This blog should help you write better funding applications; how we chose who would take part in the Crowdfunding Challenge

Over the summer we invited organisations to apply to take part in a Crowdfunding Challenge, where they’ll raise money for their projects, with a lot of support along the way and a financial prize at the end for the most successful. Now it is underway, I’ve a chance to draw breath and look back at the applications and what further learning I can pass on from them.

You might have seen my earlier blog where I went through a few things applicants were regularly doing wrong, in an attempt to sort out the easy-to-fix problems I was noticing. Maybe it worked. We got a lot of very good applications. We got EIGHTY THREE of the ruddy things (sorry, I mean wonderful things). And they were very hard to shortlist. So, here’s what we did, and how it translated into marks and eventual shortlisting – hopefully it will help you to think about what funders or donors are really looking for.

As a panel we had a mark scheme, which was split into two sections. The first was for long-listing and was drawn from the information we’d given on the webpage and application form about the type of organisation and project we were looking for. We aimed to pull out quickly those applications that were obviously strong contenders. We were all time-strapped so we really hoped this would be a relatively quick process.

It was not quick. A lot of organisations seemed to have totally failed to think about that key step in application writing – second-guessing the mark scheme. Those who had, generally sailed through with high marks. Those who had not left us reading and re-reading the application looking for information, taking up our time, putting us in a bad mood and generally spoiling our impression of what, in many cases, were really fantastic sounding projects.

Learning #1 – whoever is marking your application is likely to be reading a lot of them and will be short on time. Keep it short, keep it well laid out. Punctuation is a wonderful thing.
Learning #2 – there is more than likely going to be a mark-scheme – use the information given with the application form, as well as the form itself, to work out what it could be before you start writing.

So see if can see how the process works. Here’s a snap-shot of the application page (taken just after the closing date) and here is the application form. Look at them both and see if you can pull out five or ten things that we’re likely to have on our mark-scheme.

 

 

(This blank space is to hide the spoilers…don’t scroll down just yet if you want to try working out the mark scheme yourself)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Crowdfunding Challenge mark-scheme:

1. * Organisation meets criteria for applying (e.g. has a social purpose, based in England, application form complete) 2. * Project description – likely suitability for crowdfunding (especially distinct project, easily described)

Any organisation that didn’t meet 1 or 2 was disqualified immediately. And it turned out that 2 took out a depressing number of applications. If we couldn’t work out what distinct thing you wanted to use crowdfunding to raise money for, then it didn’t matter about the rest of the application, this wasn’t going to work. The best applications illustrated their projects beautifully, perhaps including a photograph or a testimonial to convince the panel that this was the sort of thing that could be made attractive to the world at large via a crowdfunding platform. Descriptions were succinct – we could read it quickly and understand exactly what the project was going to do, how and why it was important. The very best ones we got excited about. We actually stopped getting annoyed that we were only on application 36 out of 83 and maybe paused to tell the person at the next desk about the project (I did this quite a lot it is fair to say. I am somewhat distracting in the office!)

Learning #3 – make sure you’re answering the question. And do it clearly. Learning #4 – if an application needs you to convey an emotion, inject that into your writing (We were looking for excitement and enthusiasm. Other applications might need you to prioritise professionalism, competence or reliability, for example)

3. Impacts (SMART?)

This scuppered so many. We needed impacts that could be communicated to people you’d be reaching through crowdfunding. We did not need dry outcomes. We did not need a lot of vague, non-evidenced words like ‘unique’ and ‘essential’, unless they were uttered by a case-study who’d experienced your work. Case-studies are great for bringing projects to life. As do a couple of powerful statistics. Or maybe you can’t evidence what the impact will be yet (because you are so new/unique) but how will you in the future? How will you tell the people who fund your project what it has achieved?

SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely by the way, it’s a common shorthand for ‘backed-up’ and ‘grounded’. If you’re not sure how to tell your outputs and impacts apart we’ve just launched an ‘Introduction to Sustainable Funding’ Studyzone course where I’ll take you through it (I know, I look awful on the film…I will remember to smile more if I do one again!)

Learning #5: So What? Have you said why your work needs doing – what will it achieve? What’s the point?

