This month we're taking a breather from writing punchy opinion pieces or gazing into our crystal ball and focusing on something more straightforward but still vital - everything you need to know about the humble case for support.
What do we mean by a case for support?
A case for support is an internal document that you create to outline the problem your organisation exists to solve, what you do about that problem, and what you're going to achieve as a result. Quite literally, it's your case for why donors or funders should support your work.
A good case for support effectively acts as a comprehensive, well-organised filing cabinet of convincing content that you can pull out whenever you need it - for a funding proposal, a meeting with a donor, to create copy for a webpage.
It’s very unlikely that anyone outside your organisation will see - or would ever want to see - this full document in all its glory. But it should be the starting point for your external, donor-facing documents. It's never a case of just copy/pasting large chunks of content from your case for support into an external document and just adding images and a catchy title - the text will always need tailoring for the audience and context - but it’s still a brilliant shortcut.
(Just to confuse things, often organisations create a shorter, branded external document to 'sell' their work to donors and also call this a ‘case for support’, but that’s not what we’re talking about in this blog.)
Working with organisations to create their case for support is one of my favourite jobs. As well as it being a privilege to learn all about fascinating and important new causes, I love the process of asking a few targeted questions, rapidly building up an array of content on colourful post-its, then shaping it into a structured document.
And organisations always seem to really value having that outsider’s perspective - while they can supply all the passion, lived experience and raw content, a few ‘devil’s advocate’ questions from us can help to clarify details, tease out vital extra information and explain things clearly and convincingly for an external audience.
What are the benefits of developing a case for support?
Many organisations shy away from creating a case for support, because they don't feel they have time. I’m not going to lie, it does take time to create. But it will certainly save you time in the long run, and also increase your return on investment from fundraising.
A good case for support will equip you with:
What should you cover in your case for support?
There are many ways to structure a case for support, and they can get pretty long and complicated, but fundamentally you need to cover four key areas:
The need for your work:
Your expertise and credibility:
Where can you go for the information needed to create a strong case for support?
There are loads of potential information sources to draw on, but here are a few:
This can feel like a daunting process if you’ve never done it before, but it's important to stress that you don’t need everything to get started. As it's an internal document, developing a case for support can be an ongoing, iterative process - start ASAP, but make a note of what else you'll need to research, gather and add over time.
The best cases for support are never finished, they evolve over time. For example if new research is published that reinforces the need for your work, or if you've just written a brilliant answer (even if you say so yourself) to a specific funder question that you want to re-use in future, find a place for it in your case for support.
If you're now convinced that you need a case for support, what should you do next?
We’ve tried to write this blog as a stand-alone free resource for anyone wanting to get started on their case for support. Remember that you're the expert on your work and the reasons why you do it, and your case for support is just a way of laying all that out in a logical, structure way.
If you feel you do need some extra support, we’ve got a couple of options:
WHY THE CLOSURE OF THE SMALL CHARITIES COALITION IS A DISASTER FOR OUR SECTOR AND PROOF OF A COLLECTIVE FAIURE BY FUNDERS
When the news that the Small Charities Coalition (SCC) is closing first broke, people expressed a range of emotions: shock, sadness, gratitude for their help, concern for the grassroots charities they support.
This is all justified, but I think there’s been too much resignation (that this is just one of those things that happens) and not nearly enough anger.
I want to explain why this is a disaster - specifically for SCC and the many brilliant charities they support, but more broadly because of what it says about our sector and the lack of support for infrastructure organisations. This is a collective failure by grantmakers, resulting from short-sighted policy and too much ego.
First, a small disclaimer
I’ve been a pro bono trainer for SCC and general supporter of their work since 2015, so I can’t claim to be 100% neutral, although I should emphasise that we've never received any payment from our work with them.
Secondly, I don't have any knowledge of the inner workings of SCC, or exactly what they've done to try to secure funding. I'm sure there will have been things they could have done better or differently - that's the case for all of us - but I don't think that would fundamentally change what I want to say.
Why is infrastructure support so vital for charities?
