We work with many charities and social enterprises who are trying to get new fundraising income streams up and running and/or are tight on unrestricted funds. Perhaps it’s not a surprise that we sometimes get asked if we’d consider working on a commission or performance-related pay basis.
I can see why, at first glance, this might appeal to organisations that have limited cash available to resource fundraising, or feel nervous about committing to expenditure without a guaranteed return. Investing in fundraising often feels like a Catch-22 situation, particularly when you’re prompted to do it because other funding sources have dried up.
However, there are many reasons why payment by commission is actually harmful to you. The simplest answer is that the Institute of Fundraising discourages both fundraisers and charities from taking this approach, however this in itself doesn’t explain the challenges and issues that can arise as a result.
Here’s why we don’t undertake any fundraising work on a commission basis, and why you should think twice about doing so:
IT'S LIKELY TO PUT OFF FUNDERS AND DONORS
In fundraising you inevitably hear ‘no’ more often than ‘yes’, so a fundraiser working on a results basis would have to set a fairly high commission percentage to make it work. Imagine how a funder or donor would feel knowing that the first x% of their donation is going straight into somebody else’s pocket – particularly if they’re donating a large amount, and particularly at a time when there’s so much focus on how donations are used and what percentage is spent on overheads etc. Payment by commission can lead to you excessively rewarding a fundraiser, and is very likely to cost you donations.
IT CAN PUT HARMFUL PRESSURE ON DONORS AND FUNDRAISERS
Fundraising is already a delicate balancing act between the financial needs of the organisation, the wishes of the donor and any ethical considerations. Now factor in a fundraiser who feels desperate to secure that donation, otherwise they won’t get paid. Sometimes we all have to walk away from potential donations, for example if the donor seems vulnerable and unsure about giving, or if the organisation may be compromised in some way by accepting. Paying a fundraiser on a commission basis makes it less likely they’ll make that difficult decision to say no when you need them to.
IT GIVES THE WRONG IMPRESSION THAT FUNDRAISERS ARE SOLELY RESPONSIBLE FOR SUCCESS
Fundraising is a collective effort. When we work with an organisation, we may be responsible for crafting the ask and coordinating the process, but we can’t do it without you: your project information, your impact data and your contacts. If the fundraiser is the only one who loses out if things go wrong, you’re not creating the right conditions for success. When you pay a fundraiser a salary or a day rate, you’re making an investment in fundraising too, so the whole organisation has a vested interest in playing their part.
IT UNDERVALUES SO MUCH IMPORTANT WORK THAT ENABLES GOOD FUNDRAISING
As per Simon Scriver’s blog, a surprisingly small percentage of a fundraiser’s role involves asking for money. They spend most of their time researching prospects, building relationships, saying thank you, gathering project and impact data, and developing processes: this is essential for successful fundraising, even if it doesn’t always lead to a donation. If a fundraiser only receives commission, they’re not being paid for the vast majority of their hard work. So will they still feel motivated to do those all-important support tasks? If they're pressured into a quick-fire ‘spray and pray’ approach, this has a negative impact on your organisation.
IT’S VIRTUALLY IMPOSSIBLE TO ADMINISTER IN PRACTICE
Fundraising is a long game. You might wait 6-12 months to hear back from a trust. A corporate donation or major gift is often years in the making. Several fundraisers may feed into the process (one makes the introduction, one writes the copy, someone else attends the final meeting). So how do you decide who receives what commission, and when? How do you avoid multiple fundraisers ‘competing’ for the same commission? How do you reward a fundraiser who moved on ages ago? And how can a fundraiser plan their income with so much uncertainty?
IT ACTUALLY WORKS AGAINST SMALLER ORGANISATIONS
We work with a broad range of organisations, from start-up social enterprises with a £50,000 turnover to charities running multi-million pound capital appeals. The work involved with a £10,000 application and a £1million ask may actually be similar, yet payment on a commission basis values them completely differently. If a fundraiser is working on both simultaneously, with competing tight deadlines, you can imagine which one will get most of their attention, even if this is sub-conscious.
So here's the clincher: payment by commission, which at first glance may seem so appealing to you as a smaller organisation, can in reality penalise you and de-value your donations.
If you’re looking for fundraising support, get in touch with us now and we’ll explain exactly how our day rates and fixed fees work – but don’t expect us to use the word ‘commission’ at any point!
It's often said that good fundraising and dating etiquette have a lot in common. We're frequently using dating analogies during our fundraising training and work with charities, so we've taken the plunge (prompted by a chat with our consultant Gemma Pettman) and included all our favourite lessons in one place...
