Needs-Led Fundraising for Sustainability

13th January, 2021

Find focus. If you’re presented with a funding opportunity, ask yourself if you really want to do the project, and whether it fits with the strategic aims of your organisation…


When fundraising in difficult times, it can be tempting to apply when any new opportunity opens or to fire off dozens of hastily written applications in the hope that one will land. This article, based on the extensive experience of Gill Jolly as a fundraiser, and advisor to funders, explains why fewer and more strategic applications are likely to lead to sustainable fundraising with better results.

She also describes how, by making applications that are true to your organisation’s core values, you are more likely to generate enthusiasm and support from funders – and lay the foundations for long-term relationships. There is also a guide to fundraising websites (UK) and other directories at the end of this resource.

About this Article

This material is drawn from a webinar first given by Gill Jolly ( on behalf of The Chartered Institute of Fundraising, as part of the Rebuilding Heritage training programme. You can watch the original webinar here.

Preparation: Start From Who You Are

The very first step is to find focus. When presented with a funding opportunity, ask yourself if you really want to do the project, whether it fits with the strategic aims of your organisation. To know this, you will need to have done the groundwork.

Adopting a group approach saves time, improves morale and also gives everyone an understanding of what they can realistically achieve. However, one person needs to needs to research and understand the funders as well as lead, co-ordinate and write the funding applications.

Fundraiser Core Tasks: ‘Research, Writing, Relationships and Reporting’

The person responsible for the fundraising should be focused on the crucial elements of research, writing, relationships and reporting. The final element, reporting, can be critical for future success: organisations that need to be chased for reporting and outcomes could find themselves getting a bad reputation.

Work with your team to pin down the answers to some simple questions:

Who are you as an organisation?

Why do you exist?

What do you do?

Why are you contemplating a funding ask – what is the issue or current situation that needs to change or improve?

What is the difference that you can make – and the change you can achieve?

From here, you can expand and answer further internal research questions, which begin to weave in a funder’s point of view.

The Funder’s Perspective: What Will They Want to Know?

What is the issue or problem you want to overcome or improve?

Why is your organisation best placed to solve it?

Who will benefit and how? This can include both primary beneficiaries and also secondary groups who will gain some advantage.

What difference will the donor’s support make?

What will they get back in return that meets their own objectives?

Does it fulfil their criteria, interests and motivations?

How much do you need and when?

Who else is supporting this idea and how will you secure all the funding?

Can you link smaller amounts to specific actions that might appeal to one particular funder? However, try not to end up with restricted funding that can only be applied in a very narrow way.

Finding potential funders

See the bottom of this article for a directory of ways you can find funders relevant to your cause – both through websites and networks.

Create a scorecard – and focus on applications most likely to succeed

Once you’ve built up a picture of your project – both from the funder’s perspective and your own – you can start creating a 1 – 5 scorecard when a funding opportunity emerges. This gives a simple way of sifting out those who are a poor match for your mission, and those who are a very good fit.

It can be especially useful for deciding whether to invest time in greyer areas. For example, is this funder a relatively low-scoring ‘2’, but with one aspect of your ask that might really grab them? How does that compare with the other options on your list?

This will help you make reasoned choices when the answer is less obvious.

Applying for a Grant is Like Applying for a Job

There are many similarities between applying for a job and applying for a grant. Just as you might highlight different aspects of your skillset to different potential employers, you also need to consider where to place emphasis in your quest for grant funding. Mirror what the funder is looking for in what you tell them and how you phrase it.

DO use sentences such as “having read your grant criteria, we believe we meet them in the following ways…” to emphasise the connections between your plans and the funder’s aspirations.

Budget is often the first sift

When deciding what to exclude, funders often look at budget first, asking if what is proposed is a realistic match for the amount asked. You may be passed over for asking for too little as well as for too much, if they believe you can’t adequately deliver on your promises with the sum requested.

The cultural sector has a particular tendency to underestimate the amount of staff time needed to deliver. Increase your chances of success and lay the foundations for a happier project by being realistic on this point.

Good reasons to apply on time – or early

Many funders can’t consider applications sent late. Ideally, you should not see the deadline as the target to meet – hitting send on the stroke of midnight on the last possible day. Some funders will look at bids as they come in – getting your application in early gives them time to ask you questions before the pressure of the selection process. They may also simply have more leisure to consider and appreciate your pitch if it comes in ahead of the pack.

Although this isn’t always the case, you are in general doing yourself a favour by submitting early if you can – although obviously not at the expense of sending a weaker application.

Got questions? – make this a feature, not a problem

Many funders are open to enquiries before putting in an application. If you genuinely have a question that you can’t answer by looking at the funder’s website, do get in touch with them – this is a good way to begin a relationship.

Too often we hide behind emails and avoid the phone. If you call, make sure you are not interrupting. You might say “I just want to talk through some questions on your fund, so I don’t waste your time with an application – when is a good time for a chat?”

