Saying No Positively: Big Lottery Fund

Refusing grant applicants can be one of the hardest parts of the job, but foundations that make it clear from the start what they do and don’t fund can cut down on the disappointment. In this series, we talk to a range of ACF members to find out about their application processes, how they say no to grant-seekers, and what feedback they are able to offer.

The sixth and final article in the series comes from James Harcourt, Director of England Grant-making, Big Lottery Fund.

This series first appeared in the July 2018 issue of Trust & Foundation News. Read the magazine here.

Making the grant application process as accessible as possible is really important. The National Lottery was set up to benefit people across the UK by raising funds for good causes that enrich community life. As a distributor we never forget this and work hard to see that the money benefits as many diverse communities as possible.

This means listening to communities and adjusting our processes to suit individual and wider societal or behavioural trends, for example, factoring in things like the impact of digital and social media. Only very recently we undertook just such a review, resulting in us introducing a few key changes to make our grants even more accessible.

Firstly, we simplified the grants we offer. In England, we now have just three funding programmes to choose from. Secondly, we refreshed our application and grant-management processes. This is to ensure they are proportionate to the amount of money involved.

Our ambition is to fund the best ideas – not the best written applications. But until recently we mainly only accepted written forms. While this created consistency, it also limited the ways people could apply. Now our approach is much more flexible and reflects the amount of money people are asking for.

Around 90% of the grants we give out each year are for under £10,000. To apply for these, people can choose the method that best suits them. This could be using our traditional pdf form or our new online portal. But if an applicant requires doing it face-to-face, we can make this happen too. We can also share documents in a format for assistive technology.

For grants over £10,000 we have adopted a more conversational approach. We now encourage people to get in touch before starting their application. This means we can work with them to understand their idea and provide feedback at the earliest possible stage.

Building strong relationships is key to this. That's why we have moved to a more localised approach. Our headcount remains the same but we have tripled the number of funding staff working regionally.

As the largest funder of community activity in the UK we fund a huge mix of organisations. We know there isn’t a one-size- fits-all approach, so our aim is to be as flexible as possible.

When people apply for funding over £10,000 they are put in touch with a local funding officer. This allows them to have conversations with us from the outset to understand the advice and support they might need.

The volume of applications we receive for smaller grants is much higher, but we can still offer bespoke practical support. This comes into play particularly when, for example, somebody has a great idea, but completing a written form doesn’t work for them. We also have a dedicated advice team on hand to answer questions. They can help with anything from advice on eligibility criteria to which programme best suits an idea.

We give out over 12,000 National Lottery grants each year and demand exceeds available funds. This means we have to make difficult decisions. Things we look for in successful applications include involvement of the local community in creating and running the project, co-design, lived experience and the potential impact.

We want to give people useful and honest feedback at the earliest stage, helping them to decide their next move. People applying for under £10,000 receive a letter explaining our decision. Given the volume of applications we receive for grants of this size, this approach ensures we can give feedback to everyone in a timely manner.

Our new conversational approach for larger grants now means we can give feedback at an even earlier stage. Once people have submitted their idea, our local funding officers give feedback on their eligibility and likelihood of securing funding. Once applications have been assessed by our regional teams, feedback is given in a way that best suits the applicant. This could be a conversation face-to-face, over the telephone, or in writing. People are welcome to apply again at any time after an unsuccessful application. There is no time limit or restriction. As mentioned, we’re the largest funder of community activity in the UK. This means we have a big part to play in helping the UK’s civil society to thrive. We want organisations to be able to use our feedback and local knowledge to help them develop – even if they are not awarded funding. Just being told ‘no’ isn’t good enough.

James Harcourt
Director of England Grant-making
Big Lottery Fund


Other articles in this series

Saying No Positively: Mountsorrel Relief in Need Charity
Saying No Positively: CareTech Foundation
Saying No Positively: Buttle UK
Saying No Positively: Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales
Saying No Positively: Henry Smith Charity

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