What to do when your grant application isn’t successful

Harriet Stranks, Director of Grant making North and Wales explains what to do when your funding application hasn’t been successful. Our latest round of Invest applications has now closed.

Over the coming weeks, our Grant Managers will be busy, reviewing and assessing all the applications we’ve received. Some will pass through to the next stage which involves a site visit from their local Grant Manager so we can take the time to properly understand their funding needs and how a grant from us might help. Others might not even get to this stage and they will be informed that their request for funds has not been successful.

letterWhen we do reject funding applications, we send a personalised letter giving concrete reasons why the charity was not successful. Our Chief Executive Paul takes the time to sign all of these letters and often encourages charities to try again. Of course, it’s much more enjoyable to write letters telling charities they have been successful, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less important writing those that aren’t.

Our letters encourage charities to contact their grant manager to discuss this feedback but it’s surprising how many charities do not take up this offer.

feedbackAsking for feedback can of course be an uncomfortable experience. We worry about what we will be told and that’s probably why around 95% of our applicants who aren’t successful don’t ask why they didn’t get funded. We know charities spend hours making an application but then don’t take the final step to understand why it wasn’t successful.

At the Foundation, we want to build long-term, constructive relationships with the charities we fund and constructive feedback is a critical part of our approach. Every two years, we take part in a bench-marking exercise against other funders. Conducted by nfp Synergy, they carry out an anonymous survey to find out what people say about us. (We do it this way because it is virtually impossible for funders to get honest feedback from applicants, particularly when money is involved). It’s easy to become complacent if you don’t have external validation and that’s why this is such an important exercise for us.

At the Foundation, we want to build long-term, constructive relationships with the charities we fund and constructive feedback is a critical part of our approach

One of the main points we learned from the nfp synergy survey was that we as a Foundation needed to get better at providing feedback to the charities who have applied to us for funds. Whilst many charities said they received feedback from us, some said it wasn’t useful. Getting feedback on your feedback is surely the worst type of feedback to get! But if the feedback isn’t useful, it’s effectively a waste of everyone’s time.

Giving challenging feedback is never easy, and some people are notoriously bad at doing so. It’s why many people fall into the trap of superficial comments such as ‘there was a lot of competition out there’ because it’s easier than having a deep and meaningful conversation.

Of course, feedback is subjective. Sometimes the person on the receiving end doesn’t agree with the perspective of the other person. Sometimes people feel criticised, especially knowing that they may have to share this information with their board or superiors. In some ways feedback is as hard to give as it is to receive.

That’s why we take the time to give such a personalised response. Charities invest time and energy in their applications, we have to respect them by doing the same in our response. Our grant managers visit and speak to hundreds of charities every year. They are skilled at what they do, can benchmark charities against each other and know what good looks like.  Their judgement and experience means that they can understand what they are looking at, can ask the right questions, signpost to others when appropriate and suggest new ways of solving problems. To us, they are much more than grant assessors, they are coaches, critical friends, allies and sounding boards all rolled into one.

Charities invest time and energy in their applications, we have to respect them by doing the same in our response

We know that a robust feedback loop can improve a charity’s service, target resources more effectively, create stronger relationships and ultimately stronger organisations. It’s why we encourage our grantees to seek and act on feedback from the people they support.

So, if you aren’t successful in this latest round, don’t be disheartened. Our feedback is well considered and well-intended and we hope it helps you become more successful in future applications. Not just with us, but other funders too. And remember whilst it’s good to reflect on and act on it, it’s equally important to retain your own perspective and not obsess –  and above all, don’t take it personally.

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Understanding the true value of small charities

The job of a funding organisation is to improve people’s lives, not prop up inefficiency, writes our Chief Executive Paul Streets. This blog was originally published on Third Sector on 23rd May 2017.

I’ve just come back from an energising visit to two Newcastle charities that support refugees and asylum seekers, the North of England Refugee Service and the Action Foundation, both funded by us. Both charities support new arrivals as they are welcomed into our “sharing society”.

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Generally this means putting them through an undignified process (no doubt reminding them why they left their homes in the first place) by dispersing them – usually outside the home counties – and then, after their applications have been considered, giving them 28 days to get out of government accommodation into the private rented sector.

