“11 Steps Funders can take to Reduce Ineligible Applications” by Emma Beeston

Each month in our daily grants bulletin we feature insightful and thought provoking blogs by Emma Beeston of the Emma Beeston Consultancy and Sarah Taragon and Steve Woollett of Clarity CIC.

We’re breaking slightly from tradition this month to publish Emma’s latest blog on our website so that a wider audience can see the standard of writing Emma, Sarah and Steve produce every month without fail.

Emma’s blog for November is entitled:

11 Steps Funders can take to Reduce Ineligible Applications

“When conducting grant assessments recently it has saddened me to read through significant numbers of applications that have not met the basic criteria and so have no chance of being funded. Not only will the organisation receive the bad news that they won’t get much needed funds, but they have also wasted precious time. This is a huge cost at a point when the sector is under the immense pressures of reduced funding and increased demand. Applicants not reading and following the grant guidelines has been a long-standing gripe for grant makers. It is the top reason applications fail and why funding websites and grant officers try hard to direct applicants to read the full guidance before applying.

It is easy to bemoan the fundraisers for being at fault in not reading and following guidelines. Perhaps we can think of them as lazy, inexperienced, over-confident or ‘taking a punt’. Whilst this may be true for a few individuals, it is a very unfair characterisation of the whole fundraising profession. Making it about fundraiser’s failings stops the funder from taking responsibility for their part in this process. Funders need to shift their mindset from blaming applicants to taking responsibility for their role and decide to take steps to improve.

Time wasted is impact lost

In ACF’s stronger foundations initiative one of the funding practice pillars is that a good funder “seeks to avoid causing harm”. So, the first step is for funders to acknowledge there is a problem with the harm that not following guidelines causes. The classic statistic on the wastefulness of the funding process comes from the Directory of Social Change’s survey which estimated that ineligible applications made to the largest UK trusts in 2010 equated to seven years of wasted effort. Another depressingly striking figure from a 2013 study found that scientists in Australia wasted the equivalent of four centuries of effort in preparing unsuccessful research-grant proposals for consideration by just one funding scheme in 2012. Peak Grant-making’s reportStrategies for narrowing the power gap in philanthropystates:

Time is money. In the non-profit sector, time is also capacity. When you reduce the amount of time your grant-seekers and grantees spend applying for and reporting on grants, you build their capacity to do what they exist to do—make an impact.”

Funders, who are committed to the sector and impact, therefore have a responsibility to act to minimise this harm.

Why don’t we read or follow guidelines?

In order to do this, it helps if funders understand what can go wrong when people are asked to follow instructions. Logically, we would expect this to be a simple task: read the text and then do what it says. So why do people fail to read the guidelines or, why do they go ahead with an application when they know they do not fit the criteria? Recent research from the University of North Carolina investigated a number of factors that influence our ability to follow instructions:

  • Working memory – the amount of information provided can be greater than our capacity to hold it in our head, especially when stressed.
  • History effects – if people don’t receive feedback or consequences there is no incentive to change their approach.
  • Self-regulation – if people are aware of their own behaviour and monitor their progress when carrying out a task, they take steps to ensure that they are keeping on track.
  • Format – the ordering of instructions and whether they are written or verbal matters.

11 steps

Because everyone will benefit if we can increase the rate with which guidelines are read and followed and time wasted on ineligible applications is reduced, here are 11 practical steps that funders can take to increase the chance that fundraisers read and follow their guidelines:

  1. Review criteria and guidelines

IVAR’s Duty to Care? report recommends that funders go systematically through their processes and question the purpose and value of everything. Looking at the guidelines with fresh eyes and asking why (e.g. why don’t we fund CICs, or minibuses?) is a good way of identifying anything that is not essential. Anything removed will help fundraisers spot and retain the key information, especially when they are under pressure and stressed.

  1. Articulate clearly

Joel Orosz, Distinguished Professor of Philanthropic Studies at Johnson Center for Philanthropy, published the grant-seeker’s bill of rights in 2010. Number one is “the right to receive a clear statement of the foundation’s funding interests”. As is expected of fundraisers, the writing should be as concise and jargon-free as possible.

  1. Be explicit

Funders can be reluctant to give up their flexibility and so can keep their guidelines ambiguous to allow for discretion. Every effort should be made by funders to resist this temptation as the consequence is speculative applications. Funders need to be as open as possible and convey all the factors taken into account when making funding decisions. For example, if asking for a ‘track record’, the funder should be explicit about how they interpret this e.g. at least one year working with the client group.

  1. Pay attention to order

As the research above found, the ordering of the guidelines is important. Funders should put the key criteria first. These can be flagged in the same way that ‘essential’ and ‘desirable’ aspects are for job applicants so that it is clear that fundraisers should not bother applying if they don’t meet the essential list.

  1. Use checklists

Checklists help with self-regulation – encouraging us to double check ourselves. They provide reassurance for less experienced fundraisers and serve as a useful reminder to experienced fundraisers who may be tempted to think they already know what is being asked for.

  1. Add a verbal element

Listening requires less effort than reading. Providing instructions verbally can act as a quick way for a fundraiser to decide whether or not to invest their time in reading the full guidelines. Offering conversations with all applicants can be resource-heavy but a webinar or short film explaining what the funder is looking for is a good investment.

  1. Give feedback

If fundraisers don’t know there is a negative consequence if they don’t read or follow guidelines, then how can they alter their practice? All funders should give feedback to all unsuccessful applicants and spell out when published criteria have been missed.

  1. Publish success rates

People are more likely to follow the guidelines when they understand the consequences. Funders can make the consequences of not reading the guidelines clear by publishing application success rates and the number of ineligible applications received.

  1. Involve applicants and grantees

Funders should regularly ask for, and act upon, feedback on their guidelines. Care should be taken to acknowledge the time spent by applicants to do this and the power dynamics that can get in the way of an honest exchange.

  1. Do what they say

We are less likely to follow guidelines if we don’t think they will be applied. If fundraisers find out an organisation that was outside the published guidelines was awarded a grant, then it is worth their while ‘taking a punt’. Funders need to follow their own criteria and apply them consistently to ensure fairness.

  1. Learn and improve

Funders need to review grant decisions against the guidelines to ensure the published information remains an accurate reflection of actual practice. Changes in success rates – especially ineligibility – can be monitored to track progress.”

Image: Emma Beeston of the Emma Beeston Consultancy.
Emma provides strategic advice to new philanthropists and existing Foundations.
One of only a handful of independent philanthropy advisers in the UK, Emma
established her consultancy in 2015 to combine her practical expertise and
thought leadership. Emma co-created the Advising Donors module for the
university of Kent’s Masters degree in Philanthropic Giving and is co-founder
of the Bath Women’s Fund
(Facebook link).