Our recent call for proposals for our Joining the Dots funding resulted in a mountain of applications – over 150 people submitted a short film about their idea. Our panel of assessors had a tough job; pretty much every single one had a really great idea at its heart, yet we could only take 1 in 4 through to the next round. And for the first time in a very long time, I was on the ‘other side’ of the funding fence, having to tell people their application hadn’t been successful. It wasn’t the nicest way start of the week for anyone – me or the people I had to say that to.
The problem wasn’t that the ideas weren’t exciting and high quality. It was that they just weren’t right for us.
What was particularly horrible was that most of the ideas people pitched to us were really strong when considered on their own merit. There were some absolute gems in there, and so many ideas I’d love to see happen. The problem wasn’t that the ideas weren’t exciting and high quality; it was that they just weren’t right for us. Cutting to the chase, they just didn’t clearly enough fit our Joining the Dots criteria and themes, and so we had to say no. Regardless of how much on a personal level we liked the idea – or the people behind it. This ‘tough love’ is something I remember from when I worked at the Arts Council, and which I’m sure anyone working in a funding organisation will recognise.
The Joining the Dots team is incredibly small – just two people, collectively working on the project for around 2 days a week- but we wanted to try to make our ‘sorry, it’s a no’ as helpful a no as we could do. We’ve sign posted everyone to other funding schemes that might be more relevant, and will make introductions where we can. But what we just can’t do is give each and every person who applied personal feedback about their applications. Those 100+ conversations would together take me a whole week to get through, and whilst I’d love to follow up with everyone in that way, I just don’t have enough hours in the week to do that, and for that I’m very sorry.
Some of you who’ve been on one of the hub’s fundraising courses will recognise some of these tips…they contain some of the most useful fundraising advice you can get.
Instead, what I can do is share some fundraising truths that I kept coming back to as I watched our applicants’ films, and that pretty much cover what I’d have said in those individual 1-1 conversations. Some of you who’ve been on one of the hub’s fundraising courses will recognise some of these tips, but they contain some of the most useful fundraising advice you can get, and I they’ll be useful to anyone involved in fundraising. Here goes…
- Research, research, research. Research is the key to successful fundraising. Target the right funders, and know your stuff before you pick up the phone or write an email and you’ll be better prepared for success. Head for Directory of Social Change’s Guide to Grant Making Trusts or trustfunding.org.uk to find out what funders are interested, when and how they give grants and how much.
- Make sure your project is eligible. Check it against funder criteria, and that it’s consistent with what the funders you’re targeting are interested in. Up to 60% of applications are rejected because the ‘fit’ isn’t right or they don’t meet eligibility criteria. If you’re not sure the fit is 100%, don’t even go there; it’s a waste of time – for you and them. Ask yourself ‘Where’s the connection with what they’re interested in? How and where do my values and aims fit with that of the funders? Then explain it clearly, so they’ll understand this too.
- Never send a generic application to a funder. Tailor each application to relate it as much as possible to the funder’s individual aims and objectives. If you’re not filling in a form, ensure your proposal include: profile of your organisation/your biog; project summary & timetable; details about how you’ll manage the project, and any relevant experience; balanced budget, and outline of where other income is coming from; who will benefit from the project, and how; the fit with funder’s priorities; how you will evaluate your success.
- It’s all about relationships. The higher your profile and the more you are known by funders and your peers, the more likely your chances of success. Try and get face to face contact with funders and sponsors wherever possible, for instance go to networking events, follow them on twitter etc; it’s easier to build effective relationships when you’ve met someone face-to-face.
- Be realistic about your fundraising targets. Only 1 in 20 applications to trusts and foundations are successful, so make sure your application to success ratio is appropriate. Even with all the experience we have at the hub, on average we assume a 1 in 5-10 success rate, and if we beat that it’s a bonus.
- Think of your application is a story. Grab them with a strong opening, give them the meat they need in the middle and end with a finish that will leave them wanting more. If it doesn’t make sense to you it will not make sense to them so ensure there is a through-line and that you’ve kept it simple and accurate.
- Ask yourself ‘so what?’ Going back over your application, is it clear what would be lost if your project didn’t happen? Does it really explain why your work is important, why the funder must fund it. Make your case as strongly as possible, and as impossible as you can for them to turn you down.
- Edit it. Come back to it fresh, look at it from the funder’s point of view. Ask a friend to read it and tell you what they ‘hear’. Generally speaking, I go through 3 or 4 drafts before an application is ‘there’.
- Budget carefully. Make sure the numbers add up. Sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many applications are rejected because the numbers don’t make sense or add up. I’ve worked for and advised a good few funding organisations, and know how important it is that a funder feels confident you will spend their money wisely. An unbalanced budget does not inspire confidence.
- Choose wisely. Not all types of fundraising are right for every type of situation or organisation so choose carefully which types you prioritise. Make sure you are making the right choices, and spending your fundraising time wisely. Back to that research I talked about again…
That’s it. In fundraising my experience is that you’ll win some, you’ll no doubt lose some (it took us two years to raise the money for Joining the Dots, and all my friends thought I was crazy to keep trying!). The important thing is to learn from the experience, to not take the ‘no, not this time’ personally (even the most experienced fundraisers get rejected) and ask for feedback when you get a no. Oh – and of course – celebrate when the answer is a yes!