Karen Morton: The effort wasted on grant applications is ridiculous

If I had millions to give away to small charities, here's what I'd do

Karen Morton
Karen Morton

A charitable trust announces a funding round focused on a particular, fairly narrow, cause. Pretty much every charity working in that field (mostly small ones) scratches its head, bites its pencil, fiddles with a spreadsheet and submits an application.

I was working with a small charity that applied and some weeks later found out it was unlucky. This was disappointing, of course. The feedback was that the funder received 356 applications and could fund only 30 to 40 of them.

As a charity consultant and charity chair, I hope I am not naive about the realities of funding small and pressurised organisations to deliver increasingly complex services, nor of the regulations that govern funders.

And I really do admire (most) charitable trusts, their influence for good and the great care they take to do the right thing, particularly in such difficult times.

But here’s the thing.

Let’s say that it took an average of two days for each application to be written. It takes ages, after all, always longer than you expect. Finding the evidence, working out travel costs, reducing 327 words to 299 – all of that takes time. Most of those applications will have been written by a service manager, a chief executive or possibly a trustee of a very small organisation.

This adds up to 600 days – nearly two years – of small charity management time.

How many zillion other essential activities are on the jobs list of a chief executive of a small charity, relevant to the wellbeing of beneficiaries or the survival of the organisation?

Funders (like fundees) must be sure public money is spent as intended. And of course they want to make every effort to seek the biggest bang for their buck. But is this really the only way of doing it? Some people bung in all sorts of strange applications, ignoring funders’ guidance. But even so, I am guessing that pretty much most of those 300-plus unsuccessful applications would have, directly or indirectly, made a real difference to the lives of some beneficiaries.

You might suggest that it’s down to the charity to assess whether it’s worth the time of submitting a bid. But small charities really, really need the money, so there isn’t actually much choice.

If I had millions to give away in charity funding and wanted to focus on a particular cause, here’s what I might do:

  1. Set the amount to ask for. There’s no need to put 36p less than the maximum so it doesn’t look like a round figure.
  2. Request half a page (max) setting out what the charity would spend the money on. (I know it can be harder to write less than more, but I am still guessing this should take only a couple of hours.)
  3. I would not ask for charitable purpose or accounts, because my (imaginary) grants officer can go on to the Charity Commission website and look them up. And if I thought a charity was missing the intention of the grant, or costings were fantastical, but I could see that it does what I want to fund, I would ring them up and talk to them.
  4. And then I would put all the pages in a great big hat and livestream my trustees randomly pulling out the first 30.

The result? Probably pretty similar impact. It would be a bit more expensive for the funder because of checking the charities are legitimate. But it gives back 450 days to people working at the sharp end (600 minus the half-days).

Given the desperate pressures facing small charities in times of austerity, could we sometimes do things differently?

Karen Morton is a consultant and chair of Reading Voluntary Action

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