It seems to be a trend nowadays for funders simply to decline to fund a charity project or application without providing the opportunity for the applicants to find out why it was turned down. This increasing reluctance to provide feedback on bids is a pity and means charities are denied the chance to learn from the experience.
The funding environment has changed considerably over the past 10 years. The 40 per cent cuts to local authorities brought in as a result of austerity have led to diminished funding for many charities, which have had to turn to other sources to fill the gap. More and more effort is subsequently being applied to preparing funding bids for trusts, foundations and other similar sources.
I used to be a funding officer for a single regeneration partnership in the south of England. Because we were local and projects would often start with a conversation in our office, we were available for people to come in and discuss why their project was not approved. We would explain why the project was turned down, usually because it did not seem realistic, did not fit the criteria or lacked sufficient information for us to have confidence in it.
Applicants typically accepted the reasons given and there were opportunities for them to resubmit their bids. Sometimes, however, they became angry or upset that we had taken the decision not to offer funding. To an extent this is understandable: you spend months preparing a project bid in which you have a high degree of emotional input and in which you and colleagues have invested considerable time. To be turned down is naturally upsetting and a disappointment.
I can therefore understand why trusts and foundations are unwilling to engage with disappointed applicants. If they accept the reasons or take it on the chin if you like, that is all well and good. But if the decision prompts angry correspondence and perhaps contact with trustees, this is something they would wish to avoid.
However, I can’t stress enough that this feedback – even unwelcome feedback – is important. The applicant might well disagree with the logic of the decision. They might feel "if only we had known that" in connection with a missing element of the bid, which can be galling.
An additional problem is the word limit on application forms, because trying to explain what can be a complex project, or its likely impact, when you have only a limited number of words is challenging.
Do I think funders have an obligation to give feedback to unsuccessful applicants? Yes. Charitable organisations spend a great deal of time and effort preparing funding applications, which diverts them from their front-line activity. Given the important role they play in society and their efforts in picking up the slack because of the government’s austerity measures, fruitlessly submitting applications that make the same mistakes is a waste of everyone’s time.
Many funders provide help to those who once could turn to local councils. In these challenging times it is important that providing feedback is part of that support, so learning can take place and mistakes are not endlessly repeated.