Make sure that the person that you are talking to, or emailing, is conveying the reaction of the funder, not a personal view. If you ask, “is X project something that would interest you?” – then you apply and get a swift refusal, perhaps that person isn’t the decision-maker. You might instead want to ask, “Is this the sort of thing that has been successful?” or, “Is this the sort of thing your trustees would consider?”

Read through the funder’s website in some detail – it will often have vital information. If you then have further questions, let them know you have done your homework. “I see you say X on your website, and wondered if that applied to [your project idea]”. This will in turn encourage them to take you seriously.

Assessing Success and Failure

Managing expectations in your own team

It strengthens solidarity and morale within your workplace if your colleagues have some understanding of the fundraising process and the likelihood of success. The strike rate for success in 2020 across all sectors was somewhere between 1 in 9 and 1 in 12. These odds can be considerably better with a strong application – but not every good application will succeed.

Scoring funding opportunities can offer a line of defence against colleagues who may be pressuring you for ‘quantity over quality’ when it comes to your funding bids. Sending off 80 applications in quick succession is a bad way to operate, and won’t bring in any more funding in the long run. If you can show your colleagues your strategy, they are more likely to accept a fewer-and-better approach.

Keep a record of success and failure

Finally, keep a record of your own strike rate. Over time, it will help you see where your organisation is getting the most support – for example regional funds, or educational angles. This helps you evolve an approach known to work over time, and avoid scattergun applications.

After your bid – ask why you succeeded

If your bid is successful, there are a few useful steps you can take with your funder:

Ask them why your bid was successful (just as you might ask for feedback when a bid fails). It helps to know the strengths of your bid – and if your perception matches that of the funder. The story of why you succeeded will help in the future.

Where appropriate, you might also ask who else you should approach – funders have their own networks, and will be able to advise on what will complement your bid.

Also ask them what they need next from you – and when. And of course make sure you promptly fulfil those requests.

Reasons Why Funding Applications Succeed

1. The most fundamental reason: the application is complete and submitted on time, or earlier if possible.

2. Choosing the most appropriate funder for the work.

3. The need for the work, and the organisation’s suitability to address this need, is strongly proven.

4. The application has been thoroughly researched and reflects the funder’s needs and requirements.

5. An amicable working relationship with the funder during the application process: the funder is confident that their money will be in safe hands.

6. The application stands out against the others and the funder can see what the investment will achieve.

7. The budget is realistic and specific, and other or match funding is in place

8. The organisation has good governance, management, admin and financial procedures in place.

9. The applicant has a good track record in delivering funded projects.


Reasons Why Funding Applications Fail

1. Organisations are not eligible (e.g. because of their legal form, lack of charity status, size or income level, geographic area of operation, or other aspects.)

2. Organisations or projects come across as poorly structured/planned.

3. Organisations or projects aren’t represented clearly and concisely on the funding application.

4. The applicant has failed to demonstrate they have read the funder’s criteria and understood their focus.

5. Appropriate processes (eg. monitoring and evaluation) or policies (safeguarding, diversity) not in place.

6. A problematic budget, and/or unconvincing financial management procedures.

7. Missing deadlines.

8. Forms or proposals that are incomplete or illegible.

9. Problems with supporting documents, which might be missing, incomplete, out of date, or contradict information in the application.

10. Asking for too much or too little money.

The ‘So What’ Factor

Can you answer the ‘so what’ question?

Applying this question will help you to determine if something that seems a self-evident good to you, will also seem like a good idea to your funder.

“The roof is in a bad state and leaks” – so what?

“We are preserving a 500-year-old building” – so what?

“We have a very narrow set of the population as visitors” – so what?

Regensburg cathedral being repaired

A worked example: why fix your heritage site’s leaking roof?

In the case of a leaking roof, the self-evident good involved in repairing it may be different, depending on the funder.

For example:

For a funder with the charitable aim of preserving the fabric of ancient buildings, you may want to emphasise the qualities of the roof itself (perhaps its original 18th century tiles) and the wider structure that it protects.

For a funder more focused on collections, concentrate on the fragile and invaluable archive which the roof protects. Which collections will deteriorate, and what narrative about their value will convince?

For those more concerned about outreach and community, the focus is on the welcome you might give these people if your rooms were not so musty and damp.

Some will want to create more financially self-sustaining heritage organisations – for these, you might point to the weddings or corporates you could host in a less leaky, more attractively maintained site.

Addressing these aspects can make you less of a square peg in a round hole – and help to build a case in ‘grey area’ applications. The features of the problem need to be expanded into benefits.

In this case:

Feature: Mending the roof.

Benefit: Re-admit public, restart events and generate income.

The effect is to give a sense of the transformation the funding will have on your organisation. Lay the current situation out clearly, as well as the power the funder wields to help you arrive at a better place. Storytelling has an important role in this.

