Despite the number of excellent grassroots environmental initiatives in Canada, these projects receive little philanthropic support. Government cutbacks are high, and foundations often choose to sponsor established organizations over smaller community-based activities. Adding to this situation is the fact that Canadians give relatively little to environmental causes.

Thus it is difficult for community-led environmental groups to effect change. Nonetheless, it is often the very individuals in the communities that face environmental challenges who know best how to uncover the right solution, often making these initiatives the most effective. How, then, can these efforts be better supported?

Small Change Fund: Micro-philanthropy and crowd-engagement

From this question arose Small Change Fund (SCF). Launched in December 2009 by Ruth Richardson and Mary McGrath, the organization leverages micro-philanthropy and an award-winning crowd-engagement and crowdfunding platform (this platform is the first of its kind in Canada focus on these types of projects). SCF offers small grants to high-impact projects that address sustainability with respect to ecological resilience in the integration of economic, social and cultural well-being of people and communities.

Here’s how it works: Small Change Fund’s voluntary advisory network sources community projects across Canada. Projects are vetted and those selected are posted on the organization’s website. Small Change Fund then facilitates and leverages funding for these initiatives through support from institutions and individual donors. It also helps build the capacity of each group to use their networks and raise funds through marketing and communication strategies.

Essentially, the SCF approach enables donors (foundations, individuals, corporations and others) to play their part in solving problems―to bring about change through grassroots giving.

One distinctive feature of SCF’s approach lies in its use of expert advisors representing every region of Canada. They bring experience in social and environmental causes: they vet the proposals, help determine which projects to support, connect communities to SCF and offer ongoing wisdom and advice.

Another unique element of SCF is its ability to connect donors directly to projects. In this way, donors know exactly where their money will go and how it will be spent. Local project leaders, with the help of SCF, produce videos that explain what the funds have accomplished. Each video is posted to the SCF website.

Since its inception, SCF has garnered a reputation for its achievements. Working in collaboration with over ten institutional partners, SCF has raised over $440,000 and has supported over 130 projects from communities across Canada. These projects have spanned issues from coastal protection to building urban food systems to reconnecting aboriginal youth to the land.

As mentioned, SCF helps project groups increase their capacity to connect with and enhance their own networks. Working alongside the Greengrants Alliance of Funds, with partners in Mexico, India, Siberia, Nigeria and China, Small Change Fund is oriented toward both a local and global level. It is working to ensure that local action is transformed into global impact on such issues as climate change and indigenous peoples’ rights.

Future expansion

As leader in grassroots giving and a supporter of community-based action, Small Change Fund is a model for effective micro-funding. In future, SCF plans to expand its partnerships with institutional donors to ensure it can continue to deliver focused funding.

SCF also aims to strengthen its support for local opportunities that address global environmental sustainability. As it develops and enhances its grant-making structure, the organization hopes to further engage Canadians in supporting such initiatives.

Through SCF, grassroots leaders have a greater voice and a strong support system to help them find solutions to critical problems, challenge policies and establish sustainable futures for communities worldwide.

The Case Studies in Social Innovation database is a joint initiative between SiG @ MaRS and the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation.