"The Persistence of Application Forms" by Emma Beeston

May 22, 2017

"Application forms are a long-standing part of life. We apply to do a course, to join a club, to take out a loan, to get a job. They are also the commonest tool used to seek funding. There are alternative methods:

o Letters – equivalent to a CV and cover letter, some funders ask applicants to make their case for support in a letter. They may make suggestions as to length and content, but it is left up to the applicant what to include and how to structure the letter.
o Pitches – these are used in live crowdfunding events like the Soup movement and The Funding Network but there are also some funding events trialing this approach. It brings storytelling and emotional engagement to the fore as you appeal directly to an audience and appeal to them for funds.
o Films – like a pitch, but captured in a short film and not in person. Appeal films are more often used in social media campaigns but are sometimes requested by funders as part of the application process. It is a way to clearly demonstrate what you do, visually and in just a few minutes.
o Platforms – there are several models where charities put forward their details and wishes for interested funders and donors to select. This can be just as a nominated charity for the local co-op branch or one of several hundred on Localgiving, the Big Give or the Good Exchange.

So with all these alternatives why does the application form persist?

It is easier to process – it is in date at the point of a decision (unlike platforms); it consistently gathers everything that is needed for a decision (unlike letters); everyone provides the same information which can be imported and analysed in databases; it includes a signature so can be a declaration of truth and accuracy as well as permission to store data and take up references.

It supports fairness – gathering the same information in a uniform format makes it clear what information is wanted and makes it easier to make comparisons and judgements based on evidence. Inviting applications means you are open to groups you don’t yet know about. It is not just about who can tell a good story or present well. And although they do take time to do well, they probably take less time than making a film or being present for a pitch, so are more accessible for those on limited resources.

There are still things that funders can do to improve the application process. For example, only asking for information that will definitely be used; not asking for documents that are already on the charity commission website; being very clear what information is being sought and why. And an eye also needs to be kept on whether the alternative approaches become better for user-led or smaller groups, or ease the burden on fundraisers and applicants. But in the meantime, it looks as if application forms, for good reason, are here to stay." 

Have you got any examples of particularly good or bad application forms or processes? Here at GRIN, we think the BIG Lottery has one of the best (Awards for All) and worst (Reaching Communities Buildings - fortunately closed now) application processes, while the South West Foundation has been among the best client-focussed grant-makers over many years. Let us know if there's any you'd recommend (or advise approaching with caution or even avoiding!) by

Emma Beeston Consultancyadvises funders and philanthropists on giving strategies and processes; selecting causes and charities; assessments and impact monitoring. Services for charities include external perception reviews; bid reviews; training for fundraisers and non-fundraisers involved in bids. For more details visit Emma's website or