Rant of the week from fundraising planet – Bear with me!

Isabel White | 6 giugno 2013


Twice a year I share my 25 years’ experience with ASVI students in London. When you have worked in a sector for that long, based on your years of experience, you inevitably take a different view to those who may be new to fundraising. It is easy to be cynical about how tough fundraising can be but that does not help those who are just starting out on their fundraising careers. Much better surely, to impart a bit of wisdom and try to show them how to play the system to their advantage. Despite our statements to the contrary, the not for profit sector is every bit as competitive as the private sector!

With these occasional blogs I hope to impart some knowledge that we don’t always have time to explore in the training sessions.  My specialism is in writing bids to institutions (grant funders), so that not only entails reading the guidelines but also looking behind them to try to second guess what motivates the funders to behave the way they do, and how that translates into cash for your causes!

My first thoughts involve workload.

In the UK at least (and to some extent elsewhere), the process starts with the not for profit organisation (let’s call it a charity) needing to secure some funding for its cause. In small organisations the job of finding funding usually falls to the staff that also have to deliver the project. This is not always a good use of their time and, as fundraising can be very difficult and time consuming, it tends to be put off until it’s too late. So the usual solution is to hire a fundraiser and that is where the fun starts.

The charity staff do not know how many funders are out there, but they want to make sure that no stone is left unturned in the search for money.

The applicant wants to impress their new employer by saying they will go the extra mile to find as many funders as possible.

Myth number one – there really aren’t as many funders out there as you think there are.

There is a limit to how much they will ever engage with you – they simply do not have the time.  Therefore very few small charities would ever need to employ anyone full time to do their grant fundraising.

I have been into organisations where the bid writer has got hold of a copy of the directory of grant funders, started at the letter ‘A’ in the index and is doggedly working their way through to ‘Z’. Given that there are more than 4000 foundations in the UK alone that is an awful lot of work.  90% of them will reject the application because it does not meet the criteria, and 90% of those who reject it won’t even bother to tell you that you will not get funding.

They don’t have the time to do that. It costs your charity money to submit an application, just as it costs money to assess it, so why are charities  sending untargeted bids to funders, adding to their workload as well as the funders’ who have to assess poorly targeted bids they are almost certain to reject?

So how do you find out how many funders it is worth applying to?

First, you should only search for funders who fund your work. It sounds obvious but you would be amazed how many do not bother to do this. Suffice to say that once you really search the 4000 plus funders for just those that support your work, then the list quickly shrinks to a few hundred.

If we consider how many organisations are applying for funding, how many will actually get funding and of those, what the likely grant size must be, then you have to  decide how big the funder needs to be in order to give you a meaningful amount of money. I use a total annual grant of £1million as my cut off point in order to assess if it is worth the effort. Given that the funder may be getting hundreds if not thousands of applications each year,  then on a £1million total, the average grant would be quite small, maybe as little as £5,000 to £10,000.

Our few hundred funders identified in our initial search can now be whittled down to a few dozen at most. Next, consider which of these provide the closest fit to our cause and we may be looking at less than ten. Finally, if you consider how quickly you are likely to get a response and therefore the deadline by when you need to submit your bid, you may be looking at only three or four funders.

So if you do not get the grant you want from your ten best prospects, are you really likely to do better with your 3990 worst prospects?

Ah, but don’t forget that your boss was expecting you to be diligent and not leave any avenue unexplored and you are anxious to justify your full time job so the temptation to apply to many more funders is great indeed. The result is that everybody adds to their workload without necessarily improving the outcomes.

How much is this costing the sector?

When recruitment consultants are involved in the process, they will want to get the maximum fee from recruiting the right person into the role so they will encourage the charity to over staff their grants department with full time posts when maybe only one part time person is needed.  I routinely come across medium sized charities in the UK who have whole teams of bid writers making work for each other and for the charity sector as a whole.

What we need is less people doing more targeted bids, and only the targeted bids, and not talking up their jobs and adding needlessly to everyone’s workload. We also need to educate those people who employ us as to the realties of good bid writing so that their expectations are more realistic.

More pearls of wisdom will follow soon !



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