Don't talk about yourself all the time
We've all had one of those terrible experiences with someone who can’t stop talking about themselves. You keep asking them questions but they never ask you anything in return, and you can’t get a word in.
Doesn’t feel great, does it?
Charities can be guilty of the same thing. Of course it’s important to tell your supporters and donors what you’ve been up to, but also take the time to find out about their interests and reasons for supporting you. It’ll make them feel valued and will help you to improve and personalise your content in future. Like with dating, finding common ground helps to create chemistry.
I remember hearing someone once say that it’s a common mistake to “we all over your supporters” (I’d love to give credit for this delightful phrase, but I can’t remember where I heard it). When you’re next writing a newsletter or annual review, instead of just talking about what “we” have achieved, try engaging your supporters better by talking about what “you” have helped to accomplish.
Don't expect too much on the first date
One for the major donor fundraisers out there. You probably know it takes time to get to know a donor prospect and cultivate a relationship with them, but fundraisers often feel under pressure to make the ask and secure that donation immediately.
If you’re not sure why this is a bad idea, try going on a first date with someone and asking them to marry you or hop into bed with you after one hour.
When you have a first meeting with a prospective donor, you’re probably both expecting it to lead somewhere eventually. But while you might both have done your research, you need time to explore their interest in supporting your charity, understand which of your projects or activities most appeal to them, and build a picture of how much they might be willing to give.
This may take several meetings, and cultivating a major donor to the point of making that first donation can easily take 12-18 months. The long-term payback will be worth it, but rush things and you’ll get nowhere.
Don't talk about your ex all the time
Trusts and foundations often say that they won’t fund work which they consider to be a statutory responsibility, even at a time when statutory funding is being withdrawn for critical services. This is understandably very frustrating for charities, and it can be hard to work out what a funder means by this.
Often, funders simply don’t want to feel that they’re just picking up the slack for government spending cuts, or that you’re only interested in them because another source of income has disappeared. Telling a funder that you need their support because statutory funding has been cut is a bit like going on a date and talking about your ex the whole time – hardly a good way of making the new person in your life feel special.
Instead of just re-hashing a previous statutory-funded service, show that you’re over the past by talking about your work as an exciting and valuable project in its own right, clearly explaining why it's a response to your beneficiaries' real needs and how you'll deliver social impact.
Don't call them by another name by mistake!
Accidentally calling someone by your ex’s or another person’s name is just about the worst thing you can do. In both dating and fundraising, it can easily happen if you’re not careful.
We all use previous funding application content as a shortcut for writing new bids. But please, check it VERY carefully to make sure that it doesn’t contain the name of a previous funder or contact, or your application could be destined for the bin.
While we’re on the subject of names, always personalise your letters. That funding appeal or thank you letter which begins with ‘Dear Supporter’? If you’re wondering what impression that makes, try going on a first date and calling them ‘Date’ for the whole night…
Invest time in keeping the spark alive
Most relationships begin with a honeymoon period where everything is new and exciting, and you can do no wrong. Sooner or later, you start noticing the little things about the other person that annoy you, you forget your manners, and you have to find new ways to keep things interesting or it might all fizzle out.
In the same way, most donors won’t just keeping giving to you unless you keep paying them attention, educating them about your work and giving them new ways and reasons to support you.
A good donor relationship is built on engaging newsletters, memorable thank yous, invitations to events and maybe even the occasional call to say “I love you”. This takes time but it’s well worth the effort, as well as being the right thing to do. It’s easy to just focus on acquiring new donors, but it can be far more valuable to keep the spark alive with current ones.
"It's not you, it's me" – know when to walk away
Sometimes a donor or funder simply isn’t the right match for your organisation – and, just like in a relationship, it can be nobody’s fault.
A trust may have financial restrictions (e.g. on the percentage of overheads you can claim) that could put your organisation at risk if you accept a grant. A major donor may want a level of recognition or control in return for their donation that you’re not able to provide. Accepting a corporate donation may compromise your charity for ethical reasons, even if it wouldn’t be a problem for another organisation.
Successful fundraising involves being confident enough to sometimes say no for your own good, without pointing any fingers. After all, there’s plenty more fish in the sea.
We often get asked by charities and social enterprises for advice on how they can raise more unrestricted funding from trusts and foundations.
Many organisations are very successful at securing grant income, yet still find themselves in a tight financial position because the majority of funding tends to be restricted to a specific purpose. While project funding is vital, it rarely gives you the flexibility you need to thrive as a resilient and innovative organisation.
