Small, flexible, and accessible grants can go a long way

Reflections of three years of ‘learning initiatives'

Published: 26 April 2022

Grantees’ needs evolve, new challenges and opportunities constantly emerge, at the same time it is important to provide space and time for civil society and journalistic organisations to reinvent their strategies and approaches and build wider constituencies. There are plenty of important aspects of organisational strengthening that fall out of the scope of a typical grant application such as emerging collaborations, exchanges, specific thematic training opportunities, attending conferences and initiating cross-organisational visits.

Civitates provides the space for connections among its grantee partners and encourages them to be in touch beyond Civitates meetings and with the funding they need to follow up on mutual ideas and projects without sacrificing their already shoestring budgets. Building on the experience in other pooled funds within the Network of European Foundations, Civitates set up a small grant scheme in 2019 to be able to further capacity and resilience among our grantee partners. These grants follow a light application procedure and amount to up to € 5.000 a year and allow existing grantees to take on unforeseen but highly beneficial learning initiatives.

This funding practice is complementary to the grants that organisations already receive, as often the activities covered by these small grants are hard to include in a project proposal – such as those related to strengthening relationships, learning more about another organisation, or addressing common needs together with other Civitates grantees or external organisations.

This opportunity is greatly appreciated by the grantees as mentioned in the evaluation reports that Civitates has commissioned: “About half the groups had taken advantage of the learning initiatives, and most of the remainder are planning to. Again, these were much appreciated, with some using them for interchanges with other groups, and others using them to access expertise. One person emphasised the flexibility that Civitates has shown in this program.” – Morris Lipson, Review of Civitates’ sub-fund “strong and resilient civil society”.

Since the start of the small grant scheme, we have observed the impact these relatively small amounts have on our grantees’ overall capacity strengthening, cross-organisational connections, and well-being. 

Strategising for stronger impact

Being part of a cohort of grantees comes with inspiration and reflection on one’s organisations and what could be a better way moving forward. Organisations need to be able to adjust their strategies in view of the contexts they operate in but also the new knowledge they acquire and the development stage they are in. As such, one of our grantee partners wanted to further dive into “effective methodologies to collectively tackle complex problems related to inter-dependent, globalised, increasingly fragmented societies, and seek ways to produce desired and lasting social change”.

With the help of Civitates’ Learning Initiative the Neon coalition in the Czech Republic could explore how their original community development methodology may be relevant to those who build EU-, nation- and sector-wide networks and social movements. “The positive effect of the Learning Initiative was the creation of a group of CSOs change-makers who meet regularly since then and examine concrete experience on collective impact in the Czech context and give feedback to strategic issues of involved coalitions.” – shared our grantee partner.

The extracted learnings have helped the coalition focus its efforts and thus strengthen the positioning of civil society. The coalition has expanded national cross-sectoral CSO infrastructure into a stronger pro-democracy social movement and has built alternative CSOs narratives that strengthen the resilience of the whole CSO sector by ensuring its effective (CSO sector-wide) measurement, evaluation, and learning. Having seen the benefits of such deep-dive strategic exercises, the Czech coalition used a similar approach for developing their Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning strategy.

Other Civitates partners used the opportunity offered by the small grants scheme to hire a facilitator to reflect on their collaboration for their Civitates project that fed into their future projects and collaborations. Still others, carried out a team retreat as their organisation was going through rapid growth and there was a need to build a sense of belonging and team spirit – all equally important aspects of building organisations’ resilience.

Fostering inspiring and impactful exchanges

When the Peace Institute in Slovenia analysed their strategy in 2019, they realised that watchdog organisations in Slovenia lacked organised and strategic approach to communication, particularly when they are under attack. The organisation identified a strong need for systematic capacity building in this field. “At that point, we were not sure how to provide the budget for it. The Civitates Learning Initiative scheme was exactly what we needed.” – shared the Peace Institute. The additional funding and the connections fostered with other Civitates’ partners allowed them to find a viable solution. 

“This has been seen as a good opportunity to exchange knowledge and experience within the coalitions in the Civitates cohort and learn from each other. The workshops we organised together with the Slovak coalition, who had the needed expertise, have contributed to the increased capacities of our coalition members and the wider group of CSOs and journalists. As a result, they developed more strategic responses.” – elaborates our partner in Slovenia.

The journalism organisations that Civitates supports became aware of the existing knowledge and capacity within the cohort after meeting for the first time in person in 2021. They initiated cross-organisational visits so that they can see in practice how other organisations deal with multimedia production, data-driven investigations, and business model development. The Learning Initiative scheme allowed them to organise these visits without sacrificing their already limited budgets. The exchanges are still to roll out, but we see the enthusiasm and appreciation the grantees have for this opportunity.
Resilience and staff well-being
With the unfolding of the Covid-19 pandemic, it became even more evident how important personal well-being is. As civil society and journalists have been on the frontlines of the pandemic, they were also hardest hit in terms of mental health and burn-out. The well-being of the staff is an important organisational trait, especially when referring to building resilience. Having recognised these aspects, some of our grantee partners reached out to Civitates and through the Learning Initiative scheme they were able to organise individual and team consultations with therapists and coaches.

“The focus of our initiative was to prevent burn-out, depression and low levels of motivation of the coalition and to encourage the partners to continue working together as actively as before and to seek new methods and tools to do so.” – clarifies one of our partner organisations in Bulgaria.

“As a small newsroom, we still too often find ourselves overwhelmed with an ever-increasing agenda but at the same time limited human resources. We have learnt that burn-out prevention is the crucial component that needs to be integrated into our overall working process to ensure the longevity and viability of our newsroom. We have learnt that our team’s health is a priority, and we want to lead by example.” – explains one of our grantees in Slovenia.

These observations and grantees’ experiences show how greatly they benefit from the flexibility and accessibility of the small grants for Learning Initiatives. At Civitates, we see the Learning Initiatives as an essential part of strengthening civil society and we are motivated to continue distributing such funding.