The vast majority of charities and social enterprises are tiny organisations run by people with lived experience of the issues they’re addressing. I've personally worked with so many brilliant founders who have been full of knowledge and passion, but who haven’t benefitted from professional training or the best education, don’t speak English as a first language, or have little money for professional development.
Inevitably there are times when they need expert support in areas outside their comfort zone - for example finance, fundraising or IT - but they don't have the budget to recruit a specialist staff member, or pay a consultant.
Sometimes they secure ad hoc pro bono support from an expert – frequently a wealthy person in the twilight of their career after spending 40 years making money in the finance and business worlds, often perpetuating the same social issues they now claim to want to solve. For obvious reasons, this isn’t - and shouldn’t be - a solution for everyone.
I’ve seen a few people argue recently that local infrastructure organisations can step up to the plate after SCC closes. Indeed I've come across some truly brilliant local services. Yes their support is excellent, and yes being localised is really valuable, helping to promote collaboration not competition between organisations.
But in my experience, the quality of local support can really vary, and funding for it can suddenly evaporate in the winds of political change. It certainly isn’t available to everyone, everywhere. Economies of scale mean that most local infrastructure organisations can’t offer the same quality and cost-effectiveness as a national organisation. Even if they could, they'll still eventually face the same funding realities as SCC.
So national infrastructure organisations like SCC are vital - but who can we rely on to fund them?
Certainly not this government, which has alternated between being antagonistic and totally disengaged with the charity sector. As austerity has bitten, charities have necessarily become more vocal about the injustice faced by vulnerable people, and this government has worked progressively harder to discredit and demonise charities in response. Think back to how Conservative MPs seized on things like the Olive Cooke scandal.
Not the general public, who realistically will never be engaged with the nuances of how grassroots charities should be supported. Especially not when, following the lead of the government and the right-wing media, most public focus has been on red herrings like how many pence in every pound charities spend on ‘admin’, or how much their CEO is paid.
This means we inevitably rely on grant funding - but funders haven’t stepped up to the plate
You could argue that it shouldn't be their responsibility, but then again, they’ve done it for countless other underfunded, niche and unpopular causes during a decade of austerity.
Funders are ideally placed to understand the value of grassroots charities, and the need to empower them. But astonishingly few have been willing to fund infrastructure organisations – and that’s due to short-sighted policies and too much ego in their decision-making.
People with far more authority than me, including Paul Streets and Jake Hayman, have long criticised funders’ obsession with short-term, project-based impact, at the expense of strategic support, movement-building and core funding.
This collective failure has gradually shamed grassroots charities into playing down their core costs and development needs, and systematically devalued learning, collaboration, professional development and long-term strategic planning.
So many times, I’ve had to persuade small charity CEOs that they can include a contribution towards running costs in their project budget, and they do deserve to pay themselves a salary for their work. They’re terrified that they’ll be judged and penalised by funders. And sometimes, they're right.
Contrary to what we’re often told, most grassroots charities don’t ‘waste’ money on salaries and running costs - they chronically underinvest in them. If, as a result, staff can’t or won’t pay for even low-cost training, infrastructure organisations like SCC can’t develop a sustainable business model – but they haven't been able to subsidise it through grant funding either.
"Oh sorry, we really value the work that you do, we just can’t fund it ourselves."
If a few funders say this, it’s their problem. But when almost every funder does, organisations like SCC fold, and that’s a problem for everyone.
SCC's closure is proof of this short-sighted grantmaking policy, but also problematic ego
Because well-funded infrastructure support does actually exist, just mainly in the form of Funder Plus programmes.
This sees funders often hand-pick a small number of their grantees to receive infrastructure support, mentoring or training alongside a grant. These charities aren’t the only people to benefit. Experienced consultants get to do exciting, generously-funded strategy and consultancy projects, either in-house for a funder or as a freelancer. I know, I’ve been one of them.
I’ve previously been an advocate for the Funder Plus model because, in isolation, it achieves badly-needed, often transformational impact for a few charities. But if Funder Plus support comes at the expense of funding for centralised infrastructure support for everyone, it’s part of the problem - expensive to deliver, only benefitting a few, and driven by ego.
