A lesson in the science of rockets (aka how to get some money)

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Of late I’ve written a number of successful tenders and funding applications and have been asked several times what the magical ingredient is. In the interests of sharing, I’ve done some thinking about how to articulate what seems to me to be an often random and frequently torturous process, and how to possibly make it less random and less torturous.

I should start with a disclosure – I’ve been both a charitable funder and public sector commissioner over the years so have trawled through literally hundreds of funding applications and tenders in my time. So, first piece of advice, if you do get a chance to be on that side of the fence (such as sitting on a selection panel) then jump at it – it helps hugely to be able to see things from that perspective.

via Flickr user Matt BiddulphSecond off, take heart. What I learnt from all that experience is that the vast majority of applications are spectacularly bad. Many people seem to assume that funders will simply be so excited by the very idea of even working with them that they’ll give you the work. If only life was so simple. If you’re just putting in for something you were doing or going to do anyway, if you haven’t bothered to fully read any guidance, if you’ve done no research on your funder, what they’re about and the type of things they’ve funded before, then it shows. I personally wouldn’t have touched anything with a whiff of this with a bargepole.

As a funder my dialogue went something like this; “I’ve told you in explicit detail exactly want I want to fund. I want you to show that you understand this, and give me it. I want you to supplement and complement what I already have, to chime with my values, build the capacity of my team and add intellectually to what I already have.” No tall order.

But the taller order is in the next bit of the inner dialogue, which went like this; “I know I’ve just said I want you to give me what I’ve asked for. But I don’t really want you to do that. I don’t want you to parrot back to me what I’ve said I want. I want you to acknowledge it, even flatter it, but also reframe and challenge it – to constructively test what I’ve said I wanted and really add value to my thinking with yours. This is why I’m paying you and not doing it myself.” It’s a tricky balancing act and one you need to have the courage of your convictions to pull off.

Thirdly, only put in for something if you’re genuinely excited about doing it, and think you have the best approach and the best team to do it. Passion, expertise, commitment and confidence in what you do shows. Design what you think will work best, and assemble the most talented people you can find to do it. At the end of the day, if you win it you’re going to have to deliver it, so don’t overpromise or understaff. And if you’re not at all excited about writing the bid, just think of the hell it would be to have to actually deliver the work.

Fourth, be brutally honest about the strengths and weaknesses of your proposal and try to make sure you’ve addressed all aspects of the weaknesses you can. If they are asking for experience with local authorities and you haven’t got it, get someone who has on your team. If they want someone to work nationwide and you only cover say Devon and Kent, find someone to partner with who covers the UK. You can be your own critical friend, but it’s much better to supplement that with some independent perspectives.

For me, the process of putting this all together is lots of conversations, scribbles, reading and bits and pieces of paper that I then lock myself in a darkened room to pull apart and put back together again. This does take time so leave plenty of it for drafting, re-drafting, printing out and covering with red pen, challenging and proofing. You will always run out of time. By that point, your bid needs to be in the best shape possible to go.

Like most people, I’ve never actually submitted something more than one hour before the deadline. Neither have I ever not developed an unhealthy reliance on caffeinated substances in the process of getting that far. The reality is that, for the vast majority of us, we are writing these things while simultaneously also doing our full-time job and juggling the rest of our lives in the process. All you can do is know that you’ve put in the very best bid you can – which isn’t really rocket science.


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