Ever submitted an application that you thought was really good? One that met all the grant funder’s criteria and, you believed, told a powerful, compelling story?
One that was both the above, but didn’t get funded?
It used to happen to me and its probably happened to you too. Chances are you failed to answer one of these 3 questions well enough:
- Who are you?
- What’s the need?
- What’s your approach or project?
Every grant funder asks these 3 questions. But from my experience of reviewing failed bids I’d estimate that less than 20% actually answer these questions in the right way.
In this article I’m going to explain how to answer each in a way that gets under it’s skin and explains to funders what they most want to know. That way when you write your next bid you’ll be more confident about what to say.
1. “How reliable is your organisation?”
Do you seem able and reliable? Can your organisation be trusted to deliver the outcomes you will promise later on?
These are some of the unspoken questions in your funders head when they ask the question ‘Who are you?’.
They want to know about your values, capacity, track record and people for sure. But most of all they want to know if you can be trusted to deliver.
That’s why some funders like to repeat fund organisations they are familiar with. Because they know they can be relied upon.
But what if you’re not already known to them? To show you’re trustworthy your answer needs to include your best:
- Examples of past success – what were your aims and objectives, and what did you achieve? Describe the measurable outputs and outcomes.
- Comments and feedback from trusted sources – exactly what did they say about you (try and avoid generic sounding quotes).
- Examples of awards received – what did you win? Why did you win it?
- Stories of how you went the extra mile to make sure you made a difference to someone – tell the story as succinctly as possible.
- How you’ve overcome challenges or problems through being smart and innovative – describe an example that shows you can think outside the box.
- Examples of other funders who’ve trusted you – how many similar grants have you held and what did funders say about your work?
Don’t just explain what you do. Instead, show that you can be relied upon to deliver on your promise.
2. “Why does the need remain unmet?”
Do you understand the issues underlying the need you describe? Do you understand why other approaches have failed to solve the problem?
These are some of the questions you need to answer when your grant funder asks you to ‘Describe the need or problem’.
Its not enough to only describe the problem or need. You must separate out the problem and its underlying issues, and then show your understanding and insight.
Otherwise your approach will seem like a poorly applied sticking plaster to the problem.
How can it work if you don’t understand the day-to-day life of your beneficiaries? You need to understand the experiences and frustrations that come together to cause their problems.
Separate problems and issues
When you describe the need in your application form, separate out the problems and the issues. For example:
“The problem: young people in deprived areas have 27% more mental health problems than young people in more affluent areas. We need to tackle these.
The issues: negative role models, lack of positive opportunities, inadequate youth support services, lack of resourcefulness (for example).”
When you’ve done that go on to describe:
- Why do these issues resist solutions?
- What makes them thorny?
- How have other approaches tried to tackle them?
- What have other approaches failed to understand about those issues, but that you have?
- How will this understanding make your approach more successful (give a hint to your approach but don’t jump ahead too much!)
To make your answer more vivid describe what its like to be a beneficiary, experiencing the issues in their day-to-day life. For a gold star you could also describe what’s likely to happen to them (and others) if the need doesn’t get met.
3. “Why will your approach work?”
How do you know this approach will work? Why is it the right approach in this context? What is the evidence that it will both reach your users and tackle their needs? What are the potential roadblocks and how will you overcome them?
Every grant funder has known projects that failed. Though its likely to happen again they’ll be doing their damnedest to minimise how often it does with their money.
So when they ask you to ‘Describe your project or approach to tackling the need’ what they really want to know is why it will work.
Describing your approach is usually fairly straightforward. It’s a series of objectives, activities and methods. The slightly more complex part is explaining why; weaving into your description a rock solid rationale for the way you’ll do it. This will be easier if you already have a robust theory of change.
That rationale involves describing how your approach is informed by:
- Empathy: an understanding of the underlying issues and everyday lives of your beneficiaries
- Creativity or innovation: rethinking or redesigning ineffective methods
- Previous experience: what you’ve done before that worked or didn’t
- Other’s good practice: don’t be afraid to copy. Genius steals.
Show, don’t tell (again)
And because you’ve got to show, rather than tell, here are some specific things you could show in your answer:
- A deep understanding of your service user’s needs and behaviours, informed by robust user research. Show the research findings.
- Evidence of the approach being effective in similar situations. State the evidence.
- A design-based approach, using design thinking tools. Show why these tools are effective
- Involvement of beneficiaries in co-designing the approach. Evidence the outputs of your completed co-design work.
- A robust approach to using data and evidence to fine tune your methodology as the project develops. Show how you’ll do this.
For the win…
For the win consider how your approach might include an element of risk reduction or reversal. Outline how the project might fail then explain your approach to mitigating those risks.
Hint: if you’re struggling to explain why your approach will work then either:
- You don’t understand the issues enough and this is making it difficult to ground your rationale within your answer to the need/problem question
- Your approach is misplaced and unlikely to succeed
If either of these is the case then STOP! Don’t go any further until you’ve reviewed what you know about the need and your approach is clear. Otherwise you’ll be wasting your time.
What will you do in your next bid?
Are you thinking about how you might answer these questions in your next bid? It’s not easy to do at first, but it makes a difference. If you’re serious about winning funding then make sure you tackle them.
Click here to read 7 smart ways to improve your next bid.