"I want to decide which charities get support. I know best what types of support that people and organisations who are nothing like me really need. I want to see and shout about the tangible impact of my contribution, not fund an experienced, national organisation to do it at scale, for everyone."
If this sounds like harsh criticism, consider this: SCC supports over 16,000 members and their annual budget has never topped £400,000, only rarely exceeding £200,000. They might have survived with just four or five moderate multi-year grants from progressive funders, or a smaller contribution from a slightly larger number of funders.
That this has proved impossible is a damning indictment of our sector. How can you possibly argue that Funder Plus models achieve more impact and better value for money?
I’m painfully aware that this comes too late to save SCC. That’s already a tragedy - but if we don’t use it as a wake-up call, we'll be facing an existential crisis.
As a sector, we’re not so much shooting ourselves in the foot, we’re tearing out our own heart.
There’s rarely a convenient time to be able to take a step back and commit to working on a new strategy, but recently it's felt harder than ever.
We’re nearly two years into a pandemic that has kept everyone guessing and in firefighting mode - and with a new variant raising the stakes again, sadly there’s no let-up in sight. But with so many things having changed since the start of 2020, if you haven’t done a strategic refresh yet, now might be the time to take the plunge.
Creating a new strategy is a unique process for every organisation - you’ll be facing your own cocktail of opportunities, barriers, community needs and tricky decisions. However inconvenient, there’s no definitive list of topics and issues that everyone should work through.
That said, we're seeing a number of themes that keep coming up in our conversations with charities and social enterprises. So here are some key topics to have on your radar - you'll be able to decide how much each one applies to you…
1. Staff burnout
Your team may now have spent nearly two years battling through rising community need, pressure to stay financially afloat, and uncertainty around where and how they do their jobs, combined with personal concerns about health, job security and the impact of multiple lockdowns on mental health. Few people are feeling energetic or clear-headed, and the festive break (if we get a proper one) won’t be a complete reset.
Any strategy that doesn’t acknowledge or address this risks falling flat, no matter how good the rest of your decisions. Talk to your team about how they're genuinely feeling, and what they need to have in place to do their jobs to the best of their ability in 2022 - which could mean more support, flexibility or encouragement than they previously needed.
That might have an unexpected budget implication, but leaving people to just muddle on through could cost you more in the long run.
2. Hybrid delivery and digital exclusion
Should we go back to running meetings and services in person, or keep them online? This was already a dilemma, even before the Omicron curveball.
During the initial lockdowns, many organisations realised they could reach new people and deliver services more cheaply online. On paper, this seemed like a surprising positive from the pandemic, but there’s been rising concern about digital exclusion - who are we inadvertently leaving behind, and does digital delivery exacerbate inequalities?
And there’s the added complication of how - and whether - to cater for everyone when some people want to be in a room with you and others want to participate remotely.
These are key strategic challenges to wrestle with. Check out our original blog on digital exclusion from early 2021, our guide to running engaging and accessible strategy workshops online, and Zoe Amar’s excellent tips on making the right decisions about hybrid working.
3. Building long-term relationships with funders
For me, one highlight of the past two years has been seeing funders engage more meaningfully and collaboratively with charities. This started with the collective commitment to flexible funding and reporting early in the pandemic, but has continued as many funders have acknowledged that grassroots community organisations are best placed to be their eyes and ears on the ground in a rapidly-changing landscape.
But too many organisations are missing opportunities to build meaningful, mutually beneficial relationships with funders. Amid the pressure to bring in new grants and submit more applications, it’s too easy to neglect the positive impact of things like a well-written and honestly reflective grant report to an existing funder.
And if we only value conversations with funders that are about immediate financial impact rather than learning and collaboration, we risk prioritising short-term target-hitting over long-term growth.
While I get that organisations living hand-to-mouth will struggle to prioritise long-term relationship-building, if you have the breathing space to build this into your strategy, you'll soon see the benefits. Our recent blog on building relationships with invitation-only funders is a starter for ten here - we’ve had feedback from several funders that these are exactly the things they’re looking for.
