Writing Better Funding Applications
By Melanie Nock
For most of us, writing funding applications can seem like a heavy burden; a cross between buying a lottery ticket with a five-page essay and that homework assignment from Year 8 put off until Sunday evening.
So here are some thoughts to help make it easier. We know, though, often it helps to talk to someone about your application or your thoughts about funding – the WCA Voluntary Sector Coordination Service is here to help with that. Contact: Melanie Nock Melanie@wandcareall.org.uk
For these notes, as an example, we have used an imaginary project – the Pink Feather Project which provides coordination training for disadvantaged kittens using pink feathers made by volunteers. We hope you enjoy it.
Choose your funder
See your research into potential funders as a proactive empowering exercise – a form of you interviewing them. Which have programmes most aligned to your needs; offer reasonable turnaround timesboth in terms of the time it gives you to make your application and in terms of the time it takes before you receive a reply; acceptable acceptance rates? Can you contact them first to talk through your application? Remember funders’ success is built on your success – how can you help them out?
Think creatively about your project
What does this picture say to you? Do you see a pink feather on a string? A boredom buster? A device for honing coordination skills? Something to maintain mental health? An enriched environment? A toy to improve the relationship between cat and owner? A purposeful creativity project for a human?
Sometimes taking a moment to look at a project from a different perspective can open up new approaches to funders and funding programmes or give your project the multi- dimensional edge others lack.
Even if we had devised the pink feather primarily to teach coordination skills to kittens, its positive impact on the relationship between cat and owner is still a very valid outcome which would be attractive to an entirely different set of funders.
Tell the story
Story telling is hard wired into us; we love a good story and funders are no different. A gripping story has a beginning (the problem or issue “once upon a time there was a …), a middle (activities and interventions) and an end (measurable outcomes – “they all lived happily ever after”). A good story includes characters the listener/reader can identify with; emotion; jeopardy and a plot the audience can follow, believe and engage with.
Typically a funding application form will ask
“How do you know your project is needed”?
Thereis, of course, a place in an answer like this for the local deprivation statistics.
DataWand is a good Wandsworth source: https://www.datawand.info/.
In our Pink Feather project example, the funder needs to know the hard data;
Kitsted (responsible for monitoring fictional kittens progress) data records that 40% of Wandsworth kittens enter their 6th month unable to pat a ball; by their 12th month only 10% are qualified to access mousing apprenticeships.
But that information is much more powerful if it is introduced with a quote or case study. A quote like this;
|Kitty was referred to the pink feather project at 6 months old. As a little kitten he had been deprived of stimulation; he had no concentration and no sense of how to approach a moving toy. Without the give and take of play, his relationship with his owner had deteriorated. Kitty was now hungry and neglected.|
“My kitten had no idea what to do with a toy mouse. I was becoming very anxious as he fell further behind. Round here, its mousing or nothing” or a case study like this;
“What will your project do”?
Although funders are keen to know that your intervention “works”, they are also very often enthusiastic to have the “voice” of users/participants. Sometimes they will specifically ask that question (“How have you involved users in designing your project” for example) but it is very helpful to provide subliminal reminders of it.
Try using quotes before each descriptive section – Pink Feather might include quotes like this before each aspect of the description
“I love making pink feathers with the other volunteers. I could get quite lonely before.”
A group of 12 volunteers meets every week to design and make the pink feathers. They….
“ I started training kittens when I became unemployed. Now I am about to start teacher training”
Trained volunteers run skills development session for 6 kittens at a time. These sessions…..
Apply the rules of journalism
Make sure your answers or project description – however the funder structures that – address the famous journalistic 5 Ws:
Be specific and precise with every statement, for example:
12 volunteers will make 60 pink feathers to distribute to 15 kittens at twice weekly, one hour sessions run by two qualified training volunteers held over a three month programme. We expect 12 kittens to complete the course and 10 to go on to achieve a mousing apprenticeship. 2 kittens will go on to a basic hunting qualification.
