grantmakers without borders grantmakers without borders logo Grassroots Development
site map  

home page about Gw/oB Gw/oB programs Gw/oB membership global social change philanthropy knowledge center advocacy action center advice for grantmakers advice for grantseekers critical issues news events jobs contact us

Global Social Change Philanthropy - Development at the Grassroots

Grassroots means the groundwork or source of something.

Social change philanthropy demands a solid focus at the grassroots level. At the grassroots are to be found those most acutely affected by injustice—and the experience and power to develop solutions.

Many social change grantmakers focus their funding to help organize grassroots communities and strengthen leadership and other capacities. Often the goal is to build social movements that can affect change—not just at the grassroots level, but all the way up to national and international policy levels.

The grassroots level is also a place where individual philanthropy can have a big impact. There, a small grant can go a long way. There, the size of the grant often matters less than such important factors as need, timing, and flexibility.

Based on 20 years in Bolivia working with the Inter-American Foundation, Kevin Healy summed up the lessons he learned about grassroots development in his book, Llamas, Weavings and Organic Chocolate.

Key Elements of Successful Grassroots Projects

1. Popular Participation. This “absolutely fundamental element” for grassroots work entails six key actions: Community self-management; Training of local people; Popular education; Employment of paraprofessionals like “barefoot doctors” and “credit promoters”; Professional education for selected grassroots participants; and Group empowerment

2. Tackling of Institutional Barriers and Discrimination. Boldness and insight are key, and creative programs like educational festivals, intercultural education, and documenting grassroots histories have been successful strategies.

3. Energetic and Committed Leadership. Projects stand a better chance of success when their leadership combines social vision, personal drive, analytical, problem-solving minds, and excellent management skills.

4. Resident Skill. Grassroots communities are not to be viewed as “blank slates on whom Western expertise and values” are to be written. Rather, it is the bedrock of "human capital" already in place—indigenous skills, knowledge, values and practices—which must be tapped.

5. Community Motivation and Tenacity. The active participation of the broader community lays the groundwork for projects and helps move them forward, even through difficult times.

6. Community Resource Mobilization. Local in-kind support deepens the project's connection to the community and builds self-reliance.

7. Social and Participatory Research. Social research can play a vital role in revitalizing cultural resources for development.

8. “Outsiders”as Key Actors. Dedicated and sensitive professionals from outside the community—including those from other countries—can offer fresh perspectives on how indigenous resources can be used and provide access to the outer world.

9. Historical Structural Economic Factors. The state of national economies or the timely opening of an economic niche are just a few of these important factors.

10. Single-Minded Project Zeal. A central, all-encompassing focus over a sustained period of time, rather than a jumble of loosely connected, disparate, and short-term activities, often provides the bigger pay off.

11. Sustainable Development. Respect for natural environment and developing plans that were ecologically "sustainable" characterize successful projects. Renewing indigenous environmental stewardship often provided the right balance.

12. Replicability. Especially where funding resources are modest, replicability can be an important success factor—whether it be an innovation in agricultural production or a social protest methodology.

13. The Role of the Outside Funder. Making timely grants to organizations and documenting the change process are a funder’s most important callings.

Some Resources for Grassroots Development

World Social Forum Presents extensive information on the global movements resisting corporate-driven globalization and working to create alternatives.

Global Greengrants Fund, “Why We Support Grassroots Action”


Global Social Change Philanthropy - Building Organizational Capacity - Resources - Advocacy