4. Capitalising on that surge in public fundraising, donations and volunteering
While this felt particularly pressing back in spring/summer 2020, it’s not too late to bear in mind.
The amazing community response to Covid-19 saw many people get a new taste for donating, fundraising or volunteering. Crucially, many actions were all about grassroots humanity - helping your neighbour with their shopping, or donating to the local foodbank. While big charities have household name brands, finely-tuned structures and economies of scale, grassroots organisations could promise immediate impact and a direct connection to those in need.
Some charities have done an exceptional job of nurturing this - continuing to inspire, engage and connect new donors and volunteers through stories, events and further opportunities to make a difference. Treated right, these people have the potential to be their loyal regular givers, major donors and community fundraisers of the future.
Have you benefitted from a surge of grassroots support during the pandemic? What have you done to keep that passion and humanity burning? And what can you still do to nurture and replicate it in future?
5. The way that people come together (or don't) is changing
Beyond the physical lockdowns, the pandemic is having a long-term impact on how people behave, consume, congregate and interact. Offices have remained half-empty and high streets still feel eerily quiet. I was in central Bristol last Friday to buy my daughter’s first pair of shoes and most shops were deserted, two weeks before Christmas.
This has massive implications, particularly for fundraising. ‘Old ways’ of doing things no longer feel fit for purpose, maybe permanently. What does it mean for corporate fundraising if most employees are never in an office together? How will your previous major donor tactics work if you rarely get to ‘work the room’?
When we finally catch a longer break between variants, maybe some aspects of our pre-2020 life will gradually return. In the meantime, activity plans and budgets need to look very different. If you’re still spending more time designing printed materials than landing pages, or more money on branded stationery than search engine optimisation and social media advertising, you need to have a very good reason. Few of us can afford to wait until we can get people in a room together again before resuming our public fundraising.
6. The source of your donations is more important than ever
Nearly 18 months on from the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston - just two miles from my house - philanthropy and ethical fundraising remain hot topics. In the past few weeks, we’ve received more enquiries about ethical fundraising reviews than pretty much anything else.
Many organisations have woken up to the importance of understanding the source of their donations and grants. What created that wealth in the first place? Are people and companies using philanthropy to ‘buy a seat at the table’ and gain influence over things like equality, social mobility and climate change? If your organisation is complicit in that, is this an unfortunate necessity in a tough financial climate, or an unforgivable oversight?
These are difficult questions with no easy or short-term answers, but if you’re working on a new strategy then it might be time to put them on the table. We’ve shared a few ideas and potential solutions in various talks and blogs recently – this slightly provocative piece is probably the best starting point.
Have you ever found a funder that seems like the perfect fit, only to learn they don’t accept unsolicited applications?
If your work is niche or you’ve approached all the ‘obvious’ trusts and foundations already, then engaging a couple of these invitation-only funders can feel key to broadening your funding base. But there's an age-old question - how can we get on their radar, especially if they don’t even welcome initial enquiries?
Over time I’ve seen various organisations succeed in building thriving relationships with private, strategic funders. It isn’t quick or easy, but there are a few steps you can take.
Firstly, why might a trust or foundation decide to take the invitation-only approach?
Rightly or wrongly, there can be many reasons:
So...what can charities and social enterprises do about this?
1. Look for potential introductions within your network
If a funder relies on their expertise or networks to identify potential grantees, then a recommendation from the right person could make all the difference. For example, your existing funders or project partners will already be engaged and invested in your work – perhaps they know someone working for an invitation-only funder and would be willing to introduce you?
Do your research and don’t be afraid to ask nicely for an introduction, explaining why it’s strategically important to you – you might by how willing people are to help.
2. Engage (and if necessary improve) your Board
We’ve run countless network mapping exercises with Boards. The conversation often starts the same way: “None of our trustees know anyone / are willing to help.” But it’s amazing how quickly things can change if you explain that (1) you’re not looking for introductions for rich and famous people, just prominent people in your sector; and (2) you don’t expect Board members to open their address books willy-nilly and start asking for money, but simply make a couple of strategic introductions.