We've compiled some of our best tips on how to achieve the holy grail of unrestricted grant income - from some obvious funders to approach, to how to think outside the box when it comes to improving your financial position through trusts and foundations fundraising.
1. APPLY TO SPECIALIST CORE FUNDERS
While it’s understandably tempting for funders to want to fund tangible and exciting projects, this doesn’t give organisations the freedom to pay key staff or cover central costs. Not unlike yoga, strengthening your core is vital and will make you much better at everything else you’re trying to achieve too.
There’s a growing recognition in the sector that smaller organisations in particular need access to more flexible funding if they are to survive and thrive, particularly at a time when so much local authority funding has dried up. Lloyds Bank Foundation CEO Paul Streets has been particularly vocal about the damage caused by 'projectitis'.
Here are a few funders that give core funding to a broad range of charitable causes:
If you’re looking for core funding, here are a few tips:
2. IDENTIFY YOUR ORGANISATIONAL DEVELOPMENT NEEDS THEN APPROACH SPECIALIST FUNDERS
It's easy to focus on core funding, but what are your specific development needs which mean that project funding isn't suitable? For example, you might be looking to scope out an innovative new idea, invest in a building or specific piece of equipment, or improve your digital capabilities.
For each of these areas, there are specialist funders who can help. For example:
Clearly these types of funding will be a little more restrictive than no-strings core funding. However, being specific about your needs will enable you to make a more convincing case for support and open up a broader range of potential funders, thereby increasing your chances of securing that much-needed investment.
3. BUILD GREAT RELATIONSHIPS WITH FUNDERS
Many funders don’t explicitly provide core funding, but will consider providing unrestricted grants to organisations they know, value and trust. But getting in position to access these opportunities takes time, effort and patience.
You’ll probably need to secure at least one, possibly several project-specific grants from a funder first, then focus on building a relationship with them. It helps to go above and beyond expectations by thanking funders quickly and in a memorable way, then reporting well on the grant you received – either by demonstrating that the project went well, or by reflecting honestly on any challenges or complications experienced.
We recently blogged about the importance of building relationships with individual donors and how many organisations get this wrong. The same principles apply to trusts fundraising. A funder that’s engaged in your work is worth 10-20 funders on a cold prospects list, yet so many organisations prioritise the wrong thing.
Once a funder knows you well, they could support you by inviting you to apply for an invitation-only funding round, proactively supporting you with an urgent fundraising campaign, recommending you to other funders, or even just sending you an unsolicited extra cheque. This happens surprisingly frequently but almost never by accident - you need a strategic focus on building great relationships.
4. IMPROVE YOUR BUDGETING AND FULL COST RECOVERY
This tip isn’t so much about securing unrestricted funding, but reducing how much you need in the first place. Trusts and foundations fundraising isn’t just about writing applications – with a better approach to project planning and budgeting, you can ensure you have a smaller funding gap to fill.
Create a budget calculator for staff, with fixed rows for venue hire, volunteer expenses, travel etc. This helps people to cost up projects accurately in the first place and avoid budget overspends which then need to be covered by unrestricted funds.
Calculate staffing costs for projects carefully, checking with every funder what you’re allowed to include. Don’t just include the main project staff – if other staff (e.g. your Director) are committing time for line management or evaluation, include a percentage of their time if possible. This ensures your project funding fully covers the true cost of your projects, meaning your unrestricted funds can go on something else.
Include a contribution towards overhead costs in each project budget – this could be a blanket 10% or a more specific calculation, depending on the funder's requirements. Collecting lots of small core contributions in this way is often easier than leaving yourself with a big funding gap to cover with core funding requests.
5. SEND SPECULATIVE CORE FUNDING REQUESTS TO SMALLER FUNDERS
Trusts and foundations fundraising is not a numbers game, and we don’t recommend the ‘spray and pray’ approach of sending generic funding applications quickly to lots of funders.
That said, if you’ve conducted prospect research to develop a funding pipeline, you might find you build up a collection of potential funders who have very broad funding interests and no specific application form or guidelines, making it difficult to identify a specific project to approach them about.
You could therefore consider putting together a core funding template, broadly explaining your work and impact in 2-4 pages and giving a couple of examples of how a small grant would benefit you. You could then send this to batches of say 10-20 funders at a time. Expect a low success rate (even 5% might be optimistic) but treat this as a shot to nothing with funders whom you wouldn’t otherwise approach.
