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Relevant Writing

By Hugh Raven, John Ellerman Foundation, 16th January 2017

It troubles me when I hear grant-making colleagues comment that the worst applications they receive are from environmental NGOs. Arts ones are generally better, though suffer from arts-speak; health can be over-technical. Education bids need to show the applicant is well educated. Social welfare applications vary, as you might expect. Occasionally an environment application is very good. Far more often, it isn’t. It pains me, as an environmentalist, to admit we often don’t show ourselves at our best.

So I thought I’d suggest some tips – Raven’s Rules for Relevant Writing, if you will. I hope you find them useful – and if you have comments, please post them below.

1. Read the guidelines.
Don’t waste your time, or the readers’, with applications to organisations that have already said – albeit implicitly – they won’t fund you. Check the website too, and see what else they fund. If the guidelines rule out unsolicited appeals, save your energy and don’t send one. Likewise capital projects. If the foundation only supports work at a national scale, don’t submit for routine work on a county basis. London is London – it isn’t England, still less the UK. Interpretations of ‘national’ will vary, but if in doubt, address and explain it in your application. Read the preferences and exclusions in detail: they will not have been dreamt up overnight, and will be carefully crafted to save potential applicants time.

2. Be clear about what you want to achieve.
Most foundations these days obsess about outcomes, and many think hard about what that actually means, and how it can be measured. I’m guessing very few have cracked it, but they will want to know that you’re thinking about it too. More workshops on climate change is not an outcome. An outcome is lower carbon emissions and energy bills.

Some things are very hard to measure – changing public opinion, for example, is notoriously difficult to prove. But you can at least show you’ve tried your best.

3. Take care how you write it.
If you don’t know the difference between principals and principles, they’re and their, don’t presume that your readers won’t either. They probably will. Look it up. Don’t use jargon. Avoid basic errors. Don’t say it’s unique, critical, or innovative, unless it is. I’ve been amazed to see how many applicants mis-spell the name of the organisation to which they’re applying. See it through their eyes: if they work for, say, the Porcupine Foundation, they don’t need to be particularly prickly to be dismayed if you call it procupine. When you think you’re finished, get someone outside your organisation to look it over. A fresh pair of eyes is usually helpful.

4. Pay attention to the numbers.
Few grant-makers are trained accountants (though some are), but all will know the basics of reading a statutory return, and will have read enough spreadsheets, management accounts and budgets to know what stacks up and what doesn’t. Make them easy to understand, and explain apparent anomalies. Be sure to understand them yourself, so when questioned, you know what you’re talking about. Be clear about your reserves – and if you’ve got three years’ unrestricted funding in the bank, you’ll struggle to raise more.

5. Show you can work with others.
If you can demonstrate you complement the work of similar organisations, it will help: get them to send you a supportive quote. Better still, append helpful letters on headed paper to your application from organisations that might be expected to be rivals or competitors. If you can’t, consider how you might develop a partnership – and put it in the bid. It’s not essential, but it casts a constructive light.

6. Tailor the bid to the funder.
Make sure you’re familiar with the funder’s process, and how much information they require and when. If stage one required two pages, don’t send four. Check out their average grant size, and unless you’ve very good reason, don’t depart too far from that figure in your bid.

7. Be available and responsive.
You’ve got to hope your application is going to be favourably received. Even the best-written ones often leave questions begging. So be around to give a timely response. Don’t submit the week before you go off on sabbatical – or if you do, make sure a colleague is very well briefed. Few things will irritate a grants assessor more than not getting an answer to legitimate follow-up questions.

8. Don’t overdo it.
Foundation staff, in my experience, are usually (but not always) courteous, attentive, and good at their jobs. They want to develop a friendly relationship with you on a professional basis. They don’t want to be your best mate, and certainly don’t expect to be hassled. Respond to their questions, then leave them alone. The telephone is often the best means of first contact, then e-mail, unless the ‘phone is what they suggest. Email is flexible and less time-sensitive, so you and they can answer when it’s convenient to do so. Don’t send too much information: excess is as burdensome to them as too little.

We need more funding for the environment, but we can do a lot better ourselves. I hope these tips are useful. Please think about them when you’re preparing your bids. Good luck.

Hugh Raven chairs the Environmental Funders Network. He’s a trustee of the John Ellerman Foundation, and co-owner of Ardtornish Estate.

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  • Biz Agnew says:

    Wise words Hugh. Thank you for laying it all out so clearly. When I am writing a proposal, I usually ask myself if my Great Aunt would understand what I’m saying. It forces me to keep it all straightforward and prevents me from making assumptions. Writing to Auntie also removes the temptation to use short cuts and irritating acronyms. Cheers!

  • Hugh Raven says:

    Very good point. My great aunt Alethea was even more pedantic than me, and would not for a moment tolerate jargon or acronyms. Quite right too.

    Thank you

  • Elaine King says:

    Some very helpful tips, Hugh. As environmentalists we are very good at talking to ourselves, but to really have impact we must use appropriate, inclusive and empowering language that everybody can understand. It’s important to be authentic, too – warts and all!

  • Hugh Raven says:

    You’re so right, Elaine. I should have added that: be authentic, true to yourself.

  • Natalie Buttriss says:

    Great points Hugh, it is always good to be reminded of these essential funder-oriented perspectives. We must get better as there are so many good environmental causes needing support.

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