Fundraising, Writing applications

Get your funding application to the top of the pile

Your funding application is a vital document in the fundraising process. Rachel Stephenson Sheff, Philanthropy & Fundraising Advisor at Lightful, gives you some valuable insight below.

Over the past six years as a fundraiser I have stuffed more than 4,000 funding application envelopes, written around 300 grant proposals and had so many strong coffees my hands are still shaking.

I am now a fundraising and philanthropy adviser, representing two philanthropists as a programme officer for their foundations, and I’m convinced this is the best fundraising training anyone can do. Envelopes, proposals and coffees are invaluable but going through applications to help clients decide where to put their money is a whole new ball game.

So from a fundraiser-turned-philanthropy adviser, here are a few tips to help get your charity to the top of that pile when applying for funds.

Be dynamic and bold in your storytelling

The American journalist Nicholas Kristof once wrote: “Any brand of toothpaste is peddled with far more sophistication than the life-saving work of aid groups,” and this is so tragically true. If you are able, spend time investing in your brand. Use colour. Tell stories and use technology to bring these stories to life. Infuse your words with energy. Programme officers like me browse countless websites and proposals and you want your work to catch their eye.

Tangibly describe what you do in one sentence

There are countless times where, after many minutes of scrolling a charity’s website, I still can’t articulate what it actually does. Too often, charities coat their activities in jargon using words such as “catalyse” and “empower”. Mission and vision statements are important, but they must be supported with a very clear, short explanation that outlines how they help.

Be specific about where you work

Blurring everything together into regions without listing exactly where you work sends the impression that your interventions are not bespoke to the communities you work in. If you work globally, list the countries. If you work nationally, list the cities. If you work municipally, list the boroughs. (Note: Africa is not a country.)

Illustrate your impact in a few grand totals

You need three numbers: how many people you have reached in total since your founding, how many people you have reached in the past year and how many people you plan to reach in the next year. If your work is not easily quantifiable, do so in whatever way is most appropriate.

Make sure what you’re asking for can be easily summarised

Most donor decision-makers read summaries prepared by a junior staff member or an external adviser before deciding to invest time in reading the full materials. So make it as easy as possible for this person to present you in the best light. Imagine an excel sheet with who, what, where, when and why columns, and have sentences that can be easily copied and pasted (or easily amended) to fit neatly into these.

Take beautiful pictures

Those with vibrant, optimistic, action-oriented pictures really stand out because they illustrate what success looks like, which provides context and incentive for a donor’s support. Plus you’re more likely to be featured in a donor’s annual report if they can use your visual storytelling.

List your donors clearly on your website

Somewhere on your website (unless they prefer to remain anonymous), clearly state who is funding you. It will show you are a stewardship expert and proud recipient. Donors always like to give to causes that already have support behind them because it’s a less risky investment and closing a gap is fantastic fundraising leverage. Clearly listing supporters is especially important with corporate funders.

When I was an in-house fundraiser, I knew most of these things, but spent more energy thinking about high-level strategy, rather than common sense. Because fundraisers and grant makers often don’t actually talk to one another, applicants can be left in the dark of automatic submission portals and are nervous about asking questions. While it’s commonly understood that people give to people, grant making is too often approached as a transaction, rather than a partnership.
These tips may seem like details, but they truly can make or break an “ask”. Please don’t let them get in the way of securing the funding you need to support your visionary work. What you do is too important.


This article originally appeared on the Guardian website here.