Funding expert Debbie Cooper explains: How to write a winning funding application

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Culture is Digital recognised in their UK Government report that ‘Despite the audience and scholarly appeal of some digitised collections...Projects can be expensive and require specialist equipment, expertise, time and resource’. The cost of running a digitisation project is one of the most significant barriers facing archive holders today. Not only must they be an expert in their field, but they are also required to diversify, acquiring the skills necessary to seek out and secure vital funding. 

Jess Sturman-Coombs sought out the expert opinion of Debbie Cooper, Manager for PCN, Producer for FORMAT Festival, previous Fundraising Manager for Museums Sheffield and Artist and Photographer - in an attempt to open up the whole funding bid process and explore those approaches that have proved successful for her. To date, Debbie tells us that she has secured funding for ‘more projects than I can count!’ after nearly twenty years of writing funding bids, and she talks openly about what success actually looks like. Jess put some questions to Debbie on how to hone those all-important bid writing skills, and Debbie has also kindly provided us with her top ten tips - to follow on from this blog post. 

Many thanks to Debbie for taking the time to chat with us here at TownsWeb Archiving and we are certain that you will find her advice and observations invaluable. 

It’s great to meet you ‘virtually’ having watched your talk and presentation for ‘Planning and Managing Digitisation Projects’. Here you talked about securing funding for digitisation projects, so what’s the latest funding project you’ve been working on? 

I applied to the Art Fund for their Curatorial Network Grant for the Photographic Collections Network, which I am the manager of. They have kindly given us support to run our events and offer digital training to people, which is amazing, and I am really excited because this is going to allow us to do more of our online events, sharing great photographic collections from across the UK, and skills about collections care. This funding will help us to continue our work as a Subject Specialist Network and support the sector even further. 

In my other role as Producer and Curator for FORMAT International Photography Festival (led by QUAD Derby), I just secured funding from the Art Fund’s Respond and Reimagine Grants to support the coming festival launching on 11th March 2021. This will enable the festival to be as COVID proof as possible, supporting us to create a really exciting online festival with nearly twenty exhibition spaces and featuring artists from all over the world. 

For the virtual festival we wanted to build something that was collaborative and community focused. One of the best things you can do at an exhibition is meet up with friends and family and walk around together, so I started with that question: How do we do that online? How do we create opportunities to bump into sector colleagues at a virtual exhibition and chat with them, when actually you’re in your kitchen at home? How do you have a school group visit an exhibition space together and how do you have an artist do a live tour of their work? These were all questions that I couldn’t answer, but we have a track record at FORMAT of delivering big, exciting projects, so I used these questions as the main structure of my bid. I didn’t promise that we could achieve all of these things but that, through the project, we would work towards answering them. 

Sometimes it’s okay to prepare a bid question that is possibly unanswerable, especially if you have a track record of delivering good projects on time. Previous success cannot be underestimated when it comes to building funder confidence. In turn, this allows you to start being more speculative and creative. We were basically starting out with some unknowns, but asking our funders to work with us in an attempt to reach a solution. Ambition is very exciting for funders. Basically, if all the things that happen in this festival work, it could really influence and inspire the sector. There are some massive wins, why wouldn’t the funder want to be a part of that? 


Can you illustrate how to write about success using your Respond and Reimagine bid as an example? 

Absolutely. So putting on an online festival is not that complex. I mean, it’s difficult, but doable. This is like 60% project success. It will definitely happen. So 70% success would be making it into a collaborative event, such as installing with the artists, creating multi mixed media spaces, and 100% would be all bells and whistles, such as private artist tours and school events that manage to meet learning outcomes. You are taking a risk and being imaginative. You are creating a situation where, even if you don’t get there, the act of trying to get there will move things forward within the sector, and we will have learned some great new skills along the way. We’re currently working with amazing digital creatives called New Art City at the moment, and many of the questions we posed were also new for them too. We’re collaborating together, with our partners, and with funders, with the knowledge that the ultimate goal might be unreachable, but the act of getting there will be incredible, for everybody – that’s ambition. That’s success.