Trustees will know more people than you (and they) think. I’ve seen organisations build on such tenuous links as “I worked with them 10 years ago”, “I play badminton with them on Tuesday night” and “Our kids go to the same school”.
Try running a network mapping exercise with your trustees, or circulating a list of staff working at a target invitation-only funder to check for connections. And if your trustees really aren’t well-connected, this doesn’t have to always be the case. Explore why – does your organisation focus on recruiting trustees with particular skills and backgrounds in a way that prevents people with better connections from applying? Could you persuade your Board to set a strategic objective to recruit new trustees with funder connections over the next 1-2 years?
3. Engage invitation-only funders in new and more meaningful ways
Tired old introductory letters and emails are far from the only ways of making first contact. Trusts and foundations can and do interact openly on social media, attend funder fairs, speak at events or collaborate on things like research, policy or advocacy work.
Jumping straight into a direct approach about money often goes nowhere. Instead, do your research into where/how funders are actively engaging (e.g. social media platforms or events), find a topic that could be mutually beneficial to you both, then start a conversation accordingly.
4. Focus on thought leadership
I once met an organisation that was told by a funder that “everyone we speak to mentions you, so we thought we should find out what you’re about.” In their own words, they created so much “white noise” around a funder that they eventually couldn’t resist getting in touch.
Organisations that successfully build relationships with invitation-only funders often have one thing in common – they’re thought leaders. They might be known for their high-profile CEO, engaging blog, or policy work.
The term “thought leadership” sounds daunting, but you absolutely don’t need to be a large organisation with a big comms budget. If you work in a niche area, you’ll already be an expert in your field, with people coming to for advice. Sharpening your public expert voice takes time, but is a great way to get on a funder’s radar, and will bring many benefits beyond fundraising.
5. Get the online basics right
While some invitation-only funders simply continue to fund the same organisations every year, many do proactively research new grantees. So if a funder did a niche online search for your specialist area today, would they find you? And if they landed on your website right now, what would they think?
There are a few fundamental things you need to be visible and appealing to potential funders:
These final tips might seem the least relevant to trusts fundraising, but they definitely an indirect role in getting you in front of invitation-only funders over time.
With great power comes great responsibility.
(Who actually said that first? A quick journey down an internet rabbit hole suggests it could have originated from Voltaire, Spiderman, The Sword of Damocles or the French National Convention, which isn’t hugely helpful...)
Either way, I think it’s a phrase that applies very well to trusts and foundations. When you give away grants, you of course aim to have positive social impact. However, you can also inadvertently cost good causes money, in the form of convoluted application forms, poorly-planned processes and unclear guidelines. These things waste the time of charity leaders, paid fundraisers and volunteers – and this has a huge opportunity cost at a time when we’re more overstretched than ever.
Funders mustn’t be exempt from criticism for this, just because they give money away. Let’s not forget that philanthropists also get many benefits: tax breaks, public recognition (if they want it) and the ability to influence how we make the world a better place. I’ve previously written about why we need to change the way we view philanthropy, and the things that funders can do better to ensure they a net positive financial impact on the sector.
But I want to forget about the financial cost of bad application processes for a moment, and focus on another aspect – the human cost. Here are a couple of examples from my recent work.
Back in the 4th Century BC, Damocles first shared his views on the responsibilities of funders and philanthropists. Possibly. Credit: Richard Westall - own photograph of painting, Ackland Museum, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, United States of America, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3437614
Example 1: The careless application deadline
Recently we were helping a client apply to the Postcode Local Trust. They open for applications on the first Monday of every month, but close as soon as they’ve received a certain ‘limited number of applications’ (a number they don’t actually publish). Will they stop accepting applications one week, one day or one hour after opening? Who knows, but imagine the frustration if you spend time working on an application that you’re then unable to submit.
This is already questionable practice, but in May 2021 their application date coincided with the Early May Bank Holiday. We phoned them to check they were aware of this – they said that yes they were, and there was a good chance they’d close after reaching that maximum number of applications on that same day.
