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20 Feb 2014

Unveiling Transition Network’s new Funding Primer!

Funding Primer

Today Transition Network launches the first version of our Funding Primer (“Tips, suggestions and advice for getting your Transition group’s projects funded”).  We hope you find it useful. Originally developed for the Transition Thrive training, it offers an overview of approaches and options for Transition initiatives seeking funding for their work.  On the date of its publication we thought it would be useful to catch up with Nicola Hillary, Transition Network’s Funding Manager and author of the Primer, to hear her advice on funding, how best to approach that all important funding application form and what it is that funders are REALLY looking for.  

A good place to start is with this podcast of last week’s first ‘Transition Conversations’ webinar, “Getting Ready to Fundraise”, featuring Nicola alongside Tina Clarke, which gives a great grounding and foundation around funding.  

Nicola, what’s your sense of what a Transition initiative should have in place before it should consider submitting funding applications?  

Nicola Hillary

If you want to apply to charitable trusts, lottery or any kind of “grant scheme” you will need to be a formally constituted organisation.  For the majority of charitable trusts, you can’t apply unless you are a registered charity.  However there are some which will accept applications from other types of non-profit organisation, as will the lottery, and other grant schemes such as the Co-operative Community Fund. 

If you are going for community fundraising, the form of your constitution – if any – is much less important.  Your track record is really important to a funder, both in achievements and in financial records.  So if you don’t already, start getting annual sets of accounts.  And have ready at your fingertips lists of your work and achievements, feedback and other evidence of the difference you have made.  

There are some more subtle things your group should think about beforehand too – as soon as money comes into the equation there are interesting decisions about who gets paid, priorities for expenditure.  It would be very helpful to talk these things through beforehand, be open and clear about how the group is going to make these decisions both fairly and effectively.  A session where people can speak freely about their feelings, positive and negative, about the changes funding would bring, would be helpful.   

In the Funding Primer you suggest a ‘Best Bet First’ approach when identifying who to apply to for funding.  What do you mean by that?   

You’ve got limited time and you need to tailor each application to the specific funder; so you have to make a choice who to apply to first, and therefore its got to be the “best bet”, the one most likely to give you the most funding.  This is a combination of how well you meet the criteria, the level of competition, the amount of funding on offer… and it is a subjective judgement.  

I would regard the level of competition as really important here – so Awards for All is going to give you reasonable chances of success, whereas Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, even though what you do is a closer fit with their criteria, is very highly competitive and therefore not the most likely to give you funding.  A charitable trust or grant scheme that funds only your local area is going to be less competitive, it just won’t have so many people applying; so it is a good bet, even if it is only low amounts on offer.   

Of course if you find the holy grail of a funder whose criteria feel like you wrote them yourself AND they fund large amounts of money AND they will be making so many grants that everyone has a reasonable chance – drop everything and apply at once!  

The temptation may be to rush in to large funding bids, but you argue that there are advantages to the smaller fundraising approaches, promises auctions, parties, that kind of thing.  Why?    

Funding Primer coverI once tried to help a relatively new group with fundraising – they were convinced that there was almost no point in doing their project if they couldn’t set off with a £100,000 budget.  It was very hard to persuade them to think about starting much, much smaller.  But the work was urgent and the world needed changing quickly.  Of course, with virtually no official track record as an organisation, there was no funder anywhere who was going to fund an application for tens of thousands of pounds.   

Imagine if they had been open to making an application for £1,000?  Despite their impatience, I think it would have been transformational.  It would have been a real budget, not a pipe-dream.  There would have been some worthwhile piece of work that this would have made happen.  It would start to build their track record.  It would “buy time” while they applied for the next £1,000 or £2,000.  It could have acted as match-funding to help in the next application.  It would give them a relationship with a funder who might have been open to a second application.  The project may have actually got off the ground – slower and smaller-scale than they wished, but with a chance of future growth.  

Pitching the amount you ask for is always tricky.  But bear in mind that it is much much easier for funders to say yes to lower amounts.  Community fundraising approaches are really useful because they usually combine well with an awareness-raising or community-engagement activity, and your chances of gaining some money are good odds!  And you won’t have any restrictions on how you spend the money and won’t have to write a report once you’ve spent it.  

What are the dangers of bringing funding into a Transition group?  Is there a risk that it will change the relationships of what had been a volunteer-based group in unexpected ways?   

