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!
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