Why funders rarely give feedback

Recent stories and letters in Third Sector suggest charities often get upset when their applications for grants are rejected without explanation. Nigel Siederer considers why funders tend not to explain their decisions

Grant applciations
Grant applciations

Basic courtesy and transparency surely demand that public funders or charitable trusts explain why they have refused a grant application.

The case against is that it's a drain on stretched administration, applicants' expectations are often unrealistic and many applications are submitted without reference to a grant-maker's stated criteria. But when an application has followed the funder's processes and fits its policies, an explanation of refusal seems only fair. Of course, it's often not that simple.

Competition might have been strong. It's rather like applying for a job: your application was high quality - you did well to reach the last 10 out of 100 bids; but others were even better, and confidentiality prevents discussion with you. With a limited budget, the funder wanted a balanced portfolio of grants, and yours didn't quite fit. Such a message is not easy to take after your team has worked hard and had optimistic conversations with the assessor, but the explanation isn't sinister.

Don't beat yourself up looking for flaws in your performance. Perhaps you presented so well that the funder thought you'd succeed elsewhere, so it preferred a less experienced applicant facing worse odds or trying to meet even greater needs.

Grant applications display a number of common problems. Applicants can be so used to describing their work that they rush over past achievements that are obvious to them, but new to the funder. Explaining your proposal in 'needy' terms, but not saying - with numbers - what a grant would 'buy' is another common mistake. These applications lack practicality and read like mere hope.

Others plead their organisation's needs rather than those of their beneficiaries. Presenting accounts with unexplained income, large reserves or high-value assets can also make your application seem unnecessary.

But reasons for refusal aren't always obvious or even finely judged. A lot of applications are fundable, but sometimes none stands out as particularly high quality. Some will get funded, but the marginal decisions are pretty arbitrary.

Funders aren't perfect. Their guidelines might be unintentionally ambiguous. They can rush decisions, make poor judgements or misread accounts. They can turn down good applications unchallenged by competition. Sometimes they will let a poor one through that will eventually fail for predictable reasons. Still others might be given the money and then under-achieve, with little said. Funders don't like to admit to mistakes, and their evaluation processes might be flawed too.

A more common 'fault' is to have fairly open criteria and then to review applications less on their merits than on the policy directions they imply. Thus, the range of applications helps the formulation of the funder's policy - which is tough on the unsuccessful applicants. But it cuts both ways. A wide-open doorway can allow funders to 'discover' new needs, which appear in their guidelines a while later, after the 'new' grant was successful.

Small funders have fewer resources. With few staff, or none, giving feedback can be a significant call on time. So get your 'pitch' down to a well-crafted couple of pages and hope for a cheque; don't expect much else.

High-volume grant-makers are different. Ignore their application forms at your peril. Without being dishonest, tick as many boxes as possible, or you won't get to stage two. When they ask for the likely outcomes of a grant or the risks of making one, tell them. If you can't do this, don't apply.

After all this, there is still an element of luck. You don't have a right to funding, so don't expect the funder to write your application for you, and don't berate them if it isn't chosen. Funders are likely to be sympathetic to helping unsuccessful applicants succeed in future. They do know you have good intentions and that funders can't achieve their own purposes without good applications.

Finally, every funder deals with too many applications that fall outside the stated criteria or lack a clear statement of what a grant would achieve. The more applicants omit this basic homework, the weaker the case for funders to invest time in explaining why they didn't fund rather than focusing on what they are funding.

- Nigel Siederer is principal of Good Foundations Consultancy and the former chief executive of the Association of Charitable Foundations

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