This is likely to work best for smaller, community-rooted organisations whose work is easy to explain and has emotional impact, and who don’t have high reserves. It’s only worth trying in some circumstances, and the usual recommendations for trusts fundraising still apply – you should try to contact the funder first to check if they can give you any advice on applying, and you should tailor each application to their funding interests and average support level as much as you can.
Buzzwords come and go in fundraising. They get picked up as flavour of the month by fundraisers, charities and funders alike, and fade away just as quickly. Although the words frequently change, the concepts behind them are often more fundamental and enduring.
For me, one of the most important buzzwords in trusts fundraising at the moment is co-production. This is also commonly referred to as co-creation or co-design, and linked to ‘ABCD’ (or asset-based community development). Isn’t jargon exciting?
What is co-production and why is it so important?
Co-production has a broader definition in project management circles, however in a charity context it usually refers to the practice of involving your service users, clients or beneficiaries (more fun lingo to choose from) in the development of your services.
Funders value knowing that your projects aren’t planned in a top-down fashion based on what you think people want or need, but are genuinely based on their ideas, aspirations and unmet needs. This isn’t about token consultation exercises, but actively involving the people you support in your project design. For example here’s a guide to co-production in social care, along with some key principles.
This isn’t a new idea, and it’s not really a fundraising concept at all – it’s fundamental to service delivery.
However I’m seeing increasing examples of funders specifically talking about or asking for evidence of co-production. I review draft funding applications on a daily basis, and it's one of the most common areas where I feel that organisations can make improvements. In a competitive funding climate, failing to show evidence of this can give funders an easy excuse to discard your application.
So how can you build co-production into your project planning and tweak your funding applications to better emphasise what you’re doing?
Don’t underestimate what you do naturally
For many organisations that we work with, co-production can feel like a strange thing to focus on. It’s not something they consciously try to do, because it’s second nature already.
If you run a local community centre, for example, your frontline staff will be interacting with your service users on a daily basis, and constantly evolving activities to reflect their ideas and unmet needs.
And this is fine – in fact, it’s often ideal. Co-production doesn’t always mean contrived exercises. But don’t expect a funder to assume you’re doing it, or give you credit for it, unless you tell them.
Spend some time reflecting on how this happens organically in your organisation, then include at least a paragraph about this in your funding applications. For example you could explain how staff and service users typically interact, the questions that your frontline staff like to ask, and your internal processes for factoring people's feedback and ideas into service design.
Demonstrate how you gather structured feedback
Depending on the nature of your work, co-production may not happen quite as organically. And even if it does, it can be useful to gather more structured, formal feedback periodically.
Surveys are excellent for quickly gathering broad feedback. Online surveys usually enable you to reach more people more quickly and analyse data automatically, but only if your service users have online access. You can use focus groups to test specific ideas or explore topics in more detail and gather more in-depth feedback.
Demonstrate your approach to gathering feedback in your funding applications. Cite both your quantitative results (e.g. survey data) and qualitative results (e.g. individual quotes). If a funder asks a specific question about co-production, use the space to explain your approach and rationale in more detail.
If you have the budget, appointing an independent consultant or agency to design the feedback process and/or analyse the results can bring added credibility. We recently designed an independent consultation process for a charity and later helped them to write funding applications, and the independent feedback data has been invaluable in demonstrating the need for their work and the extent to which service users are involved.
Explain how you use feedback and work with people to improve your services
Of course, listening is only one part of the process. And it counts for little if you don’t act on what you’re being told.
Successful projects often have steering groups or committees who meet regularly to review impact data and service user feedback, then take action where needed. Steering groups should include (ideally multiple) representatives who have lived experience of the issue you’re tackling. Organisations that really succeed in embedding co-production in their work - and maximising their impact - often have representatives with lived experience on their Board of Trustees.
Providing evidence of all this should impress funders, however it can still sound a bit theoretical. So go one step further and include some concrete examples of how you’ve co-created services. For example, were your service users instrumental in designing any of your current services, or have you improved or evolved a project in specific response to feedback?
This is especially important if you’re trying to do something unusual or surprising that a funder may not naturally value. Funders often have specific ideas about how work should be delivered, yet also say that co-production is important to them, which can feel contradictory!
And what about if you’re writing a final report for a project which needs further support, where you already know that the funder won't provide simple continuation funding? Would they be more receptive if you demonstrated your learning and proposed a slightly different, co-created project as a follow-up?
Finally, not everything that you tell a funder needs to come from the horse’s mouth. Testimonials and endorsements – from either service users involved in your work, or delivery partners who are impressed with your approach – are great for increasing your credibility in a funder’s eyes.