Faced with unrelenting challenges, these charities do a great, but difficult job, providing advice and support at the point of entry and offering educational support and decent housing after the state has processed their claims and effectively abdicated its responsibility. One Iranian supported by NERS told me: “This was the only place I’ve been that sorted out my immigration and housing issues. At other places I was just given a cup of tea.”

It’s difficult not to be moved by the powerful difference small and local charities – which most people have never heard of – make to people’s lives.

I often get accused of being a “small charity evangelist”, and it’s true that, in meeting hundreds of small charities and seeing their work in action, I’ve experienced my own damascene conversion and tend to proselytise about their unique ability to touch lives.

But as a foundation we invest a significant amount of money in small charities in the belief that they are best placed to have a positive impact on people’s lives locally. So it’s important that we remain objective and we continuously need to check our approach and focus are still on the right track.

It’s important that we remain objective and we continuously need to check our approach and focus are still on the right track.

Over the past three years we’ve started a journey to unravel these issues.navigating change

First through Navigating Change, a report based on research commissioned from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations that showed smallcharities are under the cosh, with funding collapsing as the state withdraws and shifts from grants to contracts and from small specialist providers to large generic provision.

Second, through demonstrating exactly why this is a problem to the survival of small charities in our Commissioning in Crisis report, which showed the shift Commissioning in Crisis front pageto commissioning is exacerbating the problem. Acutely.

Finally, we recognisfacing forwarde that small charities should be Facing Forward to meet the hurricane of social, political and economic changes heading their way.

But these have all focused on the charities themselves and, ultimately, why should we give a jot about them

No charity has a right to exist unless it is making a difference.

There are some who’d see the research above as a demonstration of straightforward economies of scale and efficiency to achieve more standardised outcomes; and there are others who would claim there are too many charities and only the fittest should survive.

Intuitively, there are many reasons why small local organisations make sense. They engage local people, adding to social cohesion and understanding. And because they’re local, they usually leverage high levels of volunteering that provide good value for money. They’re a magnet for money from outside that would otherwise be spent elsewhere. And money invested in local organisations usually stays local, so it creates local economic multipliers.

But the litmus test is this: does it matter for the people on the receiving end?

We think we know the answer, but do we?

Last year we went out to tender for independent external research to understand what the true value of small and local charities is, both socially and economically; research that would ask whether other organisations could do the same or better more effectively, whether the direction public service commissioners have taken (large contracts and large providers) is actually cost-effective and whether the large providers, such as Serco, G4S and large charities, that move into this space can deliver the same quality of provision.

The Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University will be leading the research in partnership with the Open University Business School, the Institute for Voluntary Action and Sheffield Business School, and we’re eagerly expecting early findings next year.

Our mission is to “break disadvantage and better lives”, not prop up inefficiency. If we find we’ve got it wrong, we will have to change our approach, and I’ll be looking for a new messiah on my return from Damascus.

Taking the time to listen & learn from charities we fund

Emma Beeston, Our Grant Manager (West of England) explains why taking the time to visit the charities we fund and build long-term relationships with them is an invaluable learning tool.

One of the best bits of my job as a Grant Manager with Lloyds Bank Foundation is that I get to visit with charities after they have been awarded a grant. These ‘monitoring visits’ come in different forms. They can be used to make sure everything is on track with a grant; or to offer any support needed; or they can sometimes be necessary when things are not going well. And they are also a valuable way to learn about the work we fund, listen to the charity’s experiences and meet with those they support.

I want to share one recent visit to Bristol-based charity One25 and what it taught me.

One25 support sex workers to exit the streets and build positive lives away from violence, poverty and addiction.  I joined their outreach van on a night shift. Before I headed off with the volunteers, we had a briefing which ran through the list of vulnerable women and missing people to look out for that night. This was a sobering list of people deeply affected by drugs, abuse and mental ill health.  We then spent the next few hours circling the streets of inner city Bristol. It was dry but cold and the volunteers handed out hot drinks, food and socks to the women that flagged down the van as well as personal alarms, condoms and toiletries. Each woman getting on the van was acknowledged, offered help and encouraged to attend the charity’s drop-in.