And you take some huge steps forward for the industry, trialling new ways of doing things and learning about limitations and development?

Exactly, and you are now talking my rhetoric back to me. That’s what funding is all about, getting people excited about your ideas, so that they too can see the benefits and the opportunities. And this is exactly what you do on your funding form. A lot of it is storytelling. That’s not to say that ambition and risk need to go into every project, but if you can get some risk in there, and pose some exciting ‘what if’ questions, then that’s engaging to everyone.     


When did you start writing funding bids?

My first ever funding bid was one I wrote to St Martins in the Field. It was the 2001 housing crisis and I found myself homeless, trying to manage as a young, single parent. I managed to get some homeless accommodation and a support worker from the Citizen Advice Bureau - who are amazing people by the way - told me I could write some funding bids to various charities, who would help me get things like curtains and bedding. So with CAB help I applied to the St Martins in the Field ‘Vicar’s Relief Fund’ and they supported me. 

I had left school with only a handful of qualifications and I went back into education in my twenties. I applied to various charities along the way who helped fund my access back into education, and then later on my degree too. Not only was it beneficial to get that financial help, when I needed it most, but it also taught me about making the ask; how to write when you’ve got a need because, actually, people are willing to offer support. 

I made a conscious decision to share the details about my circumstances a few years ago because this kind of thing just doesn’t get talked about. I think it’s really important to raise the profile of people in the arts who are from working class backgrounds and those experiencing poverty. Growing up in poverty as a child really helped me to craft what I am able to do today. It also helped me learn about how working class people (such as myself) engage with the arts; it’s not something that belongs to one specific class. At one time I used to go into galleries just because they were free and warm, and later to appreciate the art, but being reflected in these places is really important for working class culture, and so too is raising the profile of working class people in the sector.


Has your approach changed over time and, if so, why?

As I became more professional my approach and language changed, but then I changed it back again. I found myself moving too far into ‘professional sector speak’, but personally, for the way I write and speak, I felt it was important to keep the human side of me in the work that I was creating. I didn’t want to lose that. I’m a passionate person and I use words like ‘amazing’ and ‘brilliant’ and ‘fantastic’ all the time, and I use them in my funding bids too. That’s who I am. I am someone who would write ‘We want to deliver a brilliant and exciting project’ in a bid.  My passion also gives me the energy to carry me through the delivery of a project, so I want to keep that; I want people to buy into that passion and vision. 

While it’s important to retain your voice, whatever that voice might be, it’s also important to maintain clarity. It’s too easy to be woolly, but I’ve definitely got better over the years at getting it down to the main bullet points, while keeping the passion at the same time. My advice would be, don’t feel like you have to change your language to be successful, you just need to be concise. You don’t need to sound like anyone else, as long as you can get your vision across.  


What would you say is the single biggest mistake that people make when it comes to attempting to secure funding?

I’ll say it one hundred times, it is not defining success. If you can’t be clear on what a ‘successful project’ looks like then nobody is going to fund you and, chances are, you wouldn’t be able to complete it anyway. How else will you know when a project has come to an end if you don’t know what constitutes success? If you’ve got 100,000 glass plates that you need to digitise and someone is offering you £10,000 you’re not going to get all of that done in one go. You have to carve it up and determine a successful and manageable end point. Spend time, whether that be on your own, with colleagues or with peers, and imagine and discuss what it would look like if all the cards fell into place and it was a perfect project - that then becomes your vision of success. Then backtrack a little from that because you are never going to be able to achieve perfection. Things happen, life happens, like COVID happened, but then funders don’t expect perfection because they know they are working with real people on real projects. 

Defining success allows you to break the process down into smaller jobs too (or steps) and this enables you to create a budget, a work plan and a timeline, which actually shapes your entire project and makes it easier to write and to translate to someone else. Ultimately, you’re telling a story in a way that enables another person to understand it.  


So where should someone start?

