Saying No Positively: Henry Smith Charity

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 fifth article in the series comes from Nick Acland, Director, The Henry Smith Charity.

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

Of the 1,500 or so applications we receive each year, only around 20% are successful. Some of that is down to quality of applications, but the sheer volume of demand sadly is far greater than we could ever meet, so in the end it does come down to a judgement call.

We are in the second full quarter of our new strategy, and have been using a more structured application and assessment process. It’s very early to say but the quality of applications does seem to have improved. We have tried very hard to be as open and transparent as possible about what we are looking for, with all our criteria published on the website so that people don’t waste time writing applications that don’t fit. We also have a section giving details of why we turn down applications which we hope is helpful. We have found it surprisingly difficult to get the balance right between being clear and transparent and not overloading applicants with information.

The application form itself has ‘help text’ to give guidance on how to fill in the form and we really want to encourage people to read and be guided by this text as it outlines what we are looking for. Initially, we made it as simple and jargon-free as possible, but rather surprisingly we have had to make it more detailed. For example, if the question said ‘Describe your work’, people wouldn’t bother to read the help text, which is very specific about the information we are looking for. So rather oddly, having too simple a question seemed to defeat the objective of trying to get people to express very clearly what they are doing. We get a steady flow of calls from people who are thinking of or are in the process of applying. We are always happy to take phone enquiries and talk people through any queries they may have.

There are two main points at which applications can be declined. The first time they are considered is at a weekly or fortnightly meeting, and at that stage regrettably we have to say ‘no’ to some 75% of applications. Applicants are generally told of this within three to eight weeks and notification is sent by email. While we are always happy to give feedback on the phone as to why an application has been unsuccessful when asked, we no longer offer it automatically. In a trial, we found it was just too resource-intensive, with enquiries increasing three to four-fold and becoming unmanageable with the staff resources we have.

The biggest reason for declining applications at this first stage is lack of information on outcomes – what the results of the work are and how it is having a positive impact on the people the organisation is working with. This accounts for probably about half. Around a third are unsuccessful because of lack of information on activities. For example, they might say ‘we help young people into work’ but don’t say how. Around a quarter are not a good fit with our priorities, and probably an eighth fail to make the case of financial need – they have the reserves or sufficient funding already in place to deliver the work without us. Many applications may be unsuccessful for two or more of these reasons.

Once the application has gone through to the next stage we ask for more information, including safeguarding policies and more financial details before a member of staff or one of our volunteers visits to carry out an assessment. Once they have reached this stage, while a grant is far from guaranteed, the majority of applications will be awarded a grant.

We give quite detailed feedback on the telephone to those whose applications are not successful at this stage. Most often the reasons are governance-related or financial need. Any organisation to whom we do not award a grant may reapply after a 12-month gap. If they have reached the visit stage and then been unsuccessful it is advisable for them to explain how they have addressed the issues we raised at the visit stage. We are keen to be helpful and willing to communicate reasons for our decisions, but there is a fine balance to be struck as we definitely do not feel it is our role to interfere in how an organisation is run.

We have to make judgements, and while we try to be as fair and rigorous as we can be, I am sure we don’t get it right all the time. We are led by demand and assess on the quality of each individual project as it is not possible, objectively, to make a value judgement between totally different types of projects – for example, a grant to a project helping young people into employment, or a project helping to address loneliness among older people, or one helping refugees to integrate into society. It is one of the challenges of being such a broad-based funder.

We are conscious that for the people who are declined at the first stage, there is a reasonably swift outcome but for those who go through to the next stage of having a visit and then don’t get a grant, it can take up to six months. That’s a long time to be unsure, and we try to keep the rejections at that stage relatively low (ideally not more than 20%) so that we are not wasting too many people’s time with additional questions that do not turn out to be productive for them. We do though hope that there may be some value to them of having been through our assessment process in thinking about future applications.

Nick Acland
The Henry Smith Charity


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: Big Lottery Fund

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