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Fundraising focus: the reflections of a bid-writer

Aaron Dunkley, Head of Trusts & Foundations at Oaks, shares his reflections and insights from eight years' experience as a bid-writer for non-profits across the sport, education and charitable sectors.

Aaron Dunkley, Head of Trusts & Foundations

I have something called the ‘99% rule’. In grant funding, there are very few things that are completely, universally true. The landscape of grant-making organisations, “funders”, is so big that there is probably an example of at least one organisation funding something that others don’t.

For example, in my first years working in this area, I thought no funders would ever fund a for-profit organisation, until I encountered a couple of examples (the work still needed to have a social purpose, of course).

That’s what makes it difficult to write a blog about things to know when applying for grants – I’m sure people have experiences contradicting most reflections I can think of. Funders are not homogenous: some want tried-and-tested, others want innovation; some want opportunities to engage their employees in volunteering, others want anonymity. The list is endless. Some things are truer, and resonate with more funders, than others and the more of that 99% (of any issue) you can meet, the greater your funding potential.

We recently delivered a webinar about bid-writing itself, covering effective content to include and tips for the actual writing part of the process. Here, I want to share some wider reflections from my past eight years of being a bid-writer, with hints into how different funders think.

Writing applications is truly subjective

We’re not dealing with an exact science. Two people could read the same funding application and have wildly different viewpoints about its quality. If these two people are producing the application rather than, say, assessing it, this can sometimes lead to tension. The voluntary sector is full of passionate people and people rightly want applications to be the best representation of their organisation and work. But people can also become very attached to their own writing.

Not only that but, as I’ve already said, there are different types of funders, for whom different approaches resonate. Emotive case studies might be persuasive to an independent, family-led Trust, whereas a What Works Centre (e.g. Youth Futures Foundation) will want to see outcome data and an evidence-based delivery model. It can therefore be hard to agree on the final content of an application.

Personally, I think a great application “gets out of the way” and lets the content of your organisation’s work shine. To borrow an analogy from sport: it’s a football referee whose performance is so good you don’t notice them. A funding assessor should be able to read an application without any prior knowledge of your organisation, project and beneficiaries and understand what you will do if you receive funding.

If an application reads like a dissertation written by a university student trying to sound smart and struggling to reach a minimum word count, something’s gone wrong. Instead, a great application should feel like a good storyteller – detail-oriented enough so others understand what will happen, passionate enough so others know why it should happen. That’s easier said than done.

A good application can only take you so far

The longer you apply for grants, the more you learn to accept the limitations of an application. An application can only put your best foot forward - whether it’s successful or not is out of your control.

Even the strongest possible application about a certain project or organisation can be rejected, as funders have calculations behind the scenes that you can’t always account for. They might have recently funded several other charities in your region and want to spread their grants. One of their trustees might have an underwhelming view on the benefits of the arts. A grants panel might have concerns about your financial position or a preference for charities of a different size. Some funders will search for any negative publicity about your organisation or its leadership, wary of reputational risk.

I’ve seen great applications that were unsuccessful. I’ve seen poor applications that were successful because the funder had few or no other similar grantees in terms of the type of work or geographic location. That’s the thing: your application does not exist in a vacuum. You often have no idea what you’re in competition with.

Chances of success are a sliding scale

Let’s say the different parts of a hypothetical application contribute to a total score between 0-100. It’s 30 points for the strength of evidencing your impact to date, 30 points for your project delivery plans, 20 points for the strength of evidencing the need for your work, 10 points for your organisation being led by people with lived experience of a certain issue, 10 points for your organisation having appropriate policies.

If you don’t have any outcome data from past work, or the data you have is only anecdotal, that’s 30 points knocked off your score. If less than 25% of your leadership has lived experience, that’s 10 points knocked off your score. Suddenly, you can barely score more than half the possible points, no matter how well-written your application is or how good the project idea is.

This isn’t to put anyone off applying for funding, but it is so competitive – possibly more so than ever. If a funder has criteria you’re struggling to meet, or it feels like a square peg in a round hole, temper your expectations or consider whether it is worth applying for. When helping organisations prepare for applications, I often get asked “can we apply without X?” or “will X be enough detail?”. My response is usually “we can still apply, but we’re less likely to be successful”.

I empathise hugely with fundraisers applying for grants. With financial pressures, deadlines and a power dynamic with funders where you find yourself jumping through hoops, it can be incredibly stressful. Don’t go into an application half-hearted.

Relationships rule

Most of what I’ve written above is with “cold” applications in mind, i.e. where there is no previous relationship with the funder. I’ve seen obvious exceptions to criteria, or organisations have more leeway, where there is an existing, positive relationship with a funder. Exceptions or leeway that didn’t apply the other 99 times out of 100.

Usually, this happens with independent trusts and foundations, or corporate foundations/funders, but generally speaking you’re in a stronger position to receive funds if you’re known to a funder, regardless of what type of funder they are. For this reason, it’s often worth applying for a smaller grant first to build familiarity with a funder, rather than applying for the largest amount possible without any prior relationship.

The importance of relationships is why I (currently) think the emergence of AI is not something fundraisers should be afraid of. Instead, platforms like ChatGPT can be a powerful tool to support bid-writing, not a direct replacement for a fundraiser. Like any tool, you get out what you put in. It can speed up research to support a needs analysis or research to identify 20 funders awarding grants to tackle digital poverty. However, if you ask it to write a bid without sufficient information about your work, or you don’t have quality outcome data, it won’t overcome some of the challenges I’ve highlighted above.

And it won’t be able to meet your funder for a meeting over coffee to discuss increasing your grant next year. At least not yet anyway.

Get in touch if you would like to learn more about our strategic planning or fundraising services for non-profits. In 2022 alone, our Trusts & Foundations team secured +£5M of funding for our clients through a combination of trusts, foundations and institutions. We would be delighted to help your organisation secure the funds you need to change lives.

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