4. Fundraising target justified?

This is about understanding your costs and showing us that. The project is supposed to be a real thing, with real costs that you need to cover in order to make it happen. The number of seemingly random figures that were put in applications was amazing. The best applications showed us two things: a) that the figure was real and costed (maybe broken down into milestones – perfect for crowdfunding) and b) the figure was realistic for this challenge. Do you believe an organisation can raise £100k in 60 days when they’ve never fundraised from gifts before? Or even £30k? No, most of the time neither did we. (By the way, £30k was the most common amount we saw on applications. The £30k figure became a red flag for an application that was maybe just a routine hammered-out funding-bid. Beware putting bids in for the maximum amount mentioned in guidance!)

Learning #6: Provide some evidence for why you’re asking for that amount. (Again, the Studyzone course explains Full Cost Recovery if you’ve not encountered this before). Maybe get someone to sense-check your application before you send it.

5. Plan/ideas for using crowdfunding to achieve target? (Do we believe they can reach target amount?)

And the fundraising plan! Oh now this actually had me scribbling expletives in the margins. Some really truly beautiful projects went totally of the rails here. We needed you to show us that you’d looked into crowdfunding, that you understood what it was about and had begun to think of how your organisation would use it. We didn’t expect you to have all the answers, but just to have done some research and a bit of thinking. And there was a large word limit on the application form – which rather indicated this might be an important question.

Learning #7: Remember in school when they used to say it’s not all about the final answer but about showing your workings out? Show the person marking your application what the thinking is behind your proposal.

How could you have second guessed our mark-scheme here? Well a number of times we mentioned that we were looking for your enthusiasm and willingness to learn new things. Or how about the specific bullet point ‘And do you have some ideas about how you could engage your supporters or community to donate?’

6. Organisation description – how well have they communicated who they are?

This was the one thing on the criteria that could have been a bit tricky to guess. Because we weren’t actually judging how worthy you were – beyond checking that you fitted the requirement to have a social purpose. We were looking at your communication skills. Successful applicants needed to be able to sell themselves when crowdfunding. They needed to be able to describe quickly and clearly why someone should believe in and donate to their organisation. Some did this fantastically – you could hear the passion in what they’d written, you knew who they were, why they existed and what they achieved or hoped to achieve. Others cut and pasted from a dry grant funding application or used the space to drop in anything else they could possibly tell us about all the different bits and bobs they were working on, where and with whom. Some just put a cursory statement of existence. Some we couldn’t understand. You can guess who was more likely to be shortlisted.

Learning #8 Your organisation description should be the most powerful couple of paragraphs you’ve written. But keep it appropriate to the type of application (we marked ‘genuine’ much higher than ‘polished’)

And to the final ten

Then once we had our longlist, we looked in more detail at some further criteria to whittle them down to the final ten (and we did get back to people to ask more questions). Mostly this boiled down to who was going to be the most successful at the challenge (by which we meant ‘learn and develop the most’ as well as ‘crowdfund successfully’). We have some support in place to help organisations to learn and develop, so some applications that had been relatively weak on one or other of the areas, but we were confident they’d improve quickly with our support were successful. And our final consideration was to get a good mix of organisations as we were hoping to get a range of experiences of crowdfunding. Sometimes the really narrow-squeak decisions were because we had applications from two organisations who were very similar on paper, raising money for similar types of projects. In which case I can only say sorry…

Learning #9: Sometimes you do everything right, but it’s just bad luck!

So, now you’ve read my run through of what it was like being a panellist, take a look at our final ten projects and their crowdfunding pages. Really do, they are fantastic and will brighten your day. Maybe donate to a couple while you’re there!

Rosaline

Helpful links

This was a bit of a monster-length blog post, but I think it’s all useful stuff so have kept it in. Well done if you’ve reached the end!

Here’s the link to the StudyZone course again – it’s the first one NCVO’s Sustainable Funding team has done, and aims to cover the basics to allow people to access our more advanced resources.

If you’d like to come and meet all the Crowdfunding Challenge participants and pick their brains about their experiences, then come to our Sustainable Funding Conference in November where we’ll all be running a workshop about the challenge and announcing the winner.

And finally, in case you’ve been side-tracked, go and look at the projects!

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Rosaline Jenkins Ros is NCVO's lead in Sustainable Funding, promoting a more sustainable, suitable and strategic approach to generating income of all kinds - donations, grants, contracts and trading. @RosJTweets

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