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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