The Importance of Storytelling

Funders are only human and will react more strongly if your logical case for support is underpinned by a more emotional narrative. Wherever you can, use a quote or example – and remember that a story can often be captured in a couple of lines. You might want to draw from:

Stories about your founder, or founding need

Those who visit you

Lifetime members


Your specialist staff and interesting details of their work.

The essential difference between emotion and reason is that emotion leads to action and reason leads to conclusions.” – Donald Caine, Neurologist.

In short, your application should contain both reason and emotion. Giving comes from an emotional place – and having brought your funder to the verge of wanting to support through your logical arguments, you can then tip them over into saying ‘yes’ with storytelling that gives your application life and heart.

This mix will also give you the edge when a funder has a range of good applications and needs to choose from a set that all meet their core criteria.

Writing Your Application – Good Comms Make All The Difference

Make them want to read it

Don’t bore your potential funder – especially if they are sifting a huge pile of proposals, and will need to be jettisoning some requests, regardless of whether they meet the technical requirements. You will need:

A good opener

Tell them what they need to know, not what you want to tell them. Above all, don’t cut and paste unedited text into application after application, giving the same pitch to everyone. Even if you are asking for a small amount of money, they want to know that you are asking them for money – not every funder that passes.

Part of that personalisation is reflecting the tone and language of your funder.

Cut the jargon, keep it consistent

Use your own jargon and technical language sparingly – remembering that for the uninitiated, these act as speed bumps, slowing down comprehension (or in some cases causing people to skim or give up).

Similarly, some applications can sound like they are designed by committee, with the language, tone and tense veering about from paragraph to paragraph (as different parts of the organisation have pasted in their bit.) It is your job to unify that raw material into a single voice.

Make them feel part of it

Again, make it about them and the ultimate beneficiaries, not primarily about you. “Please give us £20k and we’ll do something amazing…” is not as compelling as “your 20k grant means that young people like Ruth can achieve X”.

Find the right level of detail

As previously mentioned, good storytelling is memorable, expands upon evidence, simplifies the complex and helps people to feel as well as think. But remember there’s a difference between focusing on small details to make a point and a blizzard of facts. The funder won’t want all the minutiae of how you will deliver a project – instead, find a mix between what is really salient, and what will most excite people.

Make it visually interesting.

If you are using pictures, think creatively about what you can use to express who you are in an arresting way.

Dotting ‘I’s and crossing ‘T’s

Finally, check your grammar and punctuation – give it to someone else, check that it flows, and get a critical eye on it. Much of this is simply good comms writing – which is as important on an application form as it is when writing for the public.

The Positives: Your Fate is in Your Own Hands

The good news is that by using the techniques above, you can move away from feeling that your fundraising is at the mercy of outside forces, and instead create a pull factor with your clear vision and compelling pitch that draws funding in. It is in your power to design good projects, choose a funder who is a sound match and convince them of your worth. By putting effort and research into well thought out approaches, you will ultimately reap the benefits.

Tips for Finding Funds and Funders

The world of fundraising is full of networks and communities – so although tapping into directories is a very good place to start, you should also see it as a social activity.

Fundraising websites UK – plus directories

Never just check one source. A few options are:

  • The Heritage Alliance Heritage Funding Directory (from The Heritage Alliance and the Architectural Heritage Fund) offers a range of 400 up to date trust, foundation and other funder listings, aimed specifically at the heritage sector.
  • A free site offered by Charity Excellence.
  • The Directory of Social Change lists 8,000 funders in a wide-ranging database – this service attracts a charge.
  • Community Volunteer Service volunteers and not-for-profits. These will both know local funders and may subscribe to funder directories and will allow you to look through them.
  • Many funders like to have acknowledgement in annual reports – so another approach is to look at other similar charities whether that’s from the point of view of geography or similar interests, and see where they are getting support.
  • Many funders are also registered charities – so another route to looking up a specific funder is to search the Charity Commission Register.
  • It can also be illuminating to read the Annual Report of a funder – to find out the profile of their trustees, and how much they gave away last year. A little detective work can help in making a decision to apply.


  • The Chartered Institute of Fundraising runs ‘meet the funder’ sessions for both regional and special interest groups. You do not need to be a member to register for information, and events themselves are often free or low-fee to attend. This is a way of getting a more personal introduction to potential funders, and hearing informally their thoughts and aims.
  • Some local authorities have funding advisers, who will be well networked.
  • Fundraisers are part of a friendly network and love to share. If you talk to others, sharing both where you succeeded and who turned you down, you will in turn get tips and suggestions.
  • Fundraisers also have networks and know who is doing similar things. Some grantmakers have their own advisors, who are likely to know other organisations.

Enjoy telling your story and good luck!

This article was written by Kate Smith of Goosegrass Culture.

Adapted from content originally created and delivered by Gill Jolly ( on behalf of The Chartered Institute of Fundraising.

Stock images from Pixabay.

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