Unsuccessful applications

It’s very rewarding to be able to contact great organisations to tell them that their funding proposal has been approved, but this remains the exception to the rule. More often than not, it’s my job to write to applicants and explain why we aren’t able to fund their work. Receiving an average of one application per working day and awarding just a fraction of that in numbers of grants, the chances of us approving a given proposal are relatively low. So what are (some) of the reasons we turn down applications?

  • Inconsistent, poor programme design: Probably the most common reason for turning down applicants, this can be highly subjective – one person’s inconsistent programme might be another’s high-risk, innovative approach. And inconsistencies can be masked by slick presentation, while genuinely innovative work may suffer if the applicant cannot express it well enough. As a funder, though, our job is to interrogate the claims made in a proposal and to examine the project design for strengths and weaknesses and to probe them by looking at assumptions, evidence, experience and logic to see if the proposal holds together and is based on credible intelligence – like a dull detective, really.
  • Ineligible country, sector or budget: We fund tech-driven transparency and accountability work in sub-Saharan Africa and with small grants between £10,000 and £15,000. Yet we still get proposals for £1m to support agricultural projects in India or building schools in Kazakhstan. Unfortunately, as a small funder with limited funds we can’t support all causes, no matter how deserving they may be – that’s why we have particular geographic and sectoral areas of interest and things that fall outside of those don’t get through.
  • Unrealistic expectations: While the purpose of a proposal is to sell your work and stir particular emotions among the person reading it, a good proposal does this in a realistic way. All too often we receive proposals that plan to transform the world on a budget of just over £10,000. It’s okay to shoot for the stars, but only so long as you keep your feet on the ground. Be realistic about how much things cost, how many people you can reach and what your likely impact will be – we will be much more likely to take your proposal seriously if you are realistic and honest.
  • Lack of experience: Charities, social organisations and others are in a tough position – often dependent upon charitable funding to ensure their survival, they are caught in a continuous cycle of needing to raise money to keep the lights on and deliver their services. And many good charities fail to do this, while a not inconsiderable number of less-than-stellar groups are able to effectively convince funders that they’re better than they really are. Some charities, meanwhile, try to sell themselves to as wide a pool of donors as possible by promising all things to all people. While charities can and do evolve and add new strings to their bows, I am wary of organisations that deliver many kinds of services and start running tech-driven transparency and accountability projects when they discover that’s what we fund. Experience is no silver bullet for effective transparency and accountability work, but it is something we look for. When organisations have little experience combined with limited understanding, alarm bells start ringing.
  • Bogus applicants: Fraud, obtaining money by deception, simple thievery – call it what you will, but bogus applications are part and parcel of a funder’s day. Often they are easy to ferret out – strange email addresses, organisations no one can verify, scant knowledge of the sector… Sometimes, they are more sophisticated and less easily detectable, but keeping an eye out for them is critical.

We aim to provide personalised feedback on all the proposals we decline, but doing so takes time and it is not always possible to be as detailed as we would like. And sometimes we have to say no to some very capable and dedicated organisations because they don’t fit our criteria or work in the ‘right’ part of the world. But saying ‘no’ is part of being a responsible funder and sharing some of the most common reasons we say no only seems right.