Monday, 13 June 2011

No time for time-wasters

The clock is ticking, choose wisely what to do with your precious time

There are two great dangers for small third-sector organisations at the moment: the first is lack of money and the second is time-wasting. I don't mean that folk are sitting around playing Fruit Ninja and catching up on their on-line shopping, in fact I have never seen the sector work so hard.
But just as the desperation for funding increases, so are the number of funders who are, quite frankly, wasting precious time. Recently a brilliant SEL member in a small organisation told me that he had invested weeks in a big bid that failed after which the funder told them they can try again. My advice was to beware without knowing exactly why they had failed, a second attempt could be throwing good resource after bad.

There are some real joys of working in a small organisation, like the ease of communications, shared vision, close working relationships, horizontal management structures and a shot at real camaraderie. The downside has to be the lack of folk to do stuff. When the organisation needs more doing and has no additional resources, you can just work harder but given there are only 24 hours in a day and people need to go home at some stage; small organisations have to allocate time very carefully indeed.

On the other side of the fence, funders and contractors are seeing a dramatic increase in applications as larger numbers of organisations chase ever dwindling resources. For those who still have jobs to commission or money to lend or grant, I think there is a need to change the way things have been done in the past. So, as a suggestion, these are my top tips for funders that want to help small organisations in particular, to get it right:

  1. Keep funding criteria tight. General calls 'to see what's out there' are an act of extraordinary irresponsibility when everyone is up against it.
  2. Value experience over innovation. People should be encouraged to develop what they do best, only then will they shine. In any event the wrong side of a growth cycle is a bad time to get organisations to experiment with new markets, and for heaven's sake enough already with 'innovation'. (Visualise me nodding both index and middle fingers in the air to illustrate irony.) 
  3. Use an Expression of Interest (EoI) or Pre-Qualifying Questionnaire (PQQ). If you do, organisations will only invest a small amount of time at the first stage after which you can select only those that meet your criteria to move on to full applications.
  4. Keep it real. Remember it's about what people have done and what they can do, not the gloss of professional bid writing. It would be criminal if the organisations that survived this Age of Austerity were the ones with expensive bid teams rather than those who made a real difference.
  5. Did you need to know that? As we all know, time is money and long application forms that are just about risk management should be avoided. 
  6. Make yourself available. If you are interested in an organisation, talk to them, don't be afraid to tell them what you liked about their first stage proposal and what was less helpful. This is the moment to discourage desperate organsiations from taking a punt outside their area of expertise.
  7. If you have to reject an application, give detailed feedback. People need to know why they were unsuccessful if they are to avoid making the same mistakes again.
Survival is going to be something small organisations choose through careful planning, hard work and a little luck, but funders et al can help by doing their bit. If those that have – remember every call for bids from those that don't – equates to thousands if not millions of pounds diverted from social outcomes, so a process that gets quickly to what is right for both parties is as important as money in stopping some organisations from going under.


  1. Allison,
    Not sure how relevant this is going to be:- To what extent is Social Return on Investment (SROI) gaining traction in your circles, eg is it used at all by funders in offers and/or in bids by organisations seeking funding? If not used, then is this something that could help make both invitations to bid and the bids themselves 'tighter' and therefore more likely to succeed?

  2. Interesting point David, and yes I think SROI or values placed on social impact will be part of the way in which funders look to differentiate between applicants and achieve a return in future. At present this is not at all common and I have not seen it form a part of an application process with the excpetion of specific initiatives like the Social Impact Bond.