Creating better grant application processes

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Creating better grant application processes

Creating better grant application processes

Fundraisers and funders can work together towards a positive dialogue, ensuring both parties get the best results from the grant application process, says Charlotte Bray


Grants are a staple source of funding for most charities and with good reason. The time and effort put into crafting a successful application is more than matched by the potential financial return. The success rate is much higher than for other activities, for example corporate sponsorship or community fundraising.


However, as targets and costs continue to rise, the pressure on both grantmakers and grant fundraisers is considerable. As competition for funding increases, how can we, as fundraisers, ensure the quality of our approaches remains high? Equally, are there things that grantmakers can do to ease this process?


I believe that by working together, we can create a ‘dialogue’ that ensures the best possible results for both parties. I’d like to get the dialogue started by sharing some thoughts on what both fundraisers and funders can do to minimise time wastage on all sides, and maximise the chances of success for the right applications.


I appreciate, as I write this, that many of my ‘tips’ are standard practice for fundraisers. I don’t want to teach anyone to suck eggs! However, I do believe that whether we’ve been fundraising for decades or just weeks, it’s good to take stock now and then, to make sure we’re remembering the basic steps for building good dialogues and relationships.


So here goes:


Fundraisers: remember, the customer is king.


As fundraisers we serve two sets of ‘customers’. The first are our own beneficiaries, who we are supporting with the cause. Then there are our prospective donors, who need to ‘buy in’ to that cause. Before entering the voluntary sector, I worked in a bookshop for many years. I know the mantra: the customer is always right. We might find ourselves frustrated by the desired application format, technical issues, or the time and effort involved in making an application, but if it’s important to the donor, it should be important to us too.

Frankly, funders could ask for our application in the form of an interpretive dance and we should oblige. Their valuable assets can have a considerable beneficial impact for us all. Our donors want to know that they are investing their resources where they will achieve the best possible results – for all of us.

There is nothing more frustrating for funders than an inappropriate approach. This is why it’s so important to put the effort into finding out about your prospective donor. There will always be some fundraisers who will be tempted to try blanket mailings, or to shoe-horn an ill-matched cause to a funder when it isn’t their area of interest. When faced with hefty targets, this is probably tempting. But the likelihood is that the time and effort will be wasted and – even worse – the donor will be annoyed.


So, whether you’re a newbie or an expert, don’t forget the basic fundraising steps: research; contact; engage; ask.


You’re always going to have a better chance of success if you follow these steps. And for me, one of the most important is the initial research. Don’t skip this step. Before I even make the first contact, I want to make doubly and triply sure that the cause I’m raising money for will be of interest.

If our prospective grantmaker has a comprehensive website, then this makes our research much easier. If they don’t, we can still do our best with the information that is widely available:

• internet search the funders’ names on ‘thanks’ and ‘support’ pages to find examples of past grants and supported charities   

• use free and pay-to-use tools, like, grantfinder or, if you’re a Scottish charity, FundingScotland, to help you find deadlines, application processes, up-to-date contacts and suggested amounts (as a note; I always double check the details provided by funding search tools like – they are a great initial source of information, but it’s good practice to ensure the details they provide are up to date)

• check the charity commission and OSCR sites for information. These are free to use and if nothing else they give you the size of charity – no point asking for £50k if their total giving is £80k p/a. The charity commission also have accounts, something which OSCR are starting to do too.


Of course, it’s great if you can contact the donor before you apply. OSCR (if you’re a Scottish charity) and the Charity Commission should have at least the address. From this, you can work out whether they are a private funder (for example, set up by an individual or family,) or whether they might be administered by a solicitors’ firm. If it’s the latter, then there’s nothing to be lost in contacting them. If the former, this requires more thought; it might be that they have a list of carefully selected causes, or that they aren’t open to applications. I always think twice before calling if it’s a home address. Would they welcome a call? Perhaps an initial letter of approach might be more appropriate, which they can respond to at their convenience?


So, say you decide to make a phone call. Here, again, we as fundraisers can do ourselves some favours. Before calling or emailing, have a clear idea of what you want to achieve. We’re all busy people. Unless the donor advertises a desire to chat previous to application, keep it succinct. Ask simply: What do they need from you? In what form? By when? Is the project of interest?


Funders: we want to please you, so give us some clues!


Of course, we would love it if every funder had the resources, ability and willingness to talk pre-application. Sometimes that five-minute phone call can save us wasting both our times applying for something which we thought was a great fit, but actually isn’t for you.


But, we appreciate that not everyone has this sort of time. So, the next best thing to a phone call or email is an accessible website. It’s tricky to imagine every possible FAQ and answer them all, but even something as simple as past case studies can be really a helpful resource for prospective applicants.


Fundraisers have a bit of a love-hate relationship with application forms. The advantage is it gives us clear steer on what you’d like us to say. Naturally, we’d love to ‘express it in our own lovely words’, but the reality is that might end up being longer and more detailed than you require. Forms mean we can still be creative – indeed we need to be creative to tell a compelling case in a structured format.


If you don’t have a form then headings are also useful. We all have a basic case for support: what’s the need, why are we the best people to deliver it etc. But funders differ in their areas of interest. Headings are a great compromise between a rigid form and ‘just tell us about it however you want’.


We assume most funders would like to know the background of our charity and who we exist to serve, but how much detail do you want e.g. technical information on medical or scientific causes. Other examples might include letting us know how you’d like to see the impact measured (outputs, outcomes, targets), whether you’d be interested in case studies, or whether an executive summary might be helpful. Do you want to know the our track record/skills/expertise?


Without being too basic, helpful headings might be: ‘What is the need for your work/project?’ ‘How do you know it is needed?’ ‘Why are you the best organisation to meet this need?’ ‘How will you know you’ve succeeded?’


When choosing your application format, please consider all shapes and sizes of charity. I’m fortunate to be a full-time fundraiser, which means I have quite a lot of experience filling in forms and writing letters! However, some charities don’t have a dedicated fundraiser. (As a note: the above headings can be helpful for those charities; they can help the person filling in the application to ‘tell the story’ of their project, when they might not normally be involved in writing for the organisation.)


Whatever format of application you choose, there will be some smaller charities who will struggle. Many people are having to find funding alongside their job in delivery. Some are beneficiaries, or staff members having to find funding for their own post.


On the whole, online forms tend to work well, because you can submit at the press of a button. They’re also terrifying, because you can submit (by accident) at the press of a button! Having online forms that you can save for review is always helpful. We need people to be able to proofread or check copy and often have to ask other departments for key information, so we need to be able to save our progress so we can come back to the forms later.


Word limits in online forms can be a challenge, but we’re happy to work with them. However, I’ve come across lots that have a set number of ‘characters including spaces’ recently. Gosh. They’re a challenge! I may be forced to resort to ampersands…


The one major disadvantage to online forms is that it does exclude those charities or causes who aren’t digitally literate. Writable pdfs can also cause issues if your software isn’t in the right format. Lots of funders now offer a word version of their form. This is helpful for many applicants.


One further thought I have for funders is that the two-stage process is a pretty good one, if you’re able to offer this. It means applicants don’t waste time crafting something detailed and time-consuming which may fall at the first hurdle.


These are just some of my thoughts and comments as a grants specialist and as someone who’s currently midway through a major capital appeal, so I’ve seen application processes of all shapes and sizes.


I’d be really interested to hear some funders’ perspectives. What is it that could make the dialogue easier and more successful for you? After all, you are the customer.


Charlotte Bray is fundraising manager at the Scottish Seabird Centre

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