At the end, always. Determining success and then plotting backwards from that, segmenting your project into small steps is the best way to start. For creating a budget I advise people to imagine, if you were paying for this on a credit card, how much in debt would each step of the project make you? The answer to this is your budget baseline because you cannot apply for less money than that and, if you did, you would not be able to deliver your project. This is your baseline because, not only do you want to get these things done, but you also want to be able to pay people to do them, so you need to apply for more than your baseline. You also need a contingency because something unexpected will always happen. I find that this is the easiest way to explain the process to someone who hasn’t made a project budget before. By doing this exercise you might find that the project end point has to change, that you have to shrink your project, because your budget doesn’t stretch that far. But this also means that you are more likely to be successful in both securing funding and delivering your project.


Are there things to be considered that the less experienced funding bid writer might overlook?

Yes, mainly that there is another human at the other end of your electronic form. Be kind to them, write clearly and concisely, and use bullet points. 

There are often a few important ‘yes/no’ questions hidden in funding bids too. If you reply ‘no’ to them you’re unlikely to make it through to the next stage.  The question might be, ‘have you spoken to us?’ The only correct answer to that question is ‘yes’ and you should always try to be in contact with funders before you apply. Alternatively, the question might be, ‘How does this project fit with our aims?’ You need to show that you understand the funder’s point of view and appreciate their work.    

It’s also important to consider the matter of matched funding and its scope for  demonstrating trustworthiness and reliability. Matched funding can often be more about reassuring funders that you’re reporting back to some other body or organisation. That increases the likelihood of you staying on track. Matched funding is not always about the money, it’s often about mitigating the risk for funders. So if you can find even a nominal contribution from elsewhere then consider doing so, or put in some of your own funds if possible. 

Also, don’t underestimate the benefit of getting someone who isn't familiar with your project to read it. Let them provide you with honest and frank feedback. I used to get my son, when he was a teenager, to read mine because he was brutal. You have to remember that the funder is reading these all day long, so they can sometimes be brutal too. 


So if it wouldn’t inspire your teenage son, or anyone else who isn’t familiar with the project, then you probably better make some changes! Would you say
the focus has shifted at all in terms of what funding bodies are looking for? 

Yes, there’s definitely been a push towards public engagement and public benefit. That used to apply more to publicly funded organisations, like Arts Council, Heritage Lottery or DCMS; support made directly from public or government funds, to ensure that the general public were benefiting, but that’s actually extended to more private funders now too. You’ll find that trusts and grants are caring more about evidencing engagement and public benefit for a range of reasons. Basically, they want to feel like their financial contribution is impacting the wider world and not just you. 

People often think that engagement means you have to do lots of workshops and events, but it doesn’t. You can engage the public in a range of ways, or you can not engage them at all but still benefit them. You need to ask yourself, why is this heritage or project important? What stories need to be told? Often, if it matters to you, it will matter to others too, but what is the benefit that’s bigger than your organisation or project? You can actually be quite clever with that, and you don’t have to fall into the trap of running a whole bunch of workshops and tours, which might not be appropriate for your project. It’s about understanding the content and context of your project better. If you’re working in a heritage field, is your archive genuinely going to be of interest to the public, and can you evidence that? If you digitise more content and make it accessible will there actually be an audience? Or would you have to generate that audience? I think this public engagement question is also about making sure that the work you do isn’t wasted. 


Everything you have shared demonstrates that, actually, it’s a case of understanding:  understanding what your project looks like, understanding the expectations, understanding the process, and understanding how a particular section you complete on the form translates and how it’s used at the other end. 

The whole fundraising area really is often seen as secretive or shady, which I think is completely by accident. People don’t know enough about the process and not because funders or fundraisers are intentionally secretive, but more that people rarely ask. It doesn’t get spoken about enough or shared. People would be pleasantly surprised by how open the process actually is. Funders will explain to you the whole decision making process, their aims and motivations, and people like me, who write a lot of bids, are happy to tell others about the process too.   All you have to do is ask.   


A massive thanks!

Again, a huge thank you to Debbie for taking the time to cast some much needed light on the whole funding process. 

It would be great to hear about your own experiences: what are you applying for right now and what successes have you had to date? Please be sure to share and get in touch to contribute to this vitally important industry discussion.