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What really struck me was …

  • Just how vulnerable these women are – one woman had no money and was working in order to buy tobacco; another was living with an abusive partner and could not be contacted by phone for fear he would find out.
  • How amazingly committed the volunteers on the van are – this is not easy or obviously rewarding work. Some nights they may not see anyone. And the contact with women can be very brief or cut short when a client is spotted. Yet the van is out week in, week out in all weathers.
  • The importance of small charities – no business would do this. The van has to go out and be where it is expected every night whatever the weather and whether or not the team sees eight women or none. It takes hard work to recruit and train up volunteers, to sort out rotas, to keep the van stocked up with donations. The van is a long-term investment with precious little immediate ‘return’.
  • The importance of being there – the women working on the streets have complex needs and chaotic lives. One25 can’t make women access help. What the volunteers can do is remind these women that they are valued, have options and that support will be there whenever they are able to take it up. Yes, the van is there to give out whatever is needed from needles to umbrellas but really it is driving around with the message: ‘we care about you’.One25_CYMK_300dpi

As their Grant Manager, I already knew what One25 do. I have read through their accounts and business plans and met with staff and been in the drop-in. But from joining them on the night shift, I now have a deeper understanding and appreciation of their work.

It is important to take the time to visit the charities we fund and build long-term relationships with them. They are our partners in delivering our long-term aims and through these visits, we can offer more support and deepen our understanding of the challenges small charities face and the issues affecting the most disadvantaged people in society. This learning can shape our future direction and inform decisions.

It is important to take the time to visit the charities we fund and build long-term relationships with them.

If you want to work with us to create lasting change for people facing multiple disadvantage, we open to new applications for our Invest grants on 22nd May. Apply today.

Follow Emma on Twitter: @emmabeeston1

How can charities approach election fever?

Duncan Shrubsole, Director of Policy, Partnerships and Communications sets out top tips for how charities can respond to the General Election. @Duncanshrubsole

The General Election we were promised would not happen has now been formally launched by the Prime Minister with a blistering speech in Downing Street. What does this mean for the voluntary sector and where should we focus our efforts over the next five weeks and beyond?

First there are some under-reported but important practical implications:

  • Loss of current policy – Whilst the Homelessness Reduction and Istanbul Convention Bills made it onto the statute book before the election, other legislation, such as banning abusers from cross-questioning their partners in the family courts, that charities have long been campaigning for, has disappeared. Will they come back? Sadly given the scale of the legislative challenge we face around Brexit there is no guarantee. On the non-legislative front, policies we and others have been working hard with the Office for Civil Society around improving public service commissioning practice, particularly for smaller charities, has been put on hold – just as it was making real progress! We must not give up and must all be ready to push these priorities back on the agenda again once a new government is formed.
  • Lack of focus on local elections and metro Mayors – The General Election has overshadowed the local council and Mayoral elections this week viewing them only through the prism of national politics. Yet policy and spending decisions taken by local councils are key for most charities and these new Mayors have the potential to drive forward change and catalyse new approaches – charities must therefore work hard to both be high on their agendas and to make the general case for the importance of good devolution.

While Brexit is obviously central, it is vital that the General Election provides the opportunity for a genuine national conversation about how we tackle the big issues that affect people’s lives, against a backdrop of social, economic and demographic pressure and huge pressures on the public finances. If the parties, politicians and media won’t do this, the voluntary sector must step-up and fill the void.

Both individually and collectively, charities should be actively raising awareness of the issues/causes/people and communities we were created to serve and challenging the politicians to explain locally and nationally how they will respond.

So here are my five suggestions of how charities – both large and small – should respond:

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Encourage those you work with to register to vote
 particularly those who are vulnerable, marginalised, young or old, homeless or fleeing abuse. Helping people exercise their right to vote can be an important step towards re-engaging with society and in turn helps get the issues they face aired.

