Lighting the Spark: A Community Foundation Looks to Small Grants to Catalyze Big Change



With just a few exceptions, community foundations aren’t typically known for making multi-million-dollar grants. These funders tend to wear many different hats and have their hands in a variety of issues—which can mean fierce competition for limited funds. With total annual grantmaking at around $12 million, the Vermont Community Foundation (VCF) is typical in this regard. The foundation and its nearly 800 donors spreads money to a wide range of organizations.

But like many community foundations, VCF also has more targeted competitive grants programs—including its Spark! grants, whose purpose is to “light the spark that keeps Vermonters healthy and happy” and aims to catalyze projects where small amounts of money can potentially make big differences.

VCF recently announced a new round of Spark! grants to 18 local nonprofits across the state. The awards totaled just $48,668, but it’s not necessarily the size of these grants that really matters. The idea here is to put Spark! money behind very specific micro-projects that are part of larger goals that nonprofits are pursuing locally.

So, what types of groups are prime candidates for Spark! grants?

In this latest round, grants went to support a justice film and discussion, an after-school program for at-risk youth, and a trail building project to connect a local bike path to a school. Meanwhile, other Spark! grants are supporting a day shelter for the homeless, a literacy program to get children reading books before kindergarten, and recreational field trips for children with autism.

The funder’s overarching goals with this grant program are to nurture the community and build social capital, and the staff has expressed strong interests in creating spaces for youth and adults to come together to strengthen the overall social fabric of Vermont communities. VCF also looks to engage local residents in volunteerism through Spark! grant commitments that are usually focused on single communities.

To facilitate its Spark! grants, VCF has a foundation program called Giving Together that allows donors to co-fund projects. In the most recent ground of giving, Spark! grant recipients were based in the following Vermont counties: Addison, Bennington, Caledonia, Chittenden, Essex, Lamoille, Orange, Orleans, Rutland, Washington, and Windham.

Something else great about Spark! grants is that they are awarded three times per year. The first two deadlines for 2019 have already passed, but the next third one is still ahead on September 27. Spark! grants range in size from $500 to $3,000 and are open to unsolicited applications via VCF’s online grants center. Topics to craft proposals around are early care, at-risk youth, college and career training, and the economic vitality of Vermont communities.  

Spark! grants are just one of numerous grant programs at VCF to support grassroots work. Additionally, the VCF-managed J. Warren & Lois McClure Foundation recently gave $335,000 to increase access to higher education, VCF’s Vermont Women’s Fund awarded $103,000 in new grants to promote the economic security of local women and girls, and Deerfield River Enhancement Fund made $14,000 in grants available to protect a local watershed.

Related: The Wonderful World of Mini-Grants: Who’s Giving Them and Why?