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This is what applying for funding feels like

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Introduction from IVAR

 

Much has been written about how funders acted differently in the context of the pandemic. Funded organisations have celebrated lighter touch processes, faster turnaround of grant decisions, recognition of uncertainty and the need to adapt – even the topsy-turvy scenario of being offered funding without asking for it. There is a strong desire from all concerned to retain these practical changes. However, alongside this and with much less attention, grant applicants are still carrying the burden of rejection after rejection, often receiving little or no feedback, unable to connect with funders as they would like. The experience of applying for funding still has some way to go to ensure it’s a mutually respectful process operating on a more level playing field. 

 

This is what we heard when we asked 22 charities about their experiences of applying for funding, as part of our open and trusting grant-making initiative. Whilst almost everyone recognised the positive changes through Covid-19, many still talked about the emotional rollercoaster generated by unsuccessful applications: the stress and self-doubt, the fear and inability to understand what is really needed for success. This blog, in the words of grant applicants themselves, offers an insight into these feelings. We ended by asking ‘what would make it feel better’? Some of the answers are surprisingly simple and return to the concepts of respectful, open and trusting grant-making. 


‘Exciting’, ‘rewarding’, ‘creative’

 

As grant applicants, we are incredibly passionate about the work we do. Writing grant applications is part of the fun and challenge of our job; successfully applying for funding helps our organisations to fulfil their mission and support the communities we serve.

 

However, for every successful application we make, there are many more that have been rejected.

 


Dealing with rejection

 

We know funders receive large volumes of applications and have to make tough choices but dealing with rejection can be immensely disappointing. We feel that we’re letting our organisations down, as well as our team and colleagues. You can feel responsible for the success of the entire organisation. It’s embarrassing having to tell colleagues ‘we didn’t get it’ – people’s jobs and our work for beneficiaries is at stake.

 

One of the most frustrating things is that you rarely get any communication from funders. To put so much work into an application that you get really excited about, but not receive any feedback, is incredibly difficult. It makes you question your skills and whether that funder will ever be right for you.

 

 

Maintaining resilience and wellbeing

 

Learning how to manage rejection and build resilience is a key part of how we persevere. Having a stable team and support network is vital in helping you manage the emotions that come up when applying for funding.

 

It’s not always as simple as picking up the phone to ask why an application didn’t make it through. The power dynamics make that hard, and you don’t always know the rules. It’s like that feeling you get as a teenager, plucking up the courage to call someone you wanted to ask out. You’d dial the number but hang up at the last minute as you were scared they’d say no.

 

 

Things can change because things have changed during this pandemic

 

We have seen greater flexibility from funders, with offers of emergency or unrestricted funding, and relationships more likely to be characterised by trust and open communication.

 

Having more positive relationships has allowed us to be more honest about our struggles, and clearer about the support we need.

 

However, with things beginning to open up again and emergency funding coming to an end, we are still in a period of deep uncertainty. While we are grateful that funders showed so much compassion and flexibility during the pandemic, we are fearful that this behaviour won’t continue – things may be slowly going to back normal, but we’re not out of the woods yet!

 

 

What would make it feel better?

 

Applying for funding needs to be a mutually beneficial experience but at the moment it often feels one-sided. Current application and assessment processes can bring up feelings of dejection and failure, but in the best cases they can be incredibly rewarding. There will be no ‘one size fits all’ approach – what suits some organisations may not suit others – but we know that open and honest communication is crucial whatever the process looks like.

 

We’d like to see more of a balance between the needs of charities applying and the funders receiving applications – so that there is less of a burden on either.

 

Here are five things that funders can do to help:

 

  1. Continue the flexible, open and trusting funding practices that many adopted during the pandemic – clear criteria, core or unrestricted funding and light-touch forms all make a big difference.
  2. Be more transparent with eligibility criteria and share decision-making processes.
  3. Consider different requirements depending on the size of grant. For example, be open to different types of applications (e.g. video applications), use publicly held information (e.g. financial information from the charity commission) and only ask relevant questions.
  4. Ringfence funding to support specific groups or communities (e.g. small charities, community-led groups, ethnically diverse charities). Smaller organisations and those that support marginalised communities are often competing with larger organisations that have more resource and a paid fundraising team. Ringfencing funding could help.
  5. Create opportunities for open dialogue. Sometimes it feels like funders exist behind computers. Being able to talk honestly, even if we’re told that our application has been unsuccessful, is a sign of a good funder who we may want to develop a relationship with in the future.

A last word from IVAR

 

In the rush and sheer volume of applications received, it might be easy to forget there’s a person behind the application form and that how funders acknowledge, feedback and communicate decisions has a real impact on how applicants experience the process. Grant applicants are passionate people who care deeply about the work they do they and know that it’s not possible to develop in-depth relationships with all funders or be successful every time. But following through on some simple commitments to a more open process, where feedback is standard and relationships easier to navigate, would go a long way to level up the power imbalance. Our aim must surely be to remove words like ‘scary’, ‘frightening’ ‘stressful’ and ‘frustrating’ from people’s experience.  