One of our client’s staff team duly made a note to interrupt her day off – and day out with her family – to switch on her laptop, copy/paste the pre-prepared answers into the application form, and submit it before an unspecified number of other applicants (presumably sacrificing their own Bank Holidays) beat us to it.
This might not be the biggest issue ever, but for me it’s the sheer pointlessness of it all. At a time when so many fundraisers are feeling under pressure and burnt out, why make things worse by coinciding your application deadline with a Bank Holiday? I can’t see how it brings any benefits for the funder – and a tiny change would’ve made a big difference for applicants.
Becoming a Dad last year has given me a different perspective on these things. When you work long hours, your evenings, weekends and days off are a precious commodity. A carelessly-timed application deadline (or indeed, any form of unnecessary bureaucracy) no longer prevents me from doing things like having a lazy morning or going out for a drink – it stops me spending time with my family.
Example 2: The unannounced grilling
Last Autumn, I worked with a client to submit a ~£10,000 application to a local Bristol funder. After six months we still hadn’t heard anything, so assumed it had been unsuccessful. Then, out of the blue, the charity’s Director got a call from their administrator who launched into a series of on-the-spot questions about their accounts.
As a small charity in a tight financial spot, this was a stressful experience – answering quickfire questions about an application they could barely remember, worrying that one slip-up might cost them a much-needed grant.
Happily, the charity did eventually get the grant, but this still left a bitter taste in my mouth. Asking detailed financial questions is understandable, but why not put them in an email, or agree a time to speak in advance, to give applicants some time to dig out the application and the required detail?
Most importantly, this risks skewing the application process. Answering detailed questions on the phone without warning will be harder for applicants whose first language isn’t English, smaller organisations with less financial expertise, and people who work part-time. There’s a risk that funding will be awarded based on which organisations answer on-the-spot questions better, rather than those who have the best projects or most social impact.
Having accessible and reasonable application processes matters – so step forward #FixTheForm
These are just two examples of questionable funder practice, neither of which had much long-term negative impact. But magnify this across the whole sector – thousands of funders and millions of applications – and it’s a different picture.
Badly designed application forms and inconsiderate processes waste time and money, create unnecessary barriers, cause anxiety, and divert people’s time away from much more important things – and frustratingly, it could easily be very different.
One movement trying to change all this is #FixTheForm, an initiative of Grant Advisor. In November 2020, they surveyed 500 grantseekers in nine countries to catalogue their frustrations and pain points. This showed the same issues popping up time and again, with applicants losing hundreds of hours to badly designed forms and processes. According to respondents, the biggest issue was funders not showing their full application form at the start of the process:
Perhaps these issues shouldn’t be surprising. While some funders might not be interested in making improvements to benefit applicants, many simply lack the time and resources. Maybe they don’t even understand the problems they’re causing – understandably, while many applicants would probably love to share feedback, they don’t feel that doing so while asking for money is a very wise idea.
This is why #FixTheForm’s survey – and what they’re doing in response – is so important. Their new 100 Forms in 100 Days campaign aims to persuade 100 funders to join their growing list of ‘ReFormers’ by making a fully transparent application form publicly available on their website. With just over a month to go, they’re almost two-thirds of the way there.
If you’re a charity or social enterprise, you can support #FixTheForm by sharing the 100 Forms campaign with your own funders, talking about it on Twitter, or looking out for future opportunities to share your application experiences with #FixTheForm. And Laura Solomons, who’s leading the #FixTheForm charge in the UK, is a great person to follow on Twitter if you ever want to discuss or draw attention to questionable funder practice.
Neither of my recent experiences above would’ve been solved by a downloadable application form – but based on the #FixTheForm survey results, it’s a really important starting point.
Being a recipient of grant funding doesn’t mean you should simply be grateful and turn a blind eye to processes that make your life harder. Agitating for change is in everyone’s best interests – and if a funder is truly motivated to maximise their social impact, making these changes will be important for them too.
It's tricky to generalise about how the pandemic has impacted organisational grant funding levels. While inevitably many charities and social enterprises have struggled, many others with a grassroots community focus have thrived. Some have even unexpectedly smashed their fundraising targets.
