How to: Apply for grants

Grants are a major source of funding for many small, community-based social enterprises, but applying for them is littered with pitfalls. Here is some advice to make sure your efforts pay dividends.

1. Make sure you are applying for the right grant for your organisation
Hackney Community Transport’s head of business development Julie Gilson, who has sat on various funding panels, warns against “crowbarring” your application to fulfil funders’ criteria.

“You can spot it a mile off,” she says. “And it’s not as if funders are short of applicants. Typically, they might get 200 applications, 150 of which will be exact fits. If yours is one of the 50 that isn’t, they won’t even look at it. You’re wasting your time.”

Green-Works chief executive Colin Crooks warns that crowbarring can also lead to mission-creep. “It’s very easy to get dragged off-course,” he says. “It starts subtly, but within a few years you can find that the majority of the work you are doing does not fit your mission. Funders don’t necessarily fit with your aspirations, so you have to be really careful what you go after.”

2. Assess whether you can handle the bureaucracy
Some grants – particularly European ones – require so much monitoring paperwork that, according to Crooks, “you virtually have to employ a full-time administrator.” This can amount to a big invisible cost for small organisations and, in Crooks’ experience, can be very stressful if they are not set up to deal with it.

“I once applied for an Equal Fund grant,” he recalls, “which required me to report, on a quarterly basis, how many people I was employing, including part-timers, broken down into their thirteen national groups, gender, sexual orientation and disability categories. I just walked away.”
Now, he says he wouldn’t contemplate applying for a European grant of less than £150,000.

3. Be specific and thorough
It sounds obvious but, according to Gilson, there are many organisations that don’t even read the application criteria properly. If your organisation doesn’t quite meet them, it may be worth calling the funders to check whether the rules can be bent.

Other things to avoid include submitting general information about a project without tailoring it to the particular funder and making statements without providing evidence to back them up.

That evidence – of the need for a particular service, for example - can take three forms. Least persuasively, you might refer to national surveys “to show the funder you are aware of the big picture”. More important is what Gilson calls mid-level evidence such as local surveys, and grass-roots ‘grey research’. Rather than recounting anecdotes, the latter is much more convincing if backed up by an “audit trail” such as logged call-sheets or minutes of user forums. “Most funders do not want an academic study but they do expect more than a gut feel,” says Gilson.

She also cautions against making a “give us the money and we’ll make something happen” application. You need to have specific targets in terms of “output measurements” – how many people you will help – and “outcome measurements” – what actual difference that help will make to their lives.

The demand for precision even applies to equal opportunities policies. Organisations won’t get many points for simply stating that they have one. They need to spell out how they will apply it - in terms of such things as proactive recruitment policies, disabled access, and complaints procedures.

4. Take care with your business plan
Check with the funder whether a business plan is expected. If it is, think about approaching voluntary sector support groups such as councils for voluntary service, which can help you draw one up. Buddy schemes with bigger organisations can also be productive. “But don’t get bogged down in making 50-page plans,” warns Gilson. “Those are very rarely necessary.”

Try to show that you have explored other income generation opportunities, and explain the assumptions underpinning your forecasts. You will also need to provide evidence that your figures have not “just been plucked out of thin air”. In particular, avoid too many round numbers.

You should also address risks – not just financial, but also to people and premises – and list contingency plans for dealing with these. “None of these issues are insurmountable it’s just about thinking about them beforehand,” says Gilson. “Public funders in particular can be incredibly risk-averse”

5. Be distinctive
“Think of the funding office on a Friday afternoon,” suggests Gilson. “They’ve already seen 100 applications and they are losing the will to live. Something in your application needs to stand out and engage them.” That doesn’t mean peppering your application with one-liners but it does mean working hard to phrase it clearly and concisely. Most important of all, it means “making your passion jump off the page”. If you succeed in that, a funding body might help you to write a better application next time even if it turns you down this time.

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