Discussion of the contributions of philanthropy to U.S. society tends to focus on large initiatives with clear, dramatic impacts. Examples include the Green Revolution, the 911 emergency-response system, the Public Broadcasting System, and community-development corporations.

But small grants can make a difference, too. A small grant can unleash creativity in a timely way. It can provide strategic support to entrepreneurs, organizers and intellectuals. One such grant has represented for me a powerful example of how grant makers can make a difference with limited funds.

In 1986, Norm Collins, then the Director of the Rural Poverty and Resources program at the Ford Foundation, recommended a $35,000 grant to Harvard University to allow two young researchers to study the factors influencing the economic development of American Indian nations. The proposed grant fit into Norm’s personal and organizational agenda. Trained as an agricultural economist, he had spent the larger part of his career working for Ford in India, focused broadly on advancing the Green Revolution that promised to improve farmers’ productivity and reduce poverty in rural populations. In his subsequent New York assignment he focused on rural poverty in the United States, among other things. American Indians, rural but also urban, are by far the poorest group enumerated in the American census.

Read the full article about building support for Native American governance by Michael Lipsky at HistPhil.