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Engage your local candidates
–Proactively raise your issues with all prospective candidates. Invite them to visit, go to a hustings or host one. Speak, write to or engage candidates via social media. Tell them about the issues you work around and ask how they as an individual MP would respond and help – what would they do to support your cause or service? There could be over 100 new MPs and many will likely continue to champion the organisations and issues they come into contact with during the campaign once elected. If you’re concerned about how as a charity you can campaign, NCVO has a useful guide.

hands-1139098_960_720Shape the agenda – Manifestos still have a week or so to be finalised and so all the major charities should be working all their back-channels hard to try to land their asks but, irrespective of what the final documents say, all charities should proactively seek to shape the agenda – for example landing a major news item, whether nationally or locally, helps force the issues into the election discussion that day. Use your reports, compelling stories of the people you support and any particular timely hooks to get heard.

Prepare for the new Government – Elections always mean new programmes, policy and people. Charities should be using the time until 9 June to prepare for how they’ll engage with new MPs locally and new Ministers centrally. And whilst the last year should teach us nothing is certain, if the polls are correct, for the first time in over 25 years the Conservatives could be governing alone and with a substantial Parliamentary majority. That means if charities want to win support for their cause they need to be able to frame it in ways that will appear to the centre-right.

megaphoneSpeak up for the sector itself – beyond our individual  issues and causes, the voluntary sector needs to speak up for its overall purpose, role and value. This election will set the agenda for the next five years. It’s vital that as a sector we set out a vision of why we exist and what we do and can achieve.

Helpfully, there are blueprints ready to help. NPC’s report The ‘shared society’ needs a strong civil society, Julia Unwin’s speech launching the new Inquiry into Civil Society that we are proud to support, or indeed our own Facing Forward report, all set out the importance of the sector and highlight the frameworks, infrastructure, funding mechanisms and policy-making arrangements needed to best harness our expertise, particularly for smaller, local charities.

Perhaps the best way of summing up the importance of voluntary sector was made most recently by another group of our politicians, the House of Lords Select Committee on Charities. They said:

“Charities are the lifeblood of society. They play a fundamental role in our civil life and do so despite facing a multitude of challenges. Yet for them to continue to flourish, it is clear that they must be supported and promoted.”

Whilst their Lordships are not standing for election, we hope the party leaders heed their call. But ultimately it is up to us as a sector and as the voice for disadvantaged people, to ensure they do.

The sector cannot remain silent about small charities in post-Brexit Britain

This blog first appeared on Third Sector on 19th April 2017.

I recently visited a local charity that supports young mothers in a small Midlands town to meet Jen, the chief executive for 17 years and David, the chair (I have changed their names). They work from two houses and support vulnerable young women and their babies with nowhere to go. One houses six women and a further six will be arriving in the new house soon.

The “new” house smelt of wet paint. David and his (volunteer) wife had finished decorating. At the weekend decking was laid in the garden by Jen’s (volunteer) husband as David hacked down the neglected garden. The rooms were finished with donated toiletries, fresh towels and new bedding.

We sat in the charity’s tiny, shabby office, which has closed-circuit TV to ensure the women are safe. Jen told me that many of the girls were amazed to find sheets on the beds: they’d never had them at home. The girls have to be clean: free of drugs and alcohol, and off the streets. It’s the only way to keep them safe. The policy is no men (or, rather, boys – most are under 20) overnight, but fathers are encouraged to visit during the day.

Jen told me that many of the girls were amazed to find sheets on the beds: they’d never had them at home.

Over the years they’ve worked with dozens of young women and their babies, helping them to develop the skills they need to hold down rent and other bills until they are ready to move to their own homes. Without their dedication, most of these women’s children would have ended up “looked after”, costing the state thousands.

Chancellor Philip Hammond probably doesn’t know how local charities like this are helping to reduce our deficit and improve productivity.

At the coalface of the voluntary sector, Jen and David aren’t discussing Brexit or welfare cuts, but whether the rooms will be ready in time. They get on with what is needed, too busy to look beyond this to a future that’s about to hit them, and the young women they support, even harder.

At the coalface of the voluntary sector, Jen and David aren’t discussing Brexit or welfare cuts, but whether the rooms will be ready in time.

Local charities do this day in, day out. They don’t look for gratitude or reward, but they deserve our respect and action. For many the future must seem overwhelming.

That’s why we launched Facing Forward, which is targeted at small to medium-sized local charities. With it, we have tried to set out in one place the political, economic, social and technological changes coming their way for which they need to face forward, providing practical advice on how to do that.

