Research by the funding platform Brevio estimates that UK charities spent a collective £442 million on writing funding applications during the Covid-19 pandemic, with over 50% seeing a declining success rate.
With many organisations struggling to survive - ravaged by the grim ABC of Austerity, Brexit and Covid-19 - surely there’s a better way of doing things? I’m not sure it’s the done thing to write New Year's resolutions for other people, but I've been working on a 2021 wish list for trusts and foundations...
Too many funders are making fundraisers' jobs harder than necessary. Not every funder is guilty - and I've tried to highlight some positive examples below too - but the vast majority could make big improvements by fixing at least some of the following:
Update your reserves policy to reflect a year like no other
If you browse what funders say about reserves levels, you’d be forgiven for thinking that keeping anything below three months or above six months of running costs is a heinous crime. It feels like organisations can’t win - step outside a narrow, arbitrarily-defined window, and you’re either financially reckless or decadent beyond belief.
Yet 2020 provided a compelling justification for more generous reserves - suddenly, six months’ running costs doesn't seem so indulgent in a year-long pandemic. Equally importantly, many organisations will now have severely depleted their reserves to keep themselves afloat. So funders: it’d be great to see you reflecting on the consequences of the pandemic and adjusting your reserves requirements, at least temporarily.
Adopt a two-stage application process
There’s nothing more frustrating than spending days on an application, then being told by the funder that “we don’t feel you meet our objectives” or “we're no longer funding in that area”. Even when you've researched a funder thoroughly, you often have no idea how they'll perceive your work until you’ve told them about it.
That’s why it's great that funders like the National Lottery Community Fund, John Ellerman Foundation and Masonic Charitable Foundation have a two-stage process for larger grants. A simple form to gather some initial information about the organisation and project, then a longer form if they still feel you’re a potential fit.
Unless somebody can give me a good reason otherwise, this is an obvious win-win. Applicants spend less time on lengthy forms that were always destined to be unsuccessful. Funders save resources too, by drastically reducing the time spent assessing so many long and unsuitable applications - this would surely more than make up for the extra administration of a two-stage process.
Commit to giving feedback (at least at stage two)
Getting meaningful feedback on unsuccessful applications is a game-changer for charities. If you understand why an application was rejected, you can judge whether it’s worth ever reapplying to that same funder - and use that feedback to strengthen other applications too.
I get that providing feedback can be problematic for funders, particularly when they’re hugely oversubscribed. Yet this is another justification for the two-stage application process: by initially whittling down applicants to the best 10-20%, it's easier to then commit to providing feedback to those who clear the first hurdle.
This seems a fair bargain to me – we might not be able to give everyone feedback but we'll at least make it a fairly quick and painless process. And if we do decide we need considerably more information from you, we’ll make sure you get something useful from it.
Adopt a standardised format for common questions
"Describe your organisation in 150 words"
"Tell us about your aims and activities in 250 words"
"How are you currently funded? (200 words)"
"Briefly summarise your fundraising strategy (1,000 characters)"
It's frustrating to see funders use so many variations of wording and word counts for questions that essentially want the same information, especially when it's often already publicly available anyway. Asking organisations to produce countless versions of the same description is a huge waste of time and provides next to no additional value for the funder.
I get that funders will assess applications differently and need bespoke information in many areas. But for the more straightforward questions, can't you club together and adopt a standardised format?
Clearly show whether you’re open to applications from new organisations
The downside of using databases like Funds Online or Funding Central is that you turn up plenty of funders that are great on paper but will do nothing for your bank balance. Dig a little deeper (say in their annual accounts) and you realise that although their objectives seem to perfectly match yours, they haven’t given grants for two years or even funded any new organisations for a decade!
These ‘zombie funders’ are a black hole of time for the uninitiated fundraiser. For example, most charities seem to have the Denise Coates Foundation on their pipeline at some point, but never receive a grant. That’s because, while it’s not explicitly said anywhere, unless you’re an organisation in the Stoke-on-Trent area that's well-known to them, you'll do just as well if you throw your application in the bin.
So, funders, how about introducing a basic traffic light system on your websites and annual accounts? Red = not currently giving new grants, Amber = likely to only fund repeat applicants, Green = open to applications from new organisations. It’d save us all a lot of time.
Publish some key metrics to help applicants decide whether it’s worth it
While I’m on my soapbox about increased transparency, there are at least two other bits of data that every funder should publish: the previous success rate for applications (Tudor Trust does this here) and how long it takes organisations on average to complete an application (I know that the Postcode Community Trust used to include this on their form).
This vital information would enable fundraisers to weigh up the wisdom of applying, and make funders more accountable in terms of the impact their application process has on the sector. Which leads me to…
If you're going to measure your social impact, factor in the time organisations spend on failed bids to you
This won’t be popular with corporate foundations that make a big song and dance about showcasing their impact and unveiling their annual awards, but make applicants jump through a hundred hoops.
On the outside, this looks great. For example, the 2020 Movement For Good awards gave away £50,000 grants to ten lucky charities whose good work is showcased here. What’s not to love?
Trouble is, there was a point last summer when nearly every organisation I spoke to was applying for a grant. There was no real indication in advance of what they’d fund, the application form asked some very specific and detailed questions, and of course there was no feedback for unsuccessful applicants. Hypothetically let's say that a thousand charities each spent 1-2 days on an application - when you start to estimate the staff time involved, did this cost the sector almost as much as the amount given away?
With a corporate social responsibility agenda to promote, many corporate foundations want to attract as many applicants as possible. There’s little incentive for them to ensure the application workload is proportionate to the award, and no requirement for them to measure whether they're having a net positive impact on the sector. More funders should assess this - I suspect they’d be shocked by the results.
And finally, the elephant in the room…
Plenty of people will say that it's entirely up to a funder how they distribute their money. What right do grantees and applicants have to intervene?
As we’ve previously argued here, there are some major issues with modern philanthropy that we absolutely have the right to challenge. Charitable status brings plenty of advantages for trusts and foundations (and their benefactors) – and the combination of tax breaks for contributing companies and Gift Aid for individual donors means that a good portion of the money they give isn’t actually theirs anyway.
So, for me, the above list isn’t a list of nice-to-haves. We should put in place some clear and incentivised best practice guidelines for funders. If you want to keep benefiting from your current tax advantages, make sure you’re giving in a way that doesn’t create a nightmare for applicants. If you want to keep giving entirely on your own terms, that’s fine - but then let’s change your legal status and make sure it’s 100% your money to give.
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