Last year, Marina Jones, Head of Trusts & Foundations at the Royal Opera House, Laura Solomons, Head of Donor Relations at The Sutton Trust, and I set-up a small trust. With real money on the table we issued an open call for proposals. The meeting to decide who to give grants to took place during our session at Fundraising Convention, with delegates making the final decision on who should get the cash.
We wanted to give participants the chance to experience the grant-making process from a trustee’s perspective by putting them in control of who received the funding. However, it turned out it wasn’t just participants who learnt from this exercise. The process of reviewing and shortlisting proposals gave Marina, Laura and I an eye-opening experience of life in the world of the Grant Manager.
At the Trusts Fundraising Conference in February I’ll be sharing some of the lessons I took from my time in the Grant Manager’s shoes, including the three biggest mistakes to avoid if you want your proposal to be a ‘winner’, not a ‘binner’.
Prior to that, here are five observations from the proposals I reviewed. Some of them might surprise you!
1. What’s in a name? We thought we’d given our trust a fairly simple name – The Apollo (Sutton) Foundation. Yet 40% of applicants got the Foundation’s name wrong at some point in their application. The most common error was to drop the (Sutton) part. This might seem like a trivial thing. However, when you consider the name was carefully chosen to reflect the trust’s founders, you can see how this kind of mistake has the potential to sour your relationship with at least one influential decision maker.
Double-check the obvious places you might use the trust’s name (your proposal and cover letter). Then check the less obvious places where the name might appear – for example, the filename of the attachment or the email subject.
2. Living their best life? In order to reflect the wide range of charities represented at Fundraising Convention we needed to make our Trust’s aims as broad as possible. For that reason, the stated aims were “to support charities who help their beneficiaries to “live their best lives”. Only half of the applications referenced this in their proposal. Or, to put it another way, half of the applicants made no effort to tailor their application to clearly show how their work met the Foundation’s aims.
With relatively small grants available there is obviously a balance to be struck with how much time fundraisers can spend tailoring their proposal. However, each trust has a charitable mission it is trying to achieve and each Grant Manager has a responsibility to put forward proposals that give the trust the best ‘return on investment’. Being explicit about how funding your work will help the trust to achieve its charitable mission removes the burden of interpretation from the Grant Manager.
3. Proofreeding is realy importent. I know you know this already. You’re an experienced fundraiser and you definitely don’t need a consultant to tell you about the importance of proofreading.
The problem is, proofreading is a lot harder than we think. It takes skill to overcome our natural tendency to skim read and to ensure we are reviewing the version on the screen rather than the version in our head.
That could explain why half of the applications we received contained mistakes (and those are just the ones we spotted!).
The two most common errors were words missing from sentences and words being duplicated. These mistakes are easily missed when we proofread – our brain knows what it’s supposed to say so it skips over the error.
Again, this might seem like a small thing. However, Grant Managers and trustees often have to read quickly. Mistakes like this can stop the reader in their tracks, causing frustration.
One handy trick is to read the proposal out loud before you submit it. By doing this you are much more likely to spot these types of mistakes.
4. Sometimes it’s the little things. I don’t think of myself as a petty person. Yet, when you are starting from a position of having to reject a large number of proposals it’s amazing how picky you can get.
For example, take the proposal that arrived at one minute past the deadline. In this case we were lenient and read it (I’m not a monster!) but I was struck by how tarnished my perception of the proposal was by the fact it had arrived late. Starting from such a position meant the proposal was always going to have to work much harder to make it into the shortlist.
It’s likely that the person sent it before 5pm and that it just took a few minutes to come through. But the Grant Manager doesn’t know that. When the odds are already stacked against you, why take risks that could make your life even harder?
5. Coping with rejection. We emailed all of the unsuccessful organisations to let them know of the outcome. However, in order to keep things realistic, most received generic emails, simply saying that the number of applications exceeded the funding available (sound familiar?).
Just under a third replied to acknowledge our email, with most thanking us for our time. However, of the 12 that replied only 4 asked for feedback (which we happily provided), and only 3 asked about the possibility of applying in future.
With mid-sized trusts often receiving around 200 applications per funding round it’s not feasible for them to proactively send feedback to everyone. However, continuing the conversation after being rejected can help to build the relationship and could improve your chances the next time around. It can also alert you to any problems or weaknesses in your application that need to be addressed. In some cases, it can also help you find out that they are never going to fund you, saving you the time and effort of applying in future.