Every year we receive hundreds of proposals ranging from the brilliant to the bewildering with all sorts in between. We read every single proposal and concept note that comes our way and try to be as impartial as possible. Inevitably, a proposal can’t contain every bit of information we might require and so a key part of the grantmaking process is to find out more from applicants about their organisation, their background and their project. Unsurprisingly, there are questions that we ask time and again and I thought I should probably share the top ones:
1. What prior experience do you/your organisation have with technology-driven projects?
Carrying out a technology-driven project clearly requires a set of skills and experiences not everyone has. Of course, the level of necessary competence will vary from one organisation and project to another. Somebody hoping to set up a simple WordPress site, for example, will not require the same level of skills as a group wanting to create smartphone apps across multiple operating systems. As a funder, we need to be confident that anyone we fund has the necessary tech skills (or knows where to obtain them).
2. What is your annual budget, can we have a copy of your annual accounts and how many staff do you have?
If we’re going to fund your organisation, it’s important for us to know your history and background, size and all that jazz. If you represent an organisation with a multi-million dollar income and have hundreds of staff, then we will likely assess your proposal slightly differently from the way we might assess a proposal that we’ve received from a start-up with three members of staff and an annual budget of $50,000. We recognise that smaller organisations have constraints that larger ones don’t and that some things just might not be possible for them.
3. Who has previously funded your work?
Imagine the following scenario. You work for a charitable foundation and get a proposal from an organisation you’ve never heard of thousands of miles away. How do you work out if it’s genuine? How do you know that what an organisation claims in its proposal is accurate? The long and short of it is that it’s impossible to verify everything with 100% certainty, but there are steps that we can and do take to minimise the risk of money being misspent. I won’t go into everything here, but one of the ways to build up a picture of whether or not this is a reliable organisation is to speak to the people who have previously funded them. All funders have processes of due diligence and monitoring and evaluation that they use and many of them are willing to share their insights with fellow funders. It’s just one of many ways that we use to build up a picture of the strengths and weaknesses of a potential grantee. Looking at an organisation’s funders also provides us with another clue to the financial health of an organisation. As a general rule, an applicant with just one or two major funders would likely be considered more of a risk than another organisation with a broad base of funders. For the former, the loss of one funder could be catastrophic, while for the latter the loss of one or two funders would be a lot more bearable.
4. What research have you done into the availability and use of this type of technology in the communities where you will be working?
The last thing we want to do is fund a tech project for a community where nobody has access to the right sort of tech. I’ve blogged about this before, so won’t repeat the arguments here. Suffice it to say that we like to see evidence that the project you’re proposing is suitable for the community you’ll be working with.
5. Will you be developing this from scratch or will you use existing tech tools and platforms?
We very often receive applications from people hoping to build a new platform, tool or system. Just as often, however, a third party will have built something similar and probably better than what you have in mind. If you want to create a social network, you’ll be competing against existing platforms with armies of staff, some of the best developers in the world and billions of dollars in revenue. If you want to build a bulk SMS system, you’ll be in the company of some much better established players. Want to build a website? Why do you need a bespoke site built by an expensive developer when WordPress or something similar could meet your needs?
6. Could you tell us about any relevant partnerships you have formed for this project?
We quite often fund things in conjunction with other donors and have found that we are generally stronger by working together. The same can often be said for our grantees. Whether you’re building an SMS service for farmers or developing a portal for legal information, having relevant partners to advise and promote your work is a great asset. We find partnerships between technologists and activists can be particularly fruitful, as each partner brings a very different skills set to the table. Your partners might also be able to reach communities or groups that you can’t and can often help you improve your project to make it more effective.
7. How do you plan to publicise or market your work?
If you’ve spent time building a website or app, chances are you want people to use it. One of the things we’ve learnt over time is that marketing is often a crucial element of an organisation’s work. Of course, it’s not always about chasing the biggest numbers (a problem reporting service is unlikely to compete with Angry Birds or Candy Crush), but marketing can help potential users – and potential funders – know about your work. And one more thing, if you are producing a new tool or system for people to use, you’ll need to consider what training you might have to provide.
8. How will you assess the impact of this project?
You’ve just approached us with a really innovative project that you think could have a big impact on people’s lives. But if you don’t build impact measurement into your proposal, how will you know if you’ve been successful? How will you prove the value of your approach to other funders? Impact assessment has generated its own not-so-mini industry, of course, and there are a hundred ways of going about it. Showing that you have really thought about it and identified how you might go about measuring it is important.
9. How will you ensure the sustainability of the project once the initial funding comes to an end?
You’ve just completed the work we funded and are really pleased with the way it went. Now, you haven’t got the funding to continue with the project and so it slowly withers to a digital graveyard. We love it when organisations can show us a credible plan that will save their project from an early grave. Sometimes, a group might be able to sustain a project through monetisation, e.g. by charging people for services. Sometimes, that might not be possible and it will require sustained charitable investments. If that’s the case, show us now that you have started to identify possible future partners or funders. Or you might want to consider adopting some commercial services and using the profits from those to reinvest in your charitable goals. Or it might be that you’ve identified a partner – whether in the public, private or third sector – who is interested in taking on responsibility for the project once your involvement comes to an end. There are many different ways of building an element of sustainability into your work; just be sure that you’ve given it some thought.
P.S. I did submit this article to BuzzFeed, but surprisingly never heard back.