Now that article 50 has been invoked, it’s more important than ever that, as a sector, we get on the front foot for the changes that will affect millions at the margins of society, people who are largely forgotten and ignored.

it’s more important than ever that, as a sector, we get on the front foot for the changes that will affect millions

We can wish the result had been different or we can move on and shape what comes next. Yes, it carries huge risks. But it’s good that the National Council for Voluntary Organisations has started to turn our minds away from the result of the vote to the consequences and, dare I whisper it, the opportunities.

Can a replacement for the European Social Fund better target communities in need? Can employers be incentivised to invest in local people with poor skills and education who are a long way from the job market?

Others, such as the business, agriculture, university and defence lobbies, are at the door of Downing Street now. The voluntary sector cannot remain silent or we risk our issues and the concerns of society’s most marginalised being eclipsed.

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Those of us with national roles and influence must use our voices nationally, but we need to draw on the voices of 165,000 small local charities that touch the lives of millions daily. They are society’s mining canaries, singing sobering songs of reality on the ground in our communities, but they have the potential to shape solutions for Theresa May’s shared society in post-Brexit Britain.

Neither we, nor Philip Hammond, can afford their silence.

Paul Streets, chief executive of the Lloyds Bank Foundation for England & Wales.

How can small charity Chief Execs ‘face forward’ in 2017?

Sarah Mitchell, Chief Executive of Carers Network, a small charity funded by Lloyds Bank Foundation describes her journey from crisis to sustainability.

warning-146916_960_720When your internet’s gone down, your finance worker is off sick and the phone’s ringing off the hook – who has time to think about getting past the crisis and plan ahead? As charity CEOs in a fast-moving world the brutal truth is we just can’t afford to roll from crisis to crisis, we have to face up to the future before it’s upon us.

Carers Network is a small charity (with a turnover of less than £1m) supporting and advising unpaid carers across central London. We rely heavily on local authority contracts for our funding and we had no experience of fundraising from different sources.

When I joined the charity in 2014 we were hit by many of the same problems  small charities across the country face: problem suppliers, problem contracts and staff sickness. Everything was urgent. Over the years, I’ve witnessed other small charities responding to urgent demands until they were either subsidising their services from their reserves or veering away from their charitable aims.

The daily fight for survival means that small charities struggle to anticipate the changing needs of their beneficiaries and the changing environment they operate in.

Too often they get left by the wayside.

To prevent this happening to Carers Network, I reviewed what we did well and not so well, and crucially what our beneficiaries needed us to do. I then established a really practical three-year strategy-  it was a framework rather than a detailed plan, and it helped me, the trustees and our beneficiaries and staff, agree common priorities and a sense of a shared direction.

This strategy helped me identify new areas of work and development for our charity, including a merger with another local organisation. This both strengthened our service offer and provided a big cash injection into our free reserves.

Unrestricted funding like this is incredibly beneficial to small charities, it gave us the breathing space and flexibility to employ a fundraiser to kick off our first ever fundraising programme.

This meant we could experiment with and understand how different fundraising elements could work for us.

The strategy also helped me to prioritise work on measuring our impact. We secured funding from Big Lottery Fund’s Local Sustainability Fund which has transformed our approach, enabling us for the first time to capture the impact of our work.

Three years later and Carers Network has gone from strength to strength. I shared some of our progress at the launch of the Foundation’s report Facing Forward: How small charities can adapt to survive.

Reflecting on our journey, I can see how this report and the tools it presents would have been a really useful tool for any Chief Exec. So if you haven’t already, have a read and in the meantime here are my top tips for small charities who are ready to face forward in 2017:

Planning

Having a framework plan/strategy is essential. Facing Forward includes some great questions to ask and details planning and analysis tools to help assess organisational strengths and weaknesses.

Horizon-scanning

Lifting my head from the day to day responsibilities was crucial to our development. The prompt questions in the report could kick off discussions with trustees about possible opportunities and pitfalls ahead

Being open-minded

As CEOs we must be alive to new ways of delivering, to mergers and collaborations and to the clues in our beneficiaries’ behaviour. Listening and observing and being open minded about how to get the best for the people your charity supports is vital.

A sense of humour!

