Monday, 6 January 2014

Hey, how do you fund stuff?

word cloud of a funding bid I wrote
I mostly like it cos it looks like a dalek

It's the New Year, and time for fresh starts and good intentions. We've quite a few interesting projects lined up for 2014, and we'll reveal all soon, but it got me to thinking...

We are often asked how we manage to fund our projects. Sometimes that question is asked in a nice polite way, other times as if we are being accused of doing something rather unsavoury. Which I suppose depends on your view of our projects really...

Anyhow, I thought I'd go "off topic" for a bit today and share a few brief thoughts for anyone looking to do something interesting this year. It's not an exact science, nor an exhaustive guide, just some very personal and informal answers to questions that seem to often come up. I've been fundraising with Torch and elsewhere now for 15 years, I've made all the mistakes so you won't have to. I hope it can be helpful to at least someone, but the most key piece of advice I would give to anyone is to talk to a potential funder about your idea...funders want to help projects happen, so don't be afraid to lift the phone to ask a question - they won't think you are stupid, and asking questions will only impact positively on your application. Honest. The bids which fail tend to be the ones where people have just spent time filling in a form without first checking with the funder that they meet their funding priorities.

What is project funding? Is that like free money?
The funding I'm talking about, is generally cash resources made available to undertake particular kinds of work. There are lots of different funders, and they all fund different things. Heritage Lottery for example, fund many different types of heritage projects, while Big Lottery fund projects in areas such as Communities and Families or Early Years, . It is not free money, there are always conditions attached to the grant to ensure the money is spent legally and appropriately. It is not a loan, so you would not be expected to pay it back, unless the project is unable to fulfil its delivery. However it is money which has been set aside to be spent on a particular thing. For example, lottery funding likes to try and ensure that every geographic area gets back an appropriate amount based on how much that area spends on buying lottery tickets. Whether it is government supported funds or lottery funding, it is all public money and you and anyone involved in your project have a requirement to ensure it is used responsibly - and you will generally sign a binding document to that effect.

And how do you get it?
Most funds have an application process. Usually there are at least two stages to this
1 - initial project enquiry (quick phonecall or email or online form)
2 - application form

The application form will ask you for all sorts of information about how you will manage your project and measure its success. The application form itself, helps you work out how you will run the project. If you are having difficulty filling it in, chances are, you maybe haven't thought your project all the way through yet. Again, funding officers or your local CVS can help with this bit. No one will write the bid for you, but there will be guidance available.

Does it take long?
Sadly, you cannot phone up asking for a sack of money and have it delivered the next day. Depending on the size of the bid, or the project, or even the fund you are applying for, timescales can be from 3 - 18 months. Every funder and funding stream has guidance about timescales. Read that before you start writing eh? The wrong time to look for funding for that great Halloween project you have an idea for would be September. Try maybe April. Better still, check what the funders actually say about submission timescales by phoning them.

Can I pay myself with funding?
Certain types of companies can be legally structured to allow for this possibility. Lots of good guidance here. The structure should fit what you are trying to do, so for example for us, Magic Torch has a voluntary board, and none of the members of our board can be paid for work we do with our projects - though we can engage other people and pay them to undertake work for us (such as our artists and storytelling trainers from last years Tales of the Oak project)

Do I just get sent a big cheque?
The organisation you are applying for would need a bank account to be eligible to apply. Funding is usually paid in instalments based on your project meeting particular targets and milestones. Generally it would be transferred directly to your organisational account via BACS. Unsurprisingly, funders aren't that keen to pay in to personal accounts.

Do I need to be a charity?
For quite a lot of funders, However charity registration will open other avenues of potential funding, and also, helps ensure you are adhering to best practice. Registering as a charity does not cost money, and simply registering does not guarantee you will be granted that status, however, a registered charity must return independently audited accounts each year to the charity regulator (OSCR in Scotland), and this will cost money - generally a few hundred pounds, maximum.

Who funds stuff?
Loads of people, Seriously loads. There's whole databases full of them. They aren't all free though. But subscribing to things like your local CVS Newsletter will get you regularly updated funding information. I'm a big believer in "project idea before funding", but its not unusual to see projects being "developed" to fit funding opportunities.

So what do I do?
Step One - Have vague idea for project, perhaps to meet some unmet need you have observed in your area or community

Step Two - Discuss this with other people to flesh it out and get other perspectives, and also to check it's not already being done (this happens quite a lot - assume nothing) Here's a wee tip, google yer project idea / project name before you head too far down one road.

Step Three - Look online for the sorts of funders who may support such an idea

Step Four - Pick a few and phone them up to discuss. Funding officers are nice, do not fear them. And listen to them when they say things like "what I'd like to see in this bid is..."

A final caveat, funders, certainly all the ones I have worked with, want to see some community benefit underpinning projects. That could be people getting qualifications, new jobs created, access to some sort of support or involvement in creating a piece of art. This will mean talking with and working with people and volunteers from across the community. If that doesn't sound like fun to you, or you worry that the great unwashed will get in the way of your vision for a blockbusting historical epic film / operatic laser lightshow / novel you actually want to write, then I guess what you may be better considering is sponsorship or kickstarter. Just sayin.

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