One of the first rules of trusts fundraising is that relationships are crucial – but forming them can feel harder than ever.
This is the inevitable result of an ultra-competitive climate. With so many funders inundated by interest, they’re taking steps to minimise the number of applications they receive, and the time they spend communicating with applicants.
As a result, many fundraisers scratching their heads by the lack of feedback, the requests for no unsolicited applications, and cryptic guidance notes. Sometimes it feels like funders and fundraisers are barely speaking the same language – but with more understanding on both sides, there’d be less wasted time all round.
We recently launched a new one-day trusts fundraising course – and, in response to the widespread confusion and frustration out there, we included a ‘What funders say, what they mean and what to do about it’ segment.
Having gathered feedback from loads of charities and social enterprises, and compared it to our own experience, we’ve developed a list of five frustrating things that funders say, and what you can do about it:
1. We don’t fund core / running / salary costs
The funder’s point of view: personally I think that charities need to invest in being strong, well-run organisations more than ever, despite the media obsession with things like management and admin costs. Sadly, funders are often more drawn to shiny, tangible projects. There are legitimate reasons for this: funders have their own charitable objectives and wish to demonstrate impact for what they give, and projects often feel cleaner, simpler to understand and more likely to produce short-term results.
However, it’s easy to misunderstand what funders mean when they say they don’t fund core or salary costs. Often, they mean they won’t fund these costs as stand-alone items, or don’t want to pay to simply keep people in jobs. It doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t fund core or salary costs as a part of a project, if packaged well.
How to respond:
2. We only fund new ideas and activities
The funder’s point of view: a bit like magpies, funders are often attracted to shiny things – that means new, exciting and innovative projects. This can be infuriating, particularly if you’re seeking funding for a project that you know works and is needed more than ever. It’s often driven by concerns about sustainability – funders don’t want to feel relied upon to keep supporting the same work year on year, or may feel that it’s better value for money to make a smaller contribution to test a pilot project that can then be scaled up.
How to respond:
3. We don’t fund work which is a statutory responsibility
The funder’s point of view: this is something I find very frustrating, particularly at a time when an increasing number of activities are seemingly being abandoned by statutory services. However, many funders simply don’t want to feel that they’re just picking up the slack for government spending cuts, or don’t recognise how what you’re doing is different – particularly in areas like residential care, housing and employment support.
Applying for direct replacement funding is a bit like going on a date and talking about your ex-partner the whole time – if you make a funder feel like you’re only interested in them to replace something you used to have, don’t expect them to feel special and excited about partnering up with you.
How to respond:
4. We don’t accept unsolicited applications
The funder’s point of view: in the current climate, many funders are inundated by applications, lots of which are poor quality or don’t meet their priorities. As a result, they choose projects based on personal recommendations or their own research. This helps them to make better use of their limited resources.
How to respond:
5. We don’t enter into discussions about funding in advance or provide feedback
The funder’s point of view: again, this is often driven by a lack of resources. Funders prefer to dedicate time to the organisations they’re funding. Also, feedback can be contentious – perhaps they used to provide it, but often got a negative reaction. Finally, they may simply have nothing meaningful to tell you, if they couldn't find any fault with your project but had to make a tough decision between several organisations they liked.
How to respond:
To learn more about how to build relationships with funders, write compelling applications and develop a successful trusts fundraising programme, click here to check out our training courses.
In a tough financial climate, charities are looking to cast their net more widely for financial support. This can include asking the general public, wealthy individuals and companies.
All these routes can deliver good results in the right circumstances, but it’s important to remember that trusts and foundations still offer one unique advantage: unlike everyone else, they exist solely to give away money.
The question is: are you doing enough to get it? Even if you think your charity’s best long-term income prospects lie elsewhere, it’s likely that grant funding will provide vital oxygen while you wait for your corporate, major donor or legacy fundraising to bear fruit.
There’s a big difference between securing a few grants and having a truly successful trusts and foundations programme. Focusing on a handful of friendly long-term funders might have a high success rate but it'll yield a limited amount of money. And it leaves you very vulnerable: if one funder decides to stop giving, a key project or even your whole organisation could be at risk.
Committing to a strategic, carefully-researched and well-resourced trusts and foundations fundraising programme could be your passport to financial security, even if it involves stepping out of your comfort zone.
We think there are five key components to ensure you have in place. If you’re looking to build a trusts and foundations programme from scratch, or make sure that your existing programme delivers great results, here are the five areas to get right:
1. Map out your funding needs
What do you need to raise money for anyway? Making a list of all your distinct funding needs will give vital context to your fundraising efforts, and help you to make the most of your limited time.
