Reaching Girls at the Grassroots – A Sound Investment

Reposting this in honor of International Women's Day and to welcome new readers wanting the think deeper about Invisible Children's #StopKony Campaign...Check out the great graphic from See Africa Differently at the end!

When girls are educated, healthy, and safe, their own life prospects are transformed. And importantly, they transfer those benefits to their future families and their communities. When girls have access to opportunity, they spur social change and positive economic development. This echo into future generations is The Girl Effect.

Although more people are making strategic and significant investments in programs focused on adolescent girls, a significant proportion of these funds remain targeted at large international organizations. Certainly larger programs, policy efforts, and economic reforms are needed to bring about structural change at national and international levels.

However without building a base of committed stakeholders at all levels—in particular the local level—change runs the risk of being inconsequential in the everyday lives of girls.

Individual and institutional donors can avoid this by investing in grassroots organizations—powerful actors that are finding and reaching marginalized girls and unlocking their potential. Grassroots organizations are reaching a demographic of extremely vulnerable and hard-to-reach girls through homegrown, targeted, and context-specific strategies.

Most importantly, grassroots organizations are made up of people who are on the ground, using their local resources including time, ingenuity, and perseverance—with often very limited funding—to ensure that girls receive the opportunities they deserve.

How do grassroots organizations reach marginalized girls?

Grassroots organizations are part of the social fabric of the community in which girls live and grow. This uniquely positions them to serve and be led by vulnerable, unreached, and marginalized girls who, for example, are sexually exploited, girls with disabilities, out-of-school girls, girls who live or work on the streets, single mothers, and sexual assault and incest survivors. Their positioning also makes grassroots organizations well-suited to find and serve girls from groups that face discrimination or may be less visible, including ethnic and religious minorities, girls living in slum and squatter communities, refugees, migrants, and internally-displaced persons.

Grassroots organizations are often the “first responders,” addressing girls’ immediate and long-term needs. When election-related violence breaks out, an earthquake hits, or a case of abuse is discovered, grassroots organizations can snap into action to make sure girls are safe and cared for. They demonstrate a resourcefulness and commitment to girls that stems from their “staying power” at the local level. They leverage locally-available human, material, and financial resources to bring about durable change for girls.

What are grassroots organizations’ key strengths in reaching girls?

Contextual Expertise – As locally-rooted institutions, grassroots organizations have vital expertise in the interpersonal and caring relationships in a girl’s everyday life. Their day-to-day interactions with marginalized girls and their families, along with language and cultural skills, allow grassroots organizations a deeper understanding of how girls cope and the social fabric surrounding girls than any other development actor.

This intimate position within girls’ lives and in the community enables grassroots organizations to (1) have the legitimacy and trust to reach marginalized and isolated girls with supportive and appropriate care, (2) design programs that are deemed most necessary and sensible in their locality, and (3) use their expertise to influence local support systems and institutions (e.g. families, schools, etc.) to more adequately fulfill girls’ rights.

Continuity– Large development projects led by governments, international aid agencies, and foundations reach girls, but they often come with a narrow focus, restrictions on how the funding can be used, and fixed time frames. However, grassroots organizations have the direct and lasting relationships needed to support a girl throughout her journey to womanhood. Grassroots organizations staff and volunteers often know the girls they serve on a one-on-one basis, resulting in a very personal stake and a long-term commitment to the success of their efforts to empower girls.

Connectedness– Embedded in the community, grassroots organizations can help girls develop a genuine sense of belonging, self-esteem, leadership, and ownership that enables girls to expand their intimate circles of support. Girls who have connections to each other and beyond their own families are healthier, physically and mentally, and are more able and willing to make positive changes in their lives.

This adolescent girl (the author) benefitted immensely from the support of her community while growing up.

Despite these competencies, grassroots groups face a formidable challenge; they must continually seek out and compete for new resources in a funding environment that is often led by global trends rather than persistent, ongoing development challenges and that favors short-term grants to larger, higher-profile groups. Yet effective grassroots organizations are continually overwhelmed with community demand for their programs.

I’ve had the privilege of working with over 300 grassroots organizations in southern and east Africa during my career. Most were linked to local churches, schools, or clinics or were independent groups that assist children by extending support and services into areas that are not sufficiently reached by government or international agencies.  In my experience, grassroots groups are there, directly working on the ground with girls, families, and communities whether outside support is available or not.

My experience also shows me that funding grassroots organizations can start small and grow with the groups as they develop, based on an in-depth understanding of the organizations, the people who make them up, and most importantly, the girls they serve.

So how do donors reach grassroots organizations? See Part 2 here



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Tags: Children, Day, Effect, Girl, IWD, International, Invisible, Kony2012, StopKony, The, More…Women's, adolescent, aid, assistance, community, community-based, development, donors, foreign, girls, grassroots, international, organizations, ownership, participation, programs


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Comment by Achieng Beatrice Nas on March 10, 2012 at 3:58pm

Thank you Jennifer for this wonderful article. It is a good idea for funding bodies to work grassroots organizations. The impact is visible and practical.

I am the founder of Rural Girl Child Mentorship Uganda (RGCM Uganda) project.
We connect Ugandan rural girls to mentors from across the globe who then support their education financially as well us inspire them towards their dreams.
Mentors and Mentees communicate through letter exchange so far.
This project kicked off this year- 2012 with 40 rural girls and 40 Mentors from across the globe (Austria, Australia,England, Germany, Sweden and United States);

Anyone interested can join this group and learn the impacts of our interventions and how they can get involved.

Comment by Jennifer Lentfer on March 9, 2012 at 9:12am

Thanks for your comment Lilian! You might also be interested in this piece I wrote about how the big players in aid are overlooking local NGOs. See:

Comment by Lilian Kamanzi Mugisha on March 9, 2012 at 9:01am

your write up on supporting grassroots organizations is sport on.  if only the big players would belive in what we do at grass root level they would realise that our stakes are bigger and we do not want or future generations go to waste.

please visit and see how far we have gone with no funding at all and then think of what  we would have done if only we can receive funding and  support in kind to better the lives of teenage girls in Uganda.

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