 

The next stage of this research will explore how a small group of funders are trying to bring the principles of trust and respect to life in their applications and assessments processes.


 

This blog is based on the experiences of 22 charities based across the UK, including: 
Logos of charities who have co-signed the blog.

How can we – as funders – help communities to deal with the pandemic?

Over the past 15 months, we’ve been supporting grassroots, community-based grant-making in each of the four home nations through Comic Relief’s UK Intermediary Funders initiative¹. Learning has been key to our approach as we want to understand how we as funders can share and shift power to people in communities through ‘lived experience’ and community-led approaches, both in the grant-making process and the grants themselves. Now, in the midst of a pandemic that is deepening inequalities and creating an environment of prolonged uncertainty, how can we continue to do that? What are we learning as a group of funders that we can hold onto as we move into recovery and renewal?

Through this blog, we wanted to share some of the questions being discussed amongst our grassroots intermediary funders.

Emergency vs the longer term

Most charities are really anxious about funding – they may have some money now for emergency work, but with no fundraising and limited grant-making for non-emergency work, there will be a gap very soon. We are really conscious of this, and know there is a role for us, our partners and other foundations in protecting charities for the future.

However, this comes with a set of challenging considerations: 

  • Should we stall some emergency funding, in case there is a second ‘lockdown’ in the autumn and winter? Or should we hope that we will be able to meet future needs through additional fundraising?
  • How can we work to ensure that emergency funding is accessible to those who need it and supports organisations on the frontline to deliver crisis support whilst sustaining them so they are able to provide in the medium and long term? What’s on the horizon?
  • We can’t yet predict when something vaguely resembling normal life will resume, and what exactly that will look like. What does that mean for the timing and focus of our support, and our expectations of charities in relation to plans and activities? When should we seek to shift from emergency to recovery?
  • We do know that the pandemic is exposing and deepening inequalities, and that both the charity and funding sector will need to adapt – to both changing needs in communities and shifting priorities. What will that mean for future grant-making processes? What can we do to retain the flexibility and collaboration that has emerged between many funders over the last few months?
  • Many organisations are providing emergency support beyond their particular area of experience – like mental health support or working with women affected by domestic abuse. Can or should this work be sustained over the long term, ensuring those intervening in such complex issues have a ‘do no harm’ approach as a starting point? This will ensure those doing this work have the proper expertise to deal with the issues responsibly and effectively.
  • Many emergency funds ignore so-called ‘nice to have’ things in the community, like cultural arts, theatre and sports – in the long run, how is this going to impact on people’s lives and social values, especially young people’s education and mental health?

What will the role of unconstituted community groups be?

 

New community groups have formed across the UK in response to Covid-19, and they aren’t waiting for funding – they’re just getting on with it, driven by empathy and with little ambition to be constituted organisations. Some of us have funded residents’ groups even though, in the past, we would have preferred something more structured; others are looking at whether this could continue beyond emergency: ‘I don’t think there is anything stopping us, it is us that strangle ourselves’. How do we support these groups as drivers of community change? And will they want to continue or disband after the pandemic? ‘In a time of crisis and chaos, there has been a new order established around shifting the power which has communities and their responses at the heart’.

 

As funders, while appreciating the myriad of amazing community responses, we need to be mindful of the groups that already exist doing responsive work. We must not forget them, and we must remain alert to the possibility of duplication – between longer-standing activities and newer, emergency responses: for example, established food banks working on ending food poverty, alongside newer groups doing similar work, could lead to an over or under supply of food.

 

Doing the right thing – ask funded partners or potential funded partners to help us think about the future

 

Communities have shown tremendous power in leading from the front, reacting first often ahead of both established charity and statutory organisations’ responses and support. They are becoming first responders by asking for feedback from people on the ground to understand local needs. As funders, we must find ways to support and embed this shift in power right down to the local community level. And we must also be conscious to proactively reach out to those groups who are disproportionately affected, may not be well represented in broader community responses, or may not have the means and avenues to be able to directly ask for help? (For example: BAME communities, LGBTQ+ communities, young carers, and people dealing with loss and grief.)

 

Grassroots organisations are already thinking of ways they could deal with the challenges lockdown has thrown up, for the longer term. Things like mental health, isolation, increased inequalities and child poverty, and domestic abuse. After the pandemic, how can this surge of community action help us to understand what is needed and how can we support this community response for resilience and rebuilding?

 

So…

 

Like many funders, we have adapted our processes and made them simpler; we have been flexible in our grant-making; and we have set up emergency funds quickly in response to Covid-19. But it feels like we’re at the start of a period of sustained evolution and adaptation. We hope to work closely with people, communities and other funders as we face the future together.

 

Please do share your thoughts in the comments below.

 

[1] The four intermediary funders are The Community Foundation for Northern Ireland, Corra Foundation in Scotland, Wales Council for Voluntary Action and Groundwork in England.