List all your different funding needs – including for project work, capital needs and organisational development. For each funding need, estimate the minimum and ideal amount needed – for instance, £30,000 would allow us to run this project at its current capacity, but £50,000 is what we ideally require to reach everyone in need. This also helps you to demonstrate the impact that successful fundraising could have on your work to your trustees and management.
Give each funding need a priority rating (e.g. low, medium or high) – this will help you to focus your efforts in the next stages below.
2. Thoroughly research funding prospects
There’s a vast amount of useful information about funders in the public domain. Use a database like Trustfunding or Funding Central to help your research – they’re worth the licence fees. Sometimes your local Community Voluntary Service (CVS) can arrange for you to access these databases for free.
Create a big old spreadsheet to record key information for each funder – including their name, areas of interest, how and when you must apply, average grant size, and similar charities they’ve supported previously. This will help you to decide which of your funding needs are the best fit for that funder, how much to apply for, and a priority level (e.g. low, medium, high). You should factor in which funders you already have a relationship with, to make use of your staff and trustee networks.
This process helps you not only to decide which funders to focus on first, but also to quantify the overall potential of trusts fundraising for your charity. If there are loads of excellent funding prospects out there, you might want to dedicate more short-term time to writing applications.
3. Prepare convincing template applications
We strongly recommend that you avoid jumping straight into specific applications, and first spend some time ensuring that you have all the necessary information available to create a convincing ‘case for support’ for each priority funding need.
This should include a summary of the issue you’re trying to address, what your solution looks like, how much it costs, how you’ll measure success, and why you’re the best organisation to do it. Gathering relevant research and statistics, data and testimonials from your beneficiaries, and endorsements from independent experts will strengthen your case.
Creating strong, reusable content will save you time in the long run, and enable you to respond more quickly to last-minute grant opportunities. It’s also vital to be able to describe your work on your own terms, rather than purely in response to funders’ questions and criteria. This helps you to identify and address any weaknesses or gaps in your projects, ahead of those vital deadlines.
4. Submitting those all-important applications
If you’ve spent time researching funders and developing template applications, this stage should now be more straightforward.
Work through your funding prospects in priority and/or deadline order, adapting your template content to fit each funder’s areas of interest and application criteria. Always read any guidance from the funder, as they often make it very clear what they’re looking for and expect you to follow this advice. Plan carefully for deadlines to make sure you don’t miss them, and always include a well-written and personalised cover letter.
For more tips on writing strong applications, check out our ‘Ten trusts & foundations mistakes to avoid’ helpsheet.
5. Don't forget about robust record-keeping
Organisation and attention to detail are essential for trusts fundraising – you need to keep track of every application you make, the date you submitted it, what the outcome was, and any feedback from the funder.
This will enable you to chase up funding decisions at the right time, make a note of when you can re-apply, and use any feedback received to improve your application next time. It’s also vital that you keep on top of thanking funders and meeting any reporting requirements related to your grant.
A good CRM (database) is often well worth the investment in the long run, as it allows you to store and analyse information better. However, there’s no reason why a well-maintained spreadsheet can’t work for smaller charities, at least initially.
With ever-increasing demand from charities and the huge squeeze on statutory funding, trusts and foundations are more oversubscribed than ever, and success rates are on the decline. This two-part blog explains how you can stay ahead of the crowd by avoiding ten common mistakes.
Click here to read part one, all about avoiding circular appeals, getting your budget right and treating funder guidelines like gold dust. Part two below covers our final five mistakes to avoid...
6. Failing to acknowledge previous support
Applying for a grant without acknowledging that a trust has made a donation previously - whether it's multi-year funding for a major project or a cheque for £500 - will make you seem disorganised, ungrateful, or possibly both. This may sound obvious, but I've seen plenty of charities get it wrong.
Try this instead: Before re-applying to a funder, check whether they've supported you previously, how much they gave and when, and make sure you've thanked them and reported on how any grant was spent. Be sure to acknowledge their previous support in your application and thank them again, even if you've done it already.
Whatever your budget, you'll need strong record-keeping to be able to do this, whether that's a CRM database or a well-maintained spreadsheet. This is the bedrock of a good trusts programme.
If you're re-applying to a funder and realise you haven't communicated well with them, I'd recommend holding off on your application for a few months so you can smooth things over first.
