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Colourful post-it notes used for brainstorming

At the end of April, we hit submit on the biggest funding application we have written to date. Ok, so to be fair, we haven’t written a lot of them. We are somewhat new to this scene of writing funding applications, waiting with bated breath, and opening up an email 4 months later to see whether or not we were successful. We are joining a sector of folks who do this every year and our sustainability depends on it.

During the Practitioners Gathering, funding was brought up as a hot topic of discussion. Over the years of working in nonprofits, I have seen the love/hate relationship people have with funding and funders. It is complicated. On the one hand, it is amazing that there are opportunities to put ideas to paper and then get resources to test out those ideas; and on the other hand, there are many organizations who have fantastic ideas who never seem to be able to figure out how to play the game of funding and therefore don’t get the resources they need to test out ideas. I’m not sure if there is a better way, but I think some new ideas wouldn’t hurt.

Last year, we wrote a funding application. One that I didn’t think we would get funding for. We were a brand new organization. It was our first application and it was a huge surprise when we received a confirmation email. I was floored and in utter shock.

Fast forward to a year later and we are 6 months into a project that is doing well and gaining lots of positive feedback. I have confidence that we can do more and make a bigger impact.

There were hints of a big and exciting opportunity for funding from our funder (Immigration, Refugees, Citizenship Canada), but the details were still fuzzy. The Call for Proposals was announced and I knew it was something we had to go after, even if it was a short turn around.

After about 2 months of brainstorming and consulting with potential partners, 2 letters of support, 1 month of writing, a week of editing, and 3 days of actually inputting the info into the application platform, I finally hit submit and then took a moment to think about how much work I had just done with no guarantee of what would happen next. I thought, hmmm is there a better way to go about this?

I know there are many more funding applications in our future, so I wanted to write this blog as a way to remind myself of the learnings I had and to share them with others.

Pain Point

We start every funding application off with 3 main questions:

  1. What is the Problem?
  2. What is the Solution?
  3. What is the Impact?

The important parts are the problem and the impact. The solution is often a little fuzzy for us. But for a funding application, that is the part they focus on. It’s hard to put together a budget, a project plan and a team on paper when figuring out the specifics of the problem could easily change those pieces. So we try to be as vaguely specific as possible.

For this application, we focused on the lack of experimentation and innovation within the settlement sector. We know the sector is capable, but the way funding has been awarded over the past few decades hasn’t allowed for much adaptability or flexibility in mainstream programming. We are lucky that there is a shift in the current environment. We are embracing this shift and trying to do what we can while we have the time to do so. We don’t know when there might be another shift again.

When we think about the problem, we want to get as defined as possible while simultaneously being completely open to being wrong.

We aim to know a few key factors:

  • facts, numbers we can rely on;
  • stakeholders, individuals or organizations who have influence and knowledge; and
  • questions, pain points that are asking for more attention.

The questions are what we focus on. We lead with inquiry and continue to have a curious lens throughout. This is what helps us push for bigger what ifs and think of possibilities that go beyond the typical boxes.

This is also what makes it harder to describe for the funding application. We need to describe a project that hasn’t been done before and prove that we are the ones to do it. This is a complicated problem.

Vision

Funding feels like a bit of a chicken and egg situation. You have to come up with a big idea, the plan, the approach and the outcome long before you actually get the funds. And when you do get the funds, you have to stick to a plan that was written out at least a year before the project actually gets going. With a design thinking approach, we aim to practice failing fast and failing early, and better yet, failing cheap.

The Practitioners Gathering was our attempt at doing just that. We have a vision to bring individuals together to build a culture of experimentation and innovation to the settlement sector, to build capacity in storytelling and community engagement. So with a bit of extra money at the end of our Year 1 funding, we were able to test out that hunch. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a good first go at it. We learned a lot and we know that there is hunger for more.

We are pumped up to do more. We have been given a chance to experiment with our work and we want to see others get that chance too. We want to coach others through the ambiguity of not having all the answers and having tough conversations with partners and keep pushing on.

We believe getting the chance to experiment and build up muscle memory to do so will make the settlement sector more innovative.

What we do differently

To craft this funding application, we talked to a lot of people doing this kind of work in other areas. We aren’t naive enough to think we can do this work alone. We need the support and lessons learned from others to fail fast and fail early.

We nurture our projects. We don’t rush them to grow before they are ready. We don’t push them to go in directions just because we think that’s best. We work with the stakeholders who will be our champions. We ask what if and we don’t know what should be. We do a lot of self and project reflection.

Over the past year of this project, we have had our share of ups and downs and we aren’t afraid of sharing them. We believe in transparency and feedback. We are open to being wrong.

We are always on the look out for new partners. We pride ourselves on being collaborative. This isn’t just to look good on grant applications. We invest in relationships.

In a short amount of time, we are proud of the traction we have gained with our work.

Knowing what we know now, what would we do differently?

With every one of these grants, we learn something. If we don’t then I’d say we aren’t doing our jobs. It is our job to refine what we do to do it better and at the same time be critical of the process.

One if the simplest and most practical parts of writing a grant is demonstrating that you have partners in your back pocket. This is supposed to show that you are trustworthy, that other organizations believe you will do what you say you will do and that if needed they would even offer you resources or advice. With every grant, you go to your network and talk to them and ask them to write you letters and vice versus. It is sort of expected that everyone will do this for everyone else.

We got 2 letters of support this time around. We chatted with several people to craft this grant, but ultimately only asked a few select partners to write letters because we know how much time it takes and we didn’t want to overburden people when they were also likely writing grants.

We did this in the weeks leading up to the final due date and even then we didn’t get letters back from everyone we asked. Then, with less than 24 hours till the deadline I received an email asking for a letter of support with an attached document that basically did all the work of actually writing the letter and all I had to do was fill in some standard info about me and us and then I zipped it back over to them within less than an hour. I later found out they got 17 letters of support! I will do this next time and make it easy on everyone.

Why we think we should get the money

This isn’t going to sound humble. We deserve this money. We are doing the work. We are doing the work differently. We have a vision. We are willing to share our lessons learned and our mistakes. We are aligned with the vision of the funder.

We are still keeping our fingers crossed. We are in no way saying we will get it or that we are a sure thing. We know that funding doesn’t work that way. But we’ve done our part and the rest is out of our hands.

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