Insights on Using Small Granting to support Local Adaptation Action

Indigo Development and Change, together with the Adaptation Network, hosted a workshop in Pretoria at the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) to share experiences on using small granting mechanisms to support local-scale climate change adaptation on 11 November 2019. Key insights were particularly pertinent from the “Community Adaptation Small Grants Facility (SGF) project” which piloted an “enhanced direct access” mechanism funded under the Adaptation Fund, and the Association for Water and Rural Development (AWARD)’s RESILIM-O programme which provided subgrants to local organisations in the Olifants River Basin utilising USAID funding, as both projects have been drawing to a close. Workshop participants brought a range of perspectives from civil society organisations that had received small grants, to support organisations, academics, government institutions and grant makers.

How small is a “small grant”?

One of first areas of debate at the workshop was around defining what constituted a “small grant”. Large climate funds such as the Green Climate Fund (GCF) consider micro-scale projects to be up to USD10 million, while by contrast, the Global Environment Facility’s Small Grants Programme (GEF SGP) provides key support to local community-based organisations and funds projects up to USD50 000, with most of their grants in the region of USD25 000. The recent Community Adaptation SGF project offered grants of around USD 100 000 each, which some grant recipients found challenging to manage. While there is no consistency in the use of the term “small grants”, the workshop focused discussions on smaller grant windows that typically target local organisations such as NGOs and community-based organisations, for shorter timeframes of around one to three years.

Why offer small grants?

Workshop participants highlighted that small grants are key for implementing community-owned projects that provide tangible outcomes at a local level. While small in size, such grants can set adaptation action into motion and bring better exposure to community-level activities. These types of granting mechanisms can broaden the reach of adaptation programmes within a region by utilising a range of local implementing partners.

Small grants play an important role in allowing smaller, local organisations to access climate change adaptation funding through a range of sub-granting mechanisms, which can enable them to work and grow, and to have better access to future funding opportunities. The empowerment and capacity building benefits that can come with small granting are important impacts in their own right, as programmes associated with small grants generally target those with limited capacity to access large funding and can help teach these organisations how to access and manage funding better in future. 

Challenges associated with small granting

One of the key challenges with adaptation small granting highlighted at the workshop was the limited institutional capacity of small, local civil society organisations as grant recipients. Workshop participants also noted that some larger civil society organisations may have stronger management systems in place, but lack local adaptation implementation experience, while conversely other smaller organisations may lack management skills but have strong links to the community.

Another concern was that the reporting requirements of adaptation small grants programmes can be disproportionately onerous compared to the size of the grant offered, making this a burden on small grant recipients. Donor reporting and compliance requirements are generally designed for larger-scale projects and are not easily scaled-down. From a donor or subgrant maker’s perspective, the administrative burden of small granting is much higher, hence many donors prefer to fund larger projects. Implementing Entities are required to ensure adequate risk identification for compliance with the environmental and social safeguards of large climate funds such as the Adaptation Fund and Green Climate Fund, but they face the challenge that their local grant recipients may not fully understand these requirements or how to meet them. Likewise with organisations accessing bilateral funding and offering subgrants, this adds an additional layer of reporting and management, with the onus on the primary grantee to ensure compliance and accept liability if things go wrong. This is at times compounded by poor record-keeping practices of local organisations. The need to ensure compliance may result in micro-management of grant recipients by the responsible entity. Such strict compliance and reporting requirements can make projects or programmes seem donor-driven, rather than responding to local needs.

Workshop participants noted the concern that small granting projects at times got tied up in red tape and had slow decision-making processes. It was problematic when small granting programmes displayed inflexibility both in terms of project timeframes for implementation and or with regard to changes in the project during implementation.

Also in terms of justifying small grant projects to donors, participants noted that demonstrating the additionality of small local projects could be a challenge, as they often built on existing projects. Furthermore, it may be difficult to show how “transformational” such projects are, when they take place at such a small local scale.

How can we improve small granting mechanisms going forward?

Workshop participants agreed that capacity building for grant recipients needs to be an integral part of small granting programmes. This includes assessing local capacity prior to issuing funding and providing the necessary training up front, as well as continuing with capacity building during implementation and after the funded project implementation is completed. In addition to formal capacity building, forums and exchanges are a valuable tool for small grant recipients to learn from each other. It was noted that the required capacity included financial and project management, as well as specific skills related to climate change adaptation.  Local organisations require these skills in addition to a drive to respond to local challenges at the community level to implement local adaptation solutions effectively.

It is also important to be cognisant of the context of small granting when planning decision-making processes and payment systems. Small local organisations are particularly challenged by delays in decision-making and in receiving disbursements. Workshop participants made various proposals in this regard, from speeding up decision-making processes to facilitating advance payments to grant recipients.  Providing staged and growing funding is also useful for allowing local organisations to grow their work as they prove their successes. They suggested that grant recipients should also be encouraged to reach out to other donors to support a range of local work.

Having flexible and swift decision-making mechanisms is important to achieving faster turn-around times for project approvals and for any necessary changes in projects as they are implemented. Workshop participants advocated giving more decision-making authority to those working closer to the ground and building in flexibility to adapt to changes in circumstances on the ground.

Small granting programmes would benefit from simplified reporting mechanisms, including allowing for the use of smart reporting tools, photos and user-friendly apps and automating systems where possible. In addition, sharing the load of reporting suitably between the different levels of project governance could also lighten the load on community-based organisations, highlighting the importance of having clarity on the roles and responsibilities of the various role-players up front.  One suggestion was to build in additional support by using students to help track project progress. Workshop participants suggested allowing some flexibility in reporting and measuring progress in small grants projects.

Improved communication was another theme that emerged at the workshop. Workshop participants noted that in the Community Adaptation SGF project it became evident that having a strong and vocal local support organisation (known as a “Facilitating Agency” in this project) to speak up on behalf of grant recipients was important for providing feedback from grant recipients to decision-makers. They suggested that grant recipients should aim to be transparent, timeous and efficient in their communication with their project partners. A different aspect of communication that was raised was the problem of poor communication between government and people on the ground, which could impact on both the implementation and sustainability of small grant projects. It was interesting to note the comment that the power relationship between donors and grant recipients did not appear to be as balanced in South Africa as it was in other regions such as Southeast Asia, as local civil society organisations seem to have less power to influence donors’ funding decisions.

Taking the findings forward

Workshop participants expressed their appreciation for having a day to share their experiences, engage in some honest reflection and take advantage of networking opportunities. The workshop closed with some very practical suggestions for taking the workshop outcomes forward. In addition to Indigo’s committed to capture and share the workshop outcomes, participants’ commitments included continuing to support local communities and organisations to meet their adaptation and capacity needs and communicate these needs to donors, sharing the workshop’s learnings with other partners, helping to feed the workshop outcomes into the academic and policy space, incorporating these suggestions into future small granting programme designs, helping to better share information on funding calls and considering small granting mechanisms as a grant-making option.