If the funding is to pay someone, then there are some negative feelings that could arise.  For example some people might think “is there any point me volunteering any more if someone is being paid”  or  “will my voluntary effort be respected any more”  or  “I’ve put blood sweat and tears into setting this up and now someone else is going to get money out of it” many many interesting feelings… 

Of course the whole point is the positive angle, that someone paid will have the time and energy to potentially increase the number of volunteers helping out, and an “original” volunteer may be freed from some of the work they were carrying and therefore avoid burn-out, and be able to concentrate on enjoyable aspects…  Most important here is to find a session, process or discussion that will help people work through their feelings about the change; and work through the key aspects of how to make agreements, fair decisions and expectations.  


It’s also worth thinking through what would happen if something goes wrong in spending the funding – for example what will happen if a paid person doesn’t do what they are meant to be doing?  A group needs to think through who is going to provide direction and checks, or a light system to follow.  

It’s also worth thinking about “exit strategy”.  The funding will come to an end.  Then there will be another period of change.  Will people need to step up their volunteer input again?  Will there be disempowering feelings of disappointment that the time of paid energy going into the Transition initiative is over?  Is there an expectation of continuing fundraising effort for the work or not? 

What are the ingredients of a successful funding application?   

Think back to your school exam days, I’m afraid the principle is the same.  Answer the question that the funder has asked, not the question that you want to answer!   

Focus your needs: You should be clear about the needs you are meeting, and the real effect this is going to have in the world.  Try at all times to see it from the funder’s eyes, rather than from your own.  So you may think “we need a minibus!”.  That’s the internal organisation way to see it.  From the outside, funder view, you actually need a way to ensure that disadvantaged people can make it to your work-site, where they will be increasing the biodiversity of the site.  

  • Consistency and clarity: make sure you haven’t contradicted yourself in the application, it’s surprisingly easy to do, especially if your arguments aren’t as clear and logical as you can make them.   
  • Always be positive:  it is easy to be too frank about shortcomings or weaknesses of your group, or some aspect of the work you’ve done.  Try your utmost not to focus on negative aspects, and if you have to mention them, frame it in the most positive way possible.  These things may loom large for you, but be virtually irrelevant to the “outside” viewer.  If you do make any negative statements you can be sure they will leap out at a funder, and not in a good way. 
  • Get your numbers right: adding the budget up properly is handy too, and a potentially costly mistake – last minute changes don’t always filter through to the bottom line.  (I’ve been there – ouch!)  Get someone who isn’t cross-eyed with re-editing the application to do a final check with a calculator just before you send it!  

Some may imagine that a funder is sat there with a pile of money, reluctant to part with it, and that our role is to somehow coax some cash from them.  Can you give readers a sense of how it actually looks from the perspective of the funder?  What are they looking for?   

Funders are always “oversubscribed” with applications.  If a funder receives 10 applications and funds 1 – that is actually good odds.  Most of your chances will be worse than 1 in 10.  Most funders are looking for:

  • Something that REALLY 100% fits with the criteria about what they want to fund.
  • Something innovative and a new approach (find a way to package what you are doing so that it IS innovative or new)
  • Confidence in your competence as an organisation (track record is very important)
  • Often, work that helps disadvantaged groups
  • Often, something that will be transferable or replicable if it works

For larger funding bids, partnerships are often essential.  Do you have any advice as to how to ensure that partnerships are successful?  

Yes, and not only for larger funding bids.  If you are not a registered charity, and you want to apply to a trust or foundation which only funds charities, then one way is to partner with an existing charity.  This is not always straightforward, as the charity may wish to apply to that funder for their own work instead.  But, if you can work out a genuine partnership project, or there really is no conflict with the charity’s own fundraising, then this can work well.  

We have heard of cases where partnerships have not worked so well, because basically, a funder always has a contract with one organisation only.  It may be a partnership project but the application comes to the funder from one organisation.  This is the lead partner and they do have the final say about what goes in the application and the budget, and how the project proceeds.  

Partnerships is a large subject all of its own!  But some things that help are:

  • Good communications – easier said than done.
  • A situation where the partners are roughly speaking, benefiting fairly equally, even if they are different sorts of benefits.  If this is not the case then there will be differing levels of motivation to make the project work, which could result in one partner having to push the other one to take action all the time, or having no power over changes.
  • Having an enthusiastic and influential “champion” for your work, within the partner organisation.

 The Transition Network Funding Primer can be downloaded here.