Six tips on how to get your funding proposals noticed

09 Jun 2015 Voices

Struggling to get your funding proposal approved? Pauline Carnet unearths six tips on how to make your pitch to funders hit the right note.

Struggling to get your funding proposal approved? Pauline Carnet unearths six tips on how to make your pitch to funders hit the right note.

The top 300 grant-giving foundations in the UK doled out £2.4bn in 2014, according to the Association of Charitable Foundations (ACF). But competition for all this lovely loot is fierce, with charities battling for grants, and funders overwhelmed by an avalanche of applications. The Big Lottery Fund alone receives approximately 100,000 applications every year, of which around 60 per cent are successful.

Being able to write a powerful funding proposal can determine whether a project will be brought to life or left to lie unloved at the bottom of the sock drawer. We asked prominent funders and experts to offer some advice on how best to catch the eye and get the funding. Some points may seem obvious, but funders say that charities – even the big ones – too often make basic mistakes.

1. Know your audience and tailor your proposal

Before asking for funds, a charity should research the targeted donors’ programmes and criteria. Understanding their motivations is crucial to make sure the proposed project fits into their strategy.

“We receive many proposals that have nothing to do with what we do,” says Alan Bookbinder, director of Sainsbury Family Charitable Trusts. “People have not understood what our grantmaking is trying to achieve.”

The way the proposal is presented should also reflect donors’ expectations. Jude Sadler, head of research and project information at ActionAid, explains: “Statutory funders want technical details about the project and the budget. Corporate funders are more likely looking for a partnership, so you need to explain what they are going to get out of the project. And with trusts and foundations, it is somewhere between the two.”

If you still have any doubt, pick up the phone and speak to them. Many donors would rather have a quick chat than receive an irrelevant project proposal. Some even have a dedicated helpline or a project enquiry form so that you can outline your ideas and test the water before wasting days on a detailed proposal.

2. Watch your logic

A funding proposal should always contain the project’s aim, objectives, activities, outcomes, impact, monitoring and evaluation. But most importantly, it should demonstrate how all these elements are linked.

“Funders often say they cannot understand what problem the organisation is trying to solve and how the activity proposed will solve it,” says Caroline Fiennes, director of donor advice agency Giving Evidence.

Lyn Cole, deputy director for England at BIG, confirms this, saying: “Sometimes, people don’t describe what they need to do well enough and their planned activities have no relation with their main objective. You need to measure the problem in the first place to be able to track your progress and know that you have made a difference.”

So, it is vital to define the issue you want to address and provide evidence that there is a need for action. Make sure your objectives are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely. Detail what you are going to do. Which activities will you put in place? When? How long for? How will they help you achieve your objectives? Explain what change you expect to see as a result, how you are going to evaluate it, and who will benefit from your project.

3. Be inclusive and think sustainable

To stand out, it is necessary to go a step further. Grant-givers are increasingly interested in funding initiatives where people take control of their own development. Activities should therefore involve the beneficiaries of the project. “Think about what they need and what is important for them,” advises Cole.

Similarly, funding proposals that espouse the project’s sustainability are more likely to succeed. Making a positive impact on people’s lives is not enough; you also need to ensure this impact will last once the project is finished.

4. Establish a realistic and detailed budget plan

All the funders we interviewed complained about the budgets they receive: unrealistic, incomplete or incorrect. Bookbinder says: “We often have incomplete financial information, such as what the overall budget is, who are the other funders and what is the shortfall. We want to see the funding picture as a whole.”

Funders often have their own preferences on how a budget should be presented, so make sure you know what they want. In any case, you should include a breakdown of the main categories of spending: activity, staff, and overheads. If the project lasts more than a year, then take into account inflation. You may also add a timeline indicating when the money will be raised and how long it will last in each activity.

Katie Owen, senior media manager at the Heritage Lottery Fund, advises: “Have a realistic project plan, don’t be overambitious. We need to be convinced that the project can be sustained.”

5. Show that you can deliver

Most grant-givers want to know the impact of their investment. A good way to reassure them is to give evidence of your organisation’s effectiveness. Provide a track record of past projects and successes, as well as a brief presentation of the staff that will deliver on the new project.

Cole at BIG says: “If people asked for a very large sum of money, we worry about their capacity to do the work and manage the money, so we need to know about their skills. They should give us more details about their staff, the members of the management committee of the board, the previous grants and activities they have managed.”

6. Make it short, sweet and avoid jargon

According to funders, proposals are often too long. People do not know how to summarise things while keeping all the relevant information. Most funders recommended writing between two and four pages.

Abigail Connolly, trust and foundations account manager at Oxfam, says: “We use case studies, quotes and photos, but we don’t get lost with details. It’s like with a CV; if a person has only a few minutes to look at it, you need to make sure you grab their attention.”

Laura Ross Gakava, grant officer for an international donor, confirms: “Write as clearly and concisely as possible, but bear in mind that the person reading your proposal may not know anything about the issue. Define things so that people know what you are talking about, don’t use jargon or technical language and avoid acronyms.”