Saying No Positively: Buttle UK

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 third article in the series comes from Olu Alake, Director of Grant Programmes & Project Development, Buttle UK.

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

Until the end of June this year we were running two main programmes and receiving around 15,000 applications a year. The vast majority – 12,000 – came through the Emergency Essentials programme we ran on behalf of BBC Children in Need, providing mostly single items such as white goods or beds for families in need, with an average grant of around £300 or so.

Now the trustees have decided that we should aim less for scale and small gifts and concentrate more on impact and identifying a holistic package to meet the multiple needs of children and young people. So going forward we are concentrating on our Chances for Children programme, with grants of up to £2,000.

The experience of running the Emergency Essentials programme has been very informative in adjusting our practice to cut down on the number of applications that are rejected. Firstly, we included a pre-application online checklist of eligibility, which eliminates a lot of inappropriate applications. Of course, people can tick criteria that they don’t actually fulfil, so there is still some disappointment. We also revamped the application form, identified the common reasons for rejection and included questions to elicit all the information we need to assess the request without going back to the applicant. The rejection rate has since fallen from 15–20% three years ago to less than 10% today. This has also cut down the processing time.

We know that families are in desperate need, and try not to say ‘no’ unless they simply don’t meet our criteria. Using third-party referral also helps enormously, as often the agency will have seen the family at home, understand their circumstances and verify the needs. We don’t want to create a gap where we won’t give a grant just because they haven’t given us one piece of information or another. When we do have to say no, that is done by email and the reason is given. Because this goes through a third-party, it is slightly easier to be one step removed, although it is still distressing because those families are clearly in need. The only programme where we deal directly with families is through our grants for boarding school places for vulnerable children. That is a two-stage process, with a pre-application questionnaire, and if they meet our criteria a staff member will visit to find out more information. Only at that point do we encourage applications, so again that cuts down the need to say no. At the visit we might highlight gaps in their application – for example, an incomplete financial package or a lack of evidence of a medical condition – and give them a chance to address those issues. Very few are rejected at that stage – we only visit if they have a very reasonable chance of being successful as we want to manage expectation levels and lower disruption for the applicants. Where it is necessary to refuse, staff are trained in effective communication and managing these situations, but it is distressing all-round, as very often we are dealing with harrowing cases.

In recent years we have been exploring how much more we could do for families rather than just providing them with emergency essential items, and there the challenge is often getting people to apply for the many things they need, rather than single items. They often seem to think the grants are too good to be true! For example, our Anchor project supports children in families who have experienced domestic abuse and had to resettle in temporary accommodation or a refuge. Often the agencies ask for a small amount, say for clothing or white goods, but we can offer much more – tuition if they have missed school, counselling or play therapy, and so on. This is all needs-led, so very seldom do we refuse.

Another challenge is the conversation with referral agencies. Many have traditionally focused on the needs of the mother rather than the children, and concentrated more on material support. With increased workloads and fewer resources, it can be heartbreaking if we need more information but they simply don’t have time to visit the family again, so we need to encourage them to identify a package of needs from the beginning. We are looking for a way around this, and may contact the families directly, but that makes it so much more resource-intensive for us.

Going forward, we expect a rejection rate of less than 5% for our Chances for Children programme, which we have been developing for the past four years with a narrow and thematic focus – domestic abuse, estranged young people with no support, and struggling families.

Of course, we should not underestimate the impact of technology, which has helped to minimise distress and processing time for applicants and enabled much more effective grantmaking. Not only does the checklist massively reduce ineligible applications, but referral agencies can now make an online application while they are with a family in just five to ten minutes.

Olu Alake
Director of Grant Programmes & Project Development
Buttle UK


Other articles in this series

Saying No Positively: Mountsorrel Relief in Need Charity
Saying No Positively: CareTech Foundation
Saying No Positively: Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales
Saying No Positively: Henry Smith Charity
Saying No Positively: Big Lottery Fund

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