10/08/2013 10:50 am ET Updated Dec 08, 2013

Mott Fund Shouldn't Drop Effort to Help Tiny Groups

The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, renowned for its innovative and risky philanthropy, is losing what may well be its most important grants programs.

Some 30 years ago, Mott established a small-grants program, the first of its kind among large foundations, to assist grass-roots organizations that needed small amounts of money to meet emergencies, undertake organizational audits, or start new projects. It enlisted a handful of national or regional organizations with extensive outreach to local groups throughout the country to vet requests and hand out the money.

The results have been extraordinary: Hundreds of local organizations have been assisted and strengthened by the grants. Sadly, very few other big foundations have realized that this is an idea worth emulating.

I was present at the birth of the program, working with Mott program officers to shape the effort in my role as leader of the Center for Community Change, a group that works closely with grass-roots nonprofits.

It is difficult to describe the excitement organizations felt when they were able to tap into small amounts of money they couldn't get elsewhere.

Besides the money, small groups also get help with management, fundraising, and other issues from the big groups that Mott entrusts to distribute the small grants.

Yet this worthwhile effort will most likely end in April. The reason for ending the program is still obscure, but apparently it is part of a broader effort to close the Building Organized Communities grant-making program, which has provided $4-million to $5-million annually to support community groups that conduct organizing and advocacy activities.

The Building Organized Communities program, which housed the small-grants program, is one of the very few such pools of money in the country--the other is run by the Marguerite Casey Foundation. The cessation of Mott's program, so capably managed by Cris Doby over the past decade, will leave a deep hole in the financing required to sustain grass-roots efforts throughout the country.

The decision to move away from this undertaking appears to have been made by William White, who serves as chief executive and board chair of the Mott Foundation. The foundation's board of trustees was not consulted before the decision, and it did not approve the plan.

A spokeswoman for Mott says that Mr. White is simply recommending the closure now and that the board will discuss the idea in 2014 as part of a broader discussion of the foundation's priorities.

The Mott Foundation and Mr. White have established an important philanthropic legacy, matched by few other foundations. Mr. White was one of the first major foundation leaders to recognize the importance and financing of nonprofit public-policy and advocacy activities.

He has provided strong and generous support for national organizations that assist the poor like the National Council of La Raza, YouthBuild USA, and many others. He has financed significant environmental efforts in the U.S. and Eastern Europe. And he has proved to be an ardent champion of economic-development efforts to revitalize the depressed city of Flint, Mich., and the surrounding region. (In full disclosure, he directed significant support to the group I led for 23 years, the Center for Community Change.)

The Mott Foundation's leadership should discuss and rethink the decision to end the Building Organized Communities grants and reinstitute this important source of money for grass-roots organizations.

The legacies of the Mott Foundation and Bill White's tenure are both at stake. Let us hope that the board and Mr. White decide to reinforce the philanthropy's stature as a strong supporter of groups that push for social change.

The post originally appeared at The Chronicle of Philanthropy.