WHY DEMONSTRATING DIFFERENCE AND AVOIDING DUPLICATION IS VITAL WHEN WRITING TRUSTS & FOUNDATIONS APPLICATIONS
One of the topics that I currently find myself talking about frequently - when working with organisations on funding bids or delivering trusts & foundations training - is the need to differentiate your work and avoid the perception of duplication.
Why is differentiation so important when applying to trusts & foundations?
This isn’t a new issue, but is perhaps more important than ever. With such high demand for funding, and trusts & foundations so overstretched, one of the ways that funders can maximise their impact is by being really careful and strategic about not funding very similar organisations or overlapping services. From their perspective, if one organisation does something well already, where’s the benefit (or at least urgency) in funding another organisation to do it too?
Often, this is an explicit decision-making criterion for funders. They will assess your application not simply based on the quality and impact of your own work, but in the context of how many similar services exist - or they have recently funded - in any given cause area or geographical area. I've seen this frequently cited in feedback given by the National Lottery Community Fund, for instance.
While this makes sense, the issue is whether a funder's perception of the similarity of your work to others is really accurate. The last thing you want is to see a key application rejected because there are some key differences and nuances in your work that you haven’t explained properly.
So differentiating your work is important. And in a more general sense, being able to clearly and confidently explain your place in the local landscape - in terms of which service gaps you meet, and who you partner with or take referrals from - will always inspire confidence. This will not only increase your chances of securing funding, but also help funders to learn more about the complexities on the ground in your area of work.
Being different doesn't mean being unique, or better than other organisations working in a similar space
Firstly, differentiation doesn’t mean being absolutely unique. Nobody realistically expects you to be the only employability service in Lancashire, the only organisation educating young people about climate change etc.
What’s important is demonstrating why your service or approach is more accessible, more appropriate and more impactful for the specific people that you support.
This isn’t about trash talking what other organisations do. There may be perfectly good reasons why your user group would face additional needs and barriers when trying to access more generalist support offered by another organisation, or a specialist service set up for people in a different situation.
To give some examples from my own previous work, there may be a clear need for:
With all the above projects, there’s a risk that a funder could incorrectly perceive them as being surplus to requirements, or already covered by existing service provision. But a compelling case for support - clearly explaining how you're different and situating your work within the existing landscape - will significantly increase your chances of securing funding.
Building your case for support: how can you demonstrate that your work is different and urgently needed?
Firstly, it helps to have a curious and critical mindset. Put yourself in the shoes of a funder with no prior knowledge of your work and ask how they might perceive it. Why do you deliver activities in a certain way? What other services could the people you support choose to access? And why aren’t those services accessible or appropriate for their needs?
Once you've asked the right questions, seek out convincing evidence of how your work is different:
Centre the perspective of the people you support. Make liberal use of testimonials, case studies and survey data from your service users. Enabling them to talk about their own experiences, needs and barriers - and the value they see in your work - in their own voice will always be more powerful and compelling.
Draw on your own lived experience. Did you establish your organisation in response to a specific unmet need, or to prevent others from going through the same experience as you? Do your senior leaders, project staff or volunteers have lived experience that enables them to intuitively understand and address the gaps in local service provision?
Describe what is happening on the ground in your area. Did your local authority previously provide more accessible support that has been lost in recent cutbacks? Has the closure of another charity impacted the needs of the people you support? Has another organisation approached you to address a need they know they can’t meet?
Describe the evolution of your own work. Perhaps you've learned through experience that a different type of service is needed. Can you show how previous feedback and evaluation data has enabled you to hone and improve your work over time, and become more collaborative with other local services (e.g. through referral pathways, strategic partnership working)?
Cite independent research. You might be absolutely convinced that your work is different, but do you have third party evidence to back it up? Look for independent studies or local data that highlight gaps in local service provision, or examples of other organisations working in a different region that have successfully achieved impact by tackling a similar issue or gap.
Remember that your work doesn’t need to be completely unique or mind-blowingly innovative to be different and valuable. But don't take it for granted that a funder will understand that - you need to build a compelling case for support that clearly explains why your work is vital for your own particular service users.
In a world where funding is ultra-competitive, spending time carefully situating your work within the wider delivery landscape - and avoid perceptions of duplication - is an investment well worth making.
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