. Also, they were tired of trainings without actual support to conduct concrete actions as follow-up to capacity building. Often, they felt like just local support for the large fund makers.
- Small, mainly community-based organisations were the most optimistic as usually since approach to EC funds were just a dream for them that might happen one day. However, the same as the mid-size organisations they could mainly benefit from training activities without actual support for follow up actions.
So, possibility to have funds for distribution to smaller actions was really great opportunity. However, this idea was not supported by substantial capacity building in that sense.
This is in general the main misconception of what the grant-making really is. Namely, when we observe the whole process as outsiders, what we see is just publishing of the Call, evaluation of proposals and signing of grant contracts. As outsiders, we do not see the months of preparation of the Call and the Guidelines for Applicants documents. We do not see discussions, studying of relevant strategic and actions documents, adjustments to national needs etc.
If you are not in the process, you are not aware of the quantity of work you have in setting up, for example an Evaluation Committee, preparing its members to conduct the process of the assessment of proposals following required criteria, acting objective and providing concrete opinions and recommendations for those being assessed lower compering to winning proposals.
In conducting grant-making activities as the Grant Beneficiary, you will face the double role in this specific process. At one point, you will be acting as the donor while at the same time you will be also Grant Beneficiary of the grant having grant-making component.
In the situation of the EC funded grants this might be really challenging since you must follow and apply the same rules and procedures that apply for your grant contract. You are now not only the CSO implementing the grant but also serious and responsible Contracting Authority.
Quite challenging! Now, you must create such a concept to ensure respect of the rules and their implementation at the local level. Also, you must ensure that even those with annual budgets up to several thousands of euros now are capable to respect all administrative procedures and reporting requirements.
On another side, you must adopt the whole concept to the needs of local communities since you want to support the implementation of the actions with results as well.
I remember one example from Serbia when local organisation working in the sector of Culture have returned the small grant with the statement: “We want to work on development of culture in our local community not filling in the excel sheets!”
This was so true and so disappointing. However, this is exactly what we must consider when designing such support and that is how to balance the needs and requirements in order to achieve the planned results.
This is also important when considering internal capacities of organisation designing such action. The grant-making is not only creation of the Call and assessment of the proposals. The actual work for all parties involved starts with signing of the grant contracts.
Then, we have to ensure implementation of our project activities including support to small grants implementation which always require lots of time and energy that have to be invested into day to day communication, providing individual assistance after the group training, conducting often field (monitoring) visits to local communities and observing. Lots of observing! Not only to collect information needed to measure indicators of our action but to learn how to design new development intervention and especially to assess possible situations of risk in order to react promptly.
Grant-making is strong development intervention which cannot be just repeated automatically. It should be adopted to each new cycle of the capacity building support and we have to be ready that every new cycle will bring some unexpected challenges.
This is very much exited but might be serious burdening as well. Due that, the most important for the whole process to be successful we should consider following:
- Capacities of the grant-maker – build your capacities all the time and require proper availability of funds for human resources needed for implementation of such action. One Grant Coordinator is not enough. Certain funds for training and filed activities have to be planned as well.
- Internal set of rules and procedures – if you are going to act as the Contracting Authority, you also have to ensure the transparency of the process. Also, you need to develop system which will be upgraded from project to project and understandable to your staff, new employees and local grant beneficiaries.
- Observe and upgrade – take care to not stuck in administration of grants. Monitor, ensure assistance on daily basis, conduct often field visits, and analyse what you see and what you have experienced. Grants as a such are the amazing source of ideas and creative energy at all levels.
- Promote and share – make a system of promotion of EC funds and your support by sharing inspiring local stories. Do not hesitate to create stories about effects of capacity building support. Over the years, you will be proud once you see what such a support have resulted in. Then, you will know that all efforts invested were worthwhile.
Having more questions about development projects and grant making? Please, write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will be happy to support you and share more interesting stories from my grant management experience.