Grassroots Philanthropy for Transformative Change

By Bongi Ndondo, Executive Director of Hlanganisa Community Fund   

Transformative change happens at community level  

Philanthropy has a profound opportunity to make a difference where it matters most – at the grassroots level. Here, amidst the pulse of local communities, lies the heart of transformative change. Investing in grassroots initiatives – driven through community-based organisations, movements and other local formations – isn’t just about dispersing funds; it’s about nurturing sustainable solutions, fostering community empowerment, and driving systemic change.  

Making every cent count for maximum impact  

Grassroots organisations are a critical part of the civil society ecosystem, and their proximity to communities make them relevant and responsive agents of change. Development initiatives at this level epitomise efficiency and effectiveness. Unlike large-scale programmes burdened by administrative overheads, grassroots organizations operate with minimal bureaucracy. This means that every cent invested is maximized, with funds directly impacting the communities they serve. In addition, small contributions go a long way, enabling grassroots initiatives to achieve significant results with limited resources. By investing at the grassroots level, organisations can ensure that their resources are utilised efficiently, creating tangible and lasting change. 

Addressing community-specific challenges with precision 

One of the key strengths of grassroots initiatives lies in their intimate understanding of local communities. These organisations are deeply rooted in the fabric of their surroundings, allowing them to identify and address community-specific challenges with precision. Whether it’s combating poverty, promoting education, or improving healthcare access, grassroots initiatives tailor their interventions to meet the unique needs of the communities they serve. This localized approach not only ensures that resources are directed where they are needed most but also fosters a sense of ownership and empowerment among community members. 

In a rapidly evolving world, adaptability is crucial for driving sustainable change. Grassroots initiatives excel in this regard, thanks to their agility and nimbleness. Unlike top-down approaches, which can be slow to react to emerging challenges, grassroots organizations are able to pivot quickly, adjusting their strategies to meet evolving needs. This responsiveness not only enables grassroots initiatives to address immediate issues but also lays the groundwork for long-term sustainability. By focusing on root causes rather than just symptoms, grassroots organisations create lasting change that empowers communities to thrive. 

Tapping into local expertise to strengthen evidence and knowledge 

Collaborating with grassroots initiatives provides philanthropic organisations with invaluable insights into community dynamics and needs. These organisations are deeply connected to the communities they serve, offering firsthand knowledge and experiences that cannot be gleaned from afar. By engaging with grassroots organisations, philanthropists can tap into this local expertise to inform evidence-based research and knowledge management. Grassroots initiatives generate data and evidence that can inform policy decisions, advocacy efforts, and resource allocation, leading to more effective and sustainable outcomes in the long run. 

Central to the ethos of grassroots initiatives is the empowerment of communities. By involving local communities in the design, implementation, and evaluation of projects, grassroots organisations foster a sense of ownership and agency among community members. This not only strengthens social cohesion but also builds trust between residents and external stakeholders, creating a solid foundation for collaborative efforts towards positive change. Moreover, by investing in local capacity building, grassroots initiatives ensure that communities are equipped with the skills, knowledge, and resources they need to sustainably address their own challenges. 

Small, agile and driven by innovation and responsiveness   

Grassroots organisations are analogous to start-ups in the commercial sector. They are small and agile organisations driven by innovation and responsiveness. They thus bring fresh perspectives and creative solutions to complex social challenges, challenging the status quo and driving meaningful change. By harnessing the energy and momentum of grassroots organisations, philanthropic organisations can tap into a rich source of ideas and inspiration to drive social innovation. There is no doubt that grassroots initiatives offer a unique opportunity to tackle entrenched problems with fresh eyes and innovative approaches, driving positive change in even the most challenging of environments. 

Nurturing community leadership  

Grassroots philanthropy fosters community leadership. Many emergent social leaders are constrained by a lack of resourcing for the initiatives that they conceptualise. Funding at grassroots level offers an opportunity to develop and nurture these leaders, providing a bedrock for transformative development work. This requires intentionality on the part of philanthropy and can contribute to transformation through targeting often marginalised groups such as womxn and youth.  

Investing in trust-based partnership  

In order for the benefits of grassroots philanthropy to be realised, philanthropic organisations must be prepared to invest in communities through trust-based approaches that focus on strengthening systems whilst building the capacity of individuals. Indeed, such organisations are difficult to find, as they typically do not have an online presence, and their work is little known outside of the communities that they serve. The role of intermediaries has been critical in accessing grassroots organisations, as they often have community level connections and funding processes that are geared towards this constituency.  Strategic partnerships between philanthropy, intermediaries and grassroots organisations are the future of sustainable development work that is aimed at driving transformative social change.  

Sustainably unlocking the full potential of communities  

Investing in grassroots initiatives isn’t just a philanthropic endeavour; it’s a strategic imperative for organizations seeking to drive meaningful and lasting change. By channelling resources directly to the grassroots level, philanthropic organisations can unlock the full potential of communities, foster sustainable development, and drive systemic change that reverberates far beyond traditional interventions. 


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