However, if there's one thing that’s been consistently difficult in the past 12 months, it's securing funding for capital projects. From talking to various funders, I think there are two (overlapping) reasons for this:
Capital projects are unavoidably high-risk, and many funders are understandably playing it safe
There's no getting away from the fact that renovating a building or creating a new space is complicated and risky. Capital projects often run over budget and behind schedule, and sometimes fail entirely. Even if you've never managed one before, you may know this if you've ever done work on your house – once work begins on the roof or walls, new issues are uncovered, then all bets are off.
This is before you even factor in Covid and Brexit, which will inevitably impact the cost of materials, the availability of labour and the complexity of working on a crowded site.
Funders know all this, and it can worry them. As we recover from the pandemic, they'll continue to be inundated by countless worthy and urgent causes, and won't possibly be able to fund them all. So it’s not surprising that many choose to play it safe. Put yourself in a funder's shoes – would you rather award £10,000 towards a grassroots community food bank that will have a definite and immediate impact, or a complex capital project that might be subject to delays and complications?
Capital projects take a long time, and in a crisis landscape, funders inevitably focus on the short-term
Trusts and foundations often award capital funding in a different way to project grants. If you apply for £25,000 towards a £200,000 project, rather than a funder immediately awarding a grant, they might make a conditional pledge that you can draw down on later, once you’ve raised enough for the project to start.
This approach helps funders to manage risk, but it introduces other problems. If you're in the early stages of a capital campaign, their pledge might remain unused for 6, 12 or even 18 months while you fundraise the rest – and in that time, they’re not having any charitable impact.
Remember that many trusts and foundations are registered charities themselves, so they have their own charitable objectives to work to, and need to report back on their impact. So as well as focusing on lower-risk projects, a funder might well prioritise applicants that can achieve shorter-term impact.
None of this is makes a capital project impossible - but there are a few key steps you can take to help convince sceptical funders:
1. Be crystal clear on your outcomes
With a capital project, it's easy to get wrapped up in the specifics of what you’re fixing or building, and the implications for your organisation. This stuff needs to be in an application somewhere, but it's less important the why.
Who will benefit from your capital project, and in what specific ways? What will they do or experience in the new space you're creating, and how will this change their lives and/or improve the local community?
Try to distill this into four or five clear and distinct bullet points. If you can tie this in with the impact of the pandemic (for example, if this has exacerbated certain needs among the people you support, or resulted in the closure of alternative services), this will help to convince a funder that your project is needed now.
2. Explain how you will deliver your project safely and reliably
As mentioned above, Brexit and Covid bring further complications for capital projects. So the more you can show that you're a safe pair of hands, the more you'll get a risk-averse funder on side.
For example, have you created a risk assessment and detailed contingency plan? Have you consciously chosen suppliers that work in a Covid-secure way? What is your ‘Plan B’ to avoid disruption to services if there are delays? Have you allowed some flexibility in your budget for unexpected costs? Don’t expect a funder to assume these things are in place - you need to convince them that you've been diligent and methodical.
3. Make a virtue of your previous expertise
For similar reasons, your previous track record will be a factor for funders. Has your organisation successfully delivered other capital projects? If not, do any of your leadership team or Board bring relevant experience from elsewhere? Evidence of previous experience in areas such as project management, financial management and architecture / accessible design can be a real plus.
If you can't point to this, a funder might reasonably expect you to show how you're buying in the appropriate professional expertise and guidance, or assembling an experienced project steering group.
4. Ensure you have all the necessary supporting materials in place
Capital funders often insist on specific criteria such as you having an architect’s plan, proof of building ownership or a long lease, and a certain level of match funding secured.
There’s good reason for this. An architect’s plan shows that a project has been professionally designed and can be an insurance policy against nasty surprises that crop up once work has started and threaten to delay or derail a project. A long lease ensures that a project will definitely have long-term charitable impact rather than benefitting a private landlord for unknown purposes. Match funding reduces the chance that a funder's pledge will remain unused for a long time while you scrabble to raise the rest.