7. Resorting to technical jargon
The longer you spend working close to a cause, the harder it can become to explain what you do in plain English. Over time, we can all lose perspective about whether certain words and phrases are meaningful for an uninformed reader.
So it can be easy to slip into using jargon and more technical language by accident. But, for some fundraisers, it can also be a deliberate tactic. You may feel this gives you added credibility as an 'expert', but it often removes any warmth and emotion from your applications.
Try this instead: No matter how faceless or professional a funder may seem, remember there will always be an individual person reading and processing your application. You need to speak to that person.
Review your application sentence by sentence and ask yourself if there's anything you're able to explain in more basic and 'human' terms. If so, consider using those words instead. Allowing some time between drafting and reviewing an application helps to give you perspective on what to change. You can also ask a friend or colleague who doesn't know the context well if it makes sense to them.
8. Inadvertently talking down your work
I've seen some fundraisers become desensitised over time to just how amazing their charity's work is, or how desperate life is for its beneficiaries.
Surprisingly, this is often most common among charities that do really emotive work, for instance with children affected by debilitating medical conditions or living in war-torn countries. I think it might be the mind's understandable natural way of coping with distressing information, but it can be a disadvantage for fundraising.
Try this instead: Avoid unintentionally 'talking down' your work by making sure you explain things carefully. Resist the temptation to shy away from distressing or uncomfortable information. You of course need to avoid being over-dramatic or attempting to guilt-trip a funder, but you simply can't expect them to understand what your beneficiaries are facing or feeling if you don't explain it to them as a newcomer.
Case studies and personal stories are usually a much better way of inspiring emotion and empathy than big-picture statistics. Again, asking someone outside your organisation to read your application, and describe the impression it makes on them, can be a really eye-opening experience that helps you to strike the right balance in your application.
9. Not calculating full cost recovery
Charities have spent the past few years being told that 'free = good' and 'costs = bad'. Whether it's the Daily Mail's latest piece about staff and running costs, or a funder that should know better publishing unrealistic guidelines about overheads, it's hardly surprising that charities feel increasingly squeamish about revealing their true costs.
However, failing to factor in management time and overheads into your budget not only puts your project at risk, it also perpetuates the myth that projects can be run in isolation. As a charity, your management and overhead costs reflect the added value you bring to a project - otherwise, surely the funder could keep their grant and do the project themselves?
Try this instead: For every project, be clear on what legitimate indirect costs you need to include in your budget and why they're essential to making your work a success. You can then avoid selling yourself short, and take pride in the true cost and value of your work.
Before approaching a funder, check whether there are any restrictions on including legitimate central costs in your application. If it's unclear, query it. Where there is a blanket ‘maximum 10%’, you can sometimes try explaining your situation and see if there’s any room for manoeuvre. However, every funder is entitled to set their own guidelines, so sometimes it's better to walk away and find another option for funding rather than risk not doing your project justice.
10. Frittering away your precious time
I’ve seen too many charities waste their limited time on trusts that aren’t a good fit for their work, applications that can’t realistically be finished by the deadline, or projects that haven’t been thought through well enough to turn them into a credible proposal.
If you're passionate about your charity's work and know you can write a good application, you need to make the most of your precious time by working effectively and focusing on the best opportunities.
Try this instead: If you're already busy then this is probably the last thing you feel like doing, but taking a step back to prioritise your opportunities will save you time in the long run. Similarly, focusing on fewer applications might increase your chances of success.
I’d highly recommend doing some thorough research in order to develop a 'pipeline' of qualified funding prospects. You can then prioritise these prospects based on your most important current funding needs and which funders are the best fit for them. This will help you to develop a ‘hitlist’ of maybe ten funders per quarter (or month) that offer the best chance of success.
If you find it tricky to evaluate the potential of new funding opportunities, a checklist of key questions and criteria may help. Many charities use this kind of checklist to make objective decisions about funding that reflect their organisation's needs, rather than always feeling under pressure from funder deadlines or recommendations from a colleague or trustee.
We help charities to sharpen their trusts and foundations fundraising efforts and increase income by researching funders, writing or reviewing applications and getting internal processes in order. We'd love to tell you more:
Good luck with all your fundraising efforts and I hope you’ve picked up a few useful tips!
This is the first part of a two-part blog by our Director Mike Zywina. Click here to read part two.
Exacerbated by the huge squeeze on statutory funding, trusts and foundations are more oversubscribed than ever. Sadly that's only likely to increase after Brexit, as funders make less money on their investments - which is often what sustains their annual giving - and charities look elsewhere after becoming cut off from European funding.