I always tell my team that if you don’t like change then the charity sector is not the place for you. They think I’m joking. But our work is all about change, change for the better, and it’s up to us to seek out new opportunities and to think positive for the sake of our teams and our beneficiaries. Having a thick skin and a good sense of humour is absolutely essential!

Sarah Mitchell - Chief Executive of Carers Network

Sarah Mitchell is Chief Executive of Carers Network.

You can follow her on twitter: @s_j_mitchell

Seven steps for sustaining #smallbutvital charities

Charlotte Ravenscroft, author of Facing Forward reflects on how charities can start the road to sustainability. 

I recently had the pleasure of launching Facing Forward: How small and medium-sized charities can adapt to survive, a new report commissioned by the Foundation.

Written as a practical, accessible resource to help pressurised, time poor CEOs or trustees of small charities plan for the future, it’s the culmination of several months of conversations with small charities and an in-depth understanding of the issues they face.

It feels timely to be focussing on sustainability, given there are so many uncertainties about the future. For me, sustainability doesn’t simply mean sustaining funding levels, it’s about sustaining our mission and the personal and collective energy the small charity sector brings to the table.

What really struck me through the conversations I had with small charity CEOs is the often-hidden toll that funding challenges are taking.

Although in some cases charities’ income may have held up, it is not uncommon to hear that their workload has doubled, that they no longer have any say in service design, or that staff are working many unpaid hours.

Despite these challenging times, small charity leaders are among the most inspirational, caring and dedicated people you will ever meet.

Michelle Hill and Sarah Mitchell, Chief Executives of TLC: Talk, Listen, Change and Carers Network respectively, shared detail of the very real challenges they’re facing on the frontline.

For government and funders grappling with the social challenges of our time, these ought to be exactly the kind of people they put resources behind, those who are making a big difference with only a small amount of support.

Of course, charities need to adapt and Facing Forward was written for you. It starts by drawing together analysis of external research and sets out ten trends that are likely to shape the future. But offers much more.

So here are the seven practical steps we’ve set out to support charity leaders – both CEOs and trustees – plan for the turbulent times ahead:

Seven steps for strong and sustainable charities

  1. Understanding sustainability

It’s natural that charities think firstly about sustaining their own services, but sustaining outcomes for your beneficiaries might sometimes mean considering a different path: campaigning, merger, or even closure. Everyone involved in your charity will have their own perspective on this, but it’s ultimately for trustees to decide its future.

  1. Make time for planning

A major Charity Commission review of charities in financial difficulty found planning ahead – including with staff and trustees – was the critical factor in charities’ survival. Too often, charities leave it too late and only seek help at the point they’ve run out of viable options.

  1. Assess your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats

Taking an honest look at your organisation (why are we here, what can we offer that others can’t?) will lay the groundwork for your plans. This can involve a simple SWOT analysis or you could use one of the free diagnostic tools highlighted in the report.

  1. Match income to activities

Ask most small charities and they prefer grant funding (ideally core funding). But with grants in short supply, a good starting point is to segment your organisation’s activities using NCVO’s Money/Mission Matrix. This will prompt you to consider which activities could potentially generate income in future and which truly require ongoing subsidy.

  1. Exploring income options

Armed with your self-assessment, you could then look to learn from other’s experiences of making different income streams successful. For example, how to get started with digital fundraising, or how to negotiate contracts. The report contains advice and links to resources that could help when exploring new income options.

  1. Digital capability

The future is here, the future is digital. Charities cannot afford to overlook the rapid pace of technological change and its implications for their clients and their own services. Start by looking at 12 digital questions, an excellent resource from Zoe Amar Communications and the Charity Commission.

  1. Sustaining ourselves

Back to where I began. Charities depend on the people who lead them. Supporting each other and ourselves is vital to future success; trustees need to be particularly mindful of this when putting more on the plates of already-stretched CEOs. A new book The Happy Healthy Nonprofit has great practical advice for charity leaders and Mind, the mental health charity has also produced guides on wellness at work.

For more tips and resources you can download the full report here.

We hope that you find this a useful starting point for your own ideas and keep us posted, we want to hear how you’re getting on @CharRavenscroft @lbfew #smallbutvital

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Charlotte Ravenscroft is Director of Evidential Consulting and former Head of Policy and Research at NCVO