The same applies to budgets. Wherever possible show how budget figures have been arrived at:
Volunteer expenses: 570
(12 volunteers x 16 bus fares@ x and lunch expenses @ y x 6 weeks)
Training supervisor: 700
Freelance contract 6 weeks @ £x
Make your budget realistic and appropriate to the scale of the activities you are proposing to provide. Being too ambitious sounds alarm bells as much as a budget which does not seem to offer value for money. If appropriate to the nature of the activity, give a unit cost.
It costs £350 to train each kitten
Try to avoid
- Acronyms (The HED of the QRS will…)
- The use of the passive voice (kittens are actively supported…..)
- Long words in complex sentences (The criteria for selecting kittens for the programme are embedded within an indication of needs matrix, encompassing the continuum of support needs.)
Even if the reader understands all this, it drains all energy from what you have written – and from the reader. Or worse, the reader has no idea what you mean and simply gives up on it.
The most complex ideas can be put very simply.
- The Head of the Energy Department of The Quality Research Service
- We support kittens
- When we select kittens for the programme, we look at all the ways in which they need support
Impact and evaluation
This question can strike fear and despair into the most seasoned applicant.
- Outputs are the things you are going to do with your project. They are usually counted via monitoring
‘We are going to make 60 pink feathers and train 15 kittens’
- Outcomes are the results of the things you are going to do. Again, often counted but this time perhaps by tracking or the use of tools like outcome stars which measure progress over time on things like confidence
‘12 of our kittens will achieve a place on a mousing apprenticeship’
- Impact is what is going to change. Your project facilitates that change; it doesn’t necessarily completely control it because some factors are likely to remain outside of your control. But there must be a reasonable, and ideally demonstrable, link between what your project does and what you see as its impact. Impact may be qualitative as well as quantitative and there are lots of ways of finding out about it including surveys, tracking, follow up interviews.
“Our volunteer pink feather makers report that they are less lonely and their confidence has increased. As a result, 50% go on to get jobs in related fields”
“We track the progress of our kittens. Of those who achieve mousing apprenticeships, 80% become professional mousers in stable, well paid roles. Those cats tell us that they escape hunger and disease and understand the importance of bringing up their own kittens with access to early stimulation, breaking the cycle of deprivation. “
This is also a good point at which to include a quote or case study
“The pink feather project was life changing for me. Before I joined them, I hadn’t even patted a ball. Now I have my own mousing company and have just taken on my first pink feather apprentice”
- Evaluation is the process you use to understand the effectiveness of your project in meeting its objectives. It will probably involve analysing any data (perhaps to make sure that you are reaching the right beneficiaries and that you are achieving the results you hoped for) and talking to project leaders, project workers and beneficiaries and external stakeholders about what worked, what didn’t and what was unexpected. At the application stage you will probably be asked about your plans to evaluate. But previous evaluations can be very useful in answering the “why” question.
“In 2018 we piloted the project, then known as the feather project. Our evaluation showed that, although the basic methodology was sound, tabby kittens could not see the multi coloured feathers we were using. We have now changed the feathers to pink ones which are easy for all kittens to see. Changing to pink also increased the productivity of our volunteer makers by 20%.”
Make sure impact and evaluation are proportionate to the size of the project. If you are asking for £10k, both elements can be light touch. Something more sophisticated will be expected where substantive posts are being funded.
Get a second opinion
Ask an uninvolved colleague or friend – someone who does not know much, if anything, about your project – to read the application. When they have read it, can they tell you basically what the project is going to do, who for and what the need for it is? Is there anything they don’t understand? Any discrepancies?
A summary of the dos and a couple of don’ts
- Do talk to the funder before applying if you possibly can; it saves a lot of time and gives you a chance to enthuse them before the application arrives. It makes sure your application will be right for them
- Don’t assume the reader knows anything about you, the project, or the issue you are tackling
- Do stick to any word limits
- Do try to give a voice to users, their families, and volunteers
- Do make the project sound important, urgent and exciting without using too many superlatives
- Where necessary, spread what you have to say across several questions – if you feel they are asking the same thing, use different points in different questions.
- Make sure you have told the story from beginning to end
- Don’t feel you have to use up all the space available – less can often be more
- Do be specific – how many, how often etc
- Do ask for our help – including to read an application before it goes – it’s what we like doing