Sadly, no amount of engaging project information is a substitute for meeting these requirements, for a risk-averse funder with plenty of worthy projects to choose between. Make sure you know exactly what a funder expects you to have in place before deciding to apply. Even if these items aren’t mentioned as essential requirements, provide them where possible anyway – you can always link to digital files to avoid sending bulky additional material through the post.
5. And finally, consider breaking your capital project into phases
There's no getting around the fact that capital projects are high-risk, even if you can action all of the above, and many funders might continue to be more risk-averse and short-term in their thinking for a while.
You might benefit from dividing a complex capital project into several independent phases, each with their own smaller fundraising target, project timeline and set of outcomes. This could be particularly helpful if you haven’t raised much yet and don’t have previous experience of managing capital projects. It'll enable to get started, demonstrate impact and improve your track record of successful delivery sooner, even if it means temporarily compromising on your ambitions.
DIGITAL EXCLUSION: A GROWING THREAT TO YOUR IMPACT, STRATEGIC OBJECTIVES AND ABILITY TO ACCESS FUNDING?
Since September 2020, we’ve been working with a group of eight voluntary sector leaders to explore how the sector can respond to new challenges and opportunities related to Covid-19. One of the themes has been digital exclusion. With thanks to the group, we’ve shared some key learning and ideas below.
The pros and cons of digital transformation
In 2020, we witnessed digital transformation and innovation like never before. In response to Covid and social distancing, charities and social enterprises of all shapes and sizes were forced to find a way of delivering services online, or stop them altogether.
In mere weeks, organisations overcame barriers that previously seemed insurmountable - with software, skillsets and service user confidence. The results have been truly amazing. Organisations have been able to reach more people, more quickly, and potentially more cheaply than ever before. And many have found digital to be a great platform for their advocacy work - suddenly they’re able to voice their community’s needs and influence policy on a national rather than merely a local level.
Yet is everything quite as rosy as it seems? What about the people who can’t or simply aren’t accessing services online? Are you inadvertently at risk of leaving people behind and exacerbating inequalities? And if so, what does this mean for your long-term impact, strategic objectives and ability to access funding?
We asked voluntary sector leaders to explain the causes and impact of digital exclusion - and here’s what they told us
Covid-19 has significantly increased inequalities in many communities, with a growing digital divide. All too frequently, the people who are most in need of support are also the most digitally excluded:
This is a particular issue in primary care and education settings. While local authorities are attempting to address this by providing essential equipment, distribution is far too slow - even now, we are nowhere near the point where every child has a laptop. Free on-site digital training from businesses (such as banks) is currently not available due to social distancing measures, and even after lockdown could remain inaccessible for those who are most vulnerable.
Overcoming cultural, language and confidence barriers is much more difficult online. ‘Shoulder to shoulder’ activities (such as cookery clubs and Men's Sheds) are amazingly effective at encouraging people to bond, open up and share concerns in informal settings, while doing activities. This simply can’t be replicated in a Zoom call where people are forced to maintain eye contact and feel much more self-conscious.
Digital delivery introduces new safeguarding and privacy concerns that disproportionately impact people on low incomes. What if you need urgent support to protect you from domestic violence or deal with a personal health issue, but live in a small flat and are always within the earshot of family members? Or how can you make the most of online exercise classes if you have no space, facilities or privacy at home?
We are all overwhelmed by more screen time than ever before - adults are working from home and young people are home schooling. This leads to significant fatigue and is another big barrier to engagement, even for services that in theory work well online.
It's challenging to map out who is being excluded from digital services and what their barriers are, when you can’t engage them in the first place. And if digital delivery has enabled you to move into a new geographical area, you might know even less about the local delivery landscape and be working completely in the dark.
Staff who did a brilliant job running face-to-face services might not be natural online facilitators - due to a lack of digital confidence, training or a good home connection. But in current circumstances, they might feel that they should just 'muck in' rather than raising concerns.
For so long we’ve all been talking about digital transformation as a huge potential positive – but there’s an overwhelming sense that while services are changing at pace, too many service users and staff are being left behind.
So what can we all do to address digital exclusion?