Author’s Note: In this article, ‘charity’ is used to mean any type of Not-For-Profit organisation, such as, Charitable Incorporated Organisation, Community Interest Company, Social Enterprise, school and public sector body. ‘Bid writing’ refers primarily to grant funding, although the principles and content of this article apply equally to writing tender proposals and other bidding processes.
In my experience, there are two approaches to bid writing: the Scatter Gun Approach and the Strategic Approach. One of these approaches will help you make your bid writing faster and more successful; the other one won’t. Let me explain…
The Scatter Gun Approach:
Delegates who come on my Bid Writing workshops often tell me that they are pressured into submitting as many bids as possible, in as short a time-frame as possible, to pull in as much money as possible. The charity is desperate to get its hands on more money and so grabs at as many funding pots as it can, almost indiscriminately, before they float on by. Each bid is treated separately and each question becomes another hoop to jump through, as every funder asks the questions slightly differently. The charity accepts that they will win some and they will lose some. If they analysed this, they might find that their bid-to-success ratio is not as high as they would like. This is what I call the ‘Scatter Gun Approach’ to bid writing.
This approach often involves one member of staff being solely responsible for writing the bids. They become stressed, which ultimately impacts negatively on their productivity. No-one can keep running in the perpetual hamster wheel of bid writing for ever.
Sound familiar? Is this you? Is it a member of your team?
It is easy to see how this happens. With ongoing funding cuts across all sectors, more and more charities are bidding for the same pots of money. The pressure is on to beat the competition and be successful with grant funding bids. This can plunge charities into crisis management and result in the drive to submit more and more bids in less and less time in the hope that they will somehow pull in enough bits and pieces of funding to survive.
How would it be if you and your staff could be less stressed about bid writing and at the same time, have a higher bid-to-success ratio? Is this even possible? Yes, it is!
Read on to find out how to do this…
The Strategic Approach:
The opposite to the Scatter Gun Approach to bid writing is the Strategic Approach. This involves taking a step back from the immediacy of putting pen to paper and writing the bids. It means taking some time out to look at the whole bid writing process and how it fits into the overall strategy of your organisation. It involves streamlining your bid writing process to make it more effective.
Having a strategic approach takes courage. It takes courage to resist the urge to keep putting in bids whilst you take the time to think through what exactly you are bidding for and why.
The benefits of a strategic approach are less stress for staff, faster bid writing and a higher bid-to-success ratio.
Here are my top 4 tips for making your bid writing process faster and more successful:
Tip No. 1: Align your funding search to your charity’s vision and mission.
Make sure you have a clear vision and mission that everyone in your charity subscribes to. How will the world be a better place when you’ve done your work? What will it look like? How will it be different to what it is now? The starting point for this is your Articles of Association or Memorandum and Articles. This document should state the fundamental purpose for which your charity was set up. This may shift and change over the years so consider formally revising your articles with the Charity Commission if necessary.
Make sure you include everyone – trustees, staff, volunteers, partners and other key stakeholders – in developing your vision and your mission statement.
A good way to do this is to hold a Development Day when everyone comes together to build a common vision and mission statement that will act as the focus for your charity’s work over the next few years.
Once you have your vision and mission in place, ensure that you only apply for funding that will help you achieve it. Make sure you check that what the funder wants to achieve matches what you want to achieve. Do not be tempted to apply for funding only because it is on a list you received in your in-box / someone from another organisation told you they had been successful with this funder / it looks easy to apply / you’ve been given a nod and a wink from a representative of the funder / you’ve heard of them / they’re a small local funder / they’re a large, national funder / you’re desperate for the money / any other reason you’ve just made up (Delete as applicable).
If you have a clear vision and mission for your charity and you only apply to funders who match this, you are more likely to be successful, thus increasing your bid-to-success ratio.
Tip No. 2: Have a 3 to 5 year strategic plan.
If you are a relatively new organisation, you may have been growing organically so far, which is no bad thing, and this may have served you well to date. Perhaps you have now reached a stage where the growth seems less manageable and you feel that having a strategy and a clear sense of direction would be useful. On the other hand, you may be a well-established and successful charity but you feel increasingly that you are simply surviving rather than thriving and growing these days.
Whatever stage of development your charity is at, it will benefit from having a strategic plan in place. The strategic plan is the place where your vision and mission are described succinctly and where you set the high-level goals that you want to achieve across the organisation during the next 3 to 5 years.
The strategic plan should cover all aspects of the charity’s development and growth and the key things that need to be put in place to support that development and growth. The priority, of course, are the goals around the beneficiary group(s) you will be working with and how you will meet their needs. To do this vital work, you may need more staff, more volunteers, a bigger building, perhaps. These goals will be included in your strategic plan. In turn, this will help you identify the budget for running (or ‘operational’) costs, staffing costs and capital costs. This enables you to focus your search for funders who are willing to fund these different cost types… as long as the funders also match your vision and mission, of course.
The strategic plan then becomes part of your governance and accountability processes within the charity, as progress against it is reviewed regularly by the board of trustees.
Tip No. 3: Have a funding strategy.
Once you have put together your strategic plan, you can develop a funding strategy. This means that you consider all the possible sources of funding and identify the pieces of work where grant funding will be most appropriate. This avoids you putting all your eggs into one basket. If you are reliant totally on grant funding, this will put even more pressure on the bid writer.
Consider the various sources of funding as in the diagram below:
Tip No. 4: Make bid writing a whole-organisation activity.
Being the bid-writer for a charity can be a lonely and isolating occupation. It is impossible for one person to simply sit down and write a bid without requiring input from anyone else. It can feel like you’ve been shut in a dark room with no-one and nothing else for support. Bid writing needs to be a whole-organisation activity. It needs to be given dedicated time and resource. Do not leave it all to one person or even two people. Whoever is doing the bid writing itself needs to be given the time to do it, rather than it being tagged onto their many other responsibilities. It’s difficult when you have a small staff team but the return on investment when you are successful with the bids will make it worth it.
Make sure your bid writer is part of the visioning process for your organisation. Make sure you share the strategic plan and any other strategic documents with them. This will help them match the funders to your charity. It will also give them some of the information they need to complete the proposal forms themselves, particularly the sections that ask for the background of your organisation or ask questions like, ‘Tell us about your organisation and what you do’.
Your bid writing will be strengthened if you have more people involved. You still need one person to take ultimate responsibility but other people should be helping too. If you are already delivering funded projects, involve your Project Managers in the bid writing process. They will be able to provide a lot of evidence and information about the impact of the work on the beneficiaries, as well as some heart-warming case studies. This empirical data is essential for the parts of the proposal form which ask about the evidence of need or demand for your work.
Is there someone on your board who has relevant experience of bid writing who could provide support and challenge to the bid writer? Your Finance Manager can provide guidance about putting together the project budget using accurate costings, as well as providing copies of the annual accounts that most funders require. Who puts together the Annual Report for your charity? Can they work together with the bid writer? The research and gathering of information required for the Annual Report will be extremely useful for your bids too.
Last, but not least, don’t forget about your volunteers. You may find one or two have directly relevant experience of bid writing in the past. They may have other experience that has transferable skills. A volunteer may even be capable and willing to lead your bid writing process.
To Round Off:
Taking the time to do the strategic planning and thinking may seem like a waste of time when you could be getting on with writing yet more bids. However, the investment in the time will pay dividends as it will ultimately make your bid writing more focussed, faster and more successful.