Grant Applications - the Social Enterprise Struggle
2 June 2015 at 4:42 pm
Luke Wright, a social enterprise founder, takes a look at the grant writing process and how it might be made easier for all involved.
Running a Not for Profit organisation can be a precarious affair. Funding can be pulled with little or no notice, putting a swift end to key programs and all the important outcomes they deliver. The reliance on government and philanthropic funding, and the not knowing when it’ll dry up, can be a nerve-wracking way to carry out the business of doing good.
Social enterprises attempt to create a buffer against this uncertainty. A social enterprise’s mission is the same as a traditional charity’s – to address a social and/or environmental need – but, in theory, it runs a business to generate its own revenue to support its mission, rather than relying on handouts. Without wanting to sound like a markets-solve-everything neoliberal, it can be an excellent way to fill the many gaps in society that Governments won’t or can’t fill. The model definitely deserves support.
In practice, though, many social enterprises – especially those in the first few years of operation – do rely on grants and philanthropy to carry out their work. While most will state that self-sufficiency is their aim, the reality is that running an enterprise whose aim is to do good for the world can be a complex and expensive undertaking. To give social enterprises a chance at becoming financially sustainable and deliver social impact at a lower cost than traditional charities, there needs to be ample backing from the government and philanthropic sectors.
Luckily, there is growing support for this model.
As the co-founder and director of a two-year-old social enterprise, I’ve been very fortunate to tap into philanthropic funding to ensure we stay afloat as we grow. However, doing so has been far from easy. Grant writing is a notoriously laborious and fraught undertaking. I’ve consulted widely with leaders from across the social enterprise and Not for Profit sectors on this subject and there are few who disagree that applying for grant money is painful.
In speaking with these leaders, it’s clear many are keen to start a conversation about change. How do we lessen the pain for all parties involved? Does applying for grant money need to be so difficult? Of course we don’t want to bite the hands that feed us, we simply want to begin a dialogue and see what can be done to simplify and strengthen the important work we do.
We also have a few suggestions to get the discussion started.
1. Make it quick & easy to apply: This is a big one. The amount of time dedicated to writing grants applications seriously impinges on time that could be spent doing our real work. Understandably, there needs to be a robust vetting process, but maybe it doesn’t need to be done for every grant, year after year. Perhaps there are technological solutions that could help? Or a yearly vetting process that gives organisations a cover-all tick of legitimacy and worthiness? There have been some improvements in this area, but a lot more could be done.
2. Ask the right questions: Invariably when writing grant applications, we’ll come across bamboozling and convoluted questions. Many grant writers I’ve spoken with will attest to spending countless hours burning the midnight oil desperately trying to decipher questions and cobble together answers that seem to have little or no bearing on the proposal they’re putting together. A simple solution to this would be to ask the organisations and their grant-writers for feedback on how grants are structured and worded. Of course, each grant-giving body will have its own particularities and differing lines of enquiry depending on its focus, but seeking feedback from those at the coalface can only improve the situation.
3. Support the ‘enterprise’ in social enterprise: As a social enterprise, we’re focused on building a business that’s strong enough to support our charitable mission. In theory, we’re doing this so we never have to write another grant application again. To get there, we need funding for some elements of the organisation that aren’t necessarily the most engaging, interesting or exciting. This point can be difficult to communicate. In my own organisation, for example, it’s far easier to get funding for a range of neat, year-long programs that, say, teach disadvantaged kids to ride bikes. It’s much harder, however, to get funding that’ll support something like wages for an Operations Manager. In reality, though, it’s almost impossible to run a growing enterprise and a range of community programs without an Operations Manager type of role in place.
I’ve spoken with social enterprise CEOs and founders whose organisations have been in the ludicrous situation of teetering on the edge of collapse due to lack of funds, while having a pile of cash in the bank that they’re obliged to spend on running more and more programs. What do these CEOs say when asked what they really require? Flexible, no-strings-attached money to plug holes where most needed. If the ‘enterprise’ in social enterprise is strong, more social impact will follow.
4. Recurrent funding ensures sustainability: In the experience of my own organisation, there have been very few opportunities to access recurrent funding. Many grant giving bodies want to fund programs that can demonstrate sustainability, yet at the same time they have a fondness for one-off activities and programs that last only one year. Most will agree that it’s incredibly tough to launch a new program and make it sustainable after just 12 months. If donors were willing and able to stick with a project for two years, three, or more, then self-sufficiency will be more likely to ensue. If the inclination each year is for new organisations and new programs, there’s greater potential for inadequate outcomes and even outright failure.
5. Be nice, please: It’s often the case that the person who writes the grants applications (especially for small organisations like my own) is the founder or enterprise manager. In general, these are hard working, passionate and community minded people who have put their hearts and souls into setting up something for the greater good. They often do so at the expense of their health, relationships and bank balances. While in most cases there is great solidarity between grant seekers and grant givers, there are reports that some applicants are left feeling quite upset by what feels less like an application process and more like a demanding interrogation. Understandably, philanthropic foundations and their representatives will need to follow up and clarify things in grants submissions. However, if good people are being phoned unexpectedly, grilled for immediate answers and brought to tears in the process (as more than a few organisations will attest to), then maybe the power imbalance of the ‘haves’ vs the ‘have-nots’ is being pushed a tad too far. All we ask is that people play nicely.
So now a conversation has been started with these suggestions.
No doubt, those on the different sides of the fence will have valid comments and a variety of perspectives on this topic. We would be very happy to hear them. The key, we believe, is to keep this discussion open and ongoing.
If we can agree that we’re all in this to achieve greater social and environmental outcomes, and if we also agree that it’s worthwhile looking at ways to streamline and bolster the process of getting support directly to where it’s most needed, then this dialogue can be nothing but valuable for the business of doing good.