The rise of online funder databases and freelance trust fundraisers has made it easier for charities to churn out more applications, but often with a focus on quantity not quality.
Consequently, success rates are on the decline. I've seen several funders openly advertising that they fund less than 5% of the applications they receive. One funder said that by late January, they've often received far more applications than they could ever dream of funding in a whole year.
With so many letters arriving on your desk, just imagine how picky you can be about what makes the cut.
There's no guaranteed method for writing a successful application - and you should probably be suspicious of anyone who tells you there is. However, there are some sure-fire ways of making sure your application gets thrown out at the first stage. Here are my top ten:
1. Taking a punt with a 'circular appeal'
Don't get me wrong, I can see the temptation. We've heard that we might get a 10% success rate from cold applications, and we've already written a decent general appeal. So if we send out 20 more requests for £10,000, that should mean two successes and another £20,000 in the bank. Easy, right?
Except it doesn't work. Most funders hate receiving a 'circular appeal' with nothing personalised beyond the name and address, and they can see them coming a mile off. In this competitive climate, tailoring your application is a must.
You might enjoy a brief sense of anticipation and satisfaction that you've 'covered a lot of ground', but you probably won't bring in any cash. Worse still, you could find yourself blacklisted by a few funders.
Try this instead: Of course, this isn't to say you shouldn't box clever and re-use content where appropriate. Strong template applications are the bedrock of a good trusts and foundations programme.
However, you must take the time to research and understand a funder's interests and priorities, show you've done your research by tailoring what you write, then crown it with a personalised cover letter.
People often claim trusts fundraising is a numbers game - that's rarely true, and ten high quality applications will do much better than a hundred mediocre ones.
2. Making basic mistakes
Getting the funder's name wrong, mis-spelling a trustee's name, assuming that someone is a 'Mr' when you could have easily checked and found they're a 'Mrs'. The administrator is probably looking for an easy way of quickly reducing their pile of applications, and you've just provided it.
Try this instead: Check all the basic details, check them again, and check a third time to be sure. Ideally, use the funder's website - or a database like Trustfunding - rather than your own database or spreadsheet, in case your records are out of date.
If you've spent a whole day drafting applications, your eyes have probably lost all ability to spot mistakes. It's a great idea to do any final checks the next day, with a fresh head. You could also create a simple checklist to always run through before pressing print or sealing that envelope.
3. Getting your budget wrong
Catastrophic budget mistakes are surprisingly easy to make, but hard for a funder to forgive.
This can happen when multiple people are involved with working on the figures but don't document their workings, or when you change one figure in a column at the last moment and haven't set the total to auto-calculate. Suddenly your numbers can be way out, which is a big red flag for a funder being asked to trust your charity with thousands of pounds.
Try this instead: Triple check your numbers, because they're arguably even more important than what you write.
If several people are involved with creating the budget, make sure they leave a 'paper trail' of their workings, and ideally put in formulae rather than just numbers. Create a budget calculator tool in Excel that automatically calculates totals - this may take some time at first, but will make things much easier in the long run.
4. Ignoring the guidelines
Funders often take the time to provide a wealth of useful information in their written guidelines and on their websites, yet too many fundraisers don't use this to their advantage.
Skipping the guidelines is a bit like going on a treasure hunt without reading the clues. You're very likely to waste your time on an application that doesn't make the grade, and you might even damage your future application prospects by frustrating the funder too.
Try this instead: Before starting work on an application, take stock of how much information the funder has published. Some just provide basic guidelines about the length and format of your application. Others have a detailed FAQs page, examples of projects they've previously funded, and even in-depth advice about answering specific questions.
Whether there's a single paragraph of info or a comprehensive website, make sure you read it in full before you start writing. You should also refer back to the guidelines as you proceed, making sure you demonstrate your knowledge and understanding of their criteria as you answer the questions.
5. Missing the all-important deadline
Not all trusts and foundations set specific deadlines - but when they do, they mean them. While a day late may not seem much to you, it makes a bad impression and offers a good reason to throw out your application.
Try this instead: Research deadlines meticulously in advance and work backwards to set key dates and milestones for the different stages of your application: gathering the raw information to go in it, producing a first draft, reviewing with colleagues and getting it signed off. All of these stages take time, especially when colleagues are busy, so build in an extra margin just in case!
Of course, avoiding a last-minute rush is easier said than done. But it's vital if you want to avoid wasting effort on an application that never gets read. You can make things easier for yourself by prioritising your time and skipping applications that you don't have time to do properly, or where there's only a tiny chance of success.
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