Working with funders

Julie Nightingale, Issue 42, p53-55, Summer 2008
Applying for funding from a foundation can be complicated. But the key to securing money is making sure your project fits the funder's objectives

In its early days, the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) in the UK was a source of major frustration and occasional mirth among applicants. Its painstaking bureaucracy frequently seemed to be a job-creation scheme for an army of funding-bid consultants. That perception has changed, however. According to the HLF, the fund's application and monitoring systems are now professional, rigorous, and test the mettle of successful bidders.

Working with any large fund or foundation is not about what it can do for you - or at least, not solely that. It is about understanding what the funding body is trying to achieve through its own stated objectives - and where your museum can contribute to those aims.

To do this, you need to research the funder, talk to its staff, where possible, and to others in your region who have received grants. You also need a strong working relationship with your case officer who, as well as being a mine of information and advice, will ultimately be the one putting your case to the foundation's trustees.


Stuart Davies, who, as a former HLF policy adviser turned consultant knows his lottery onions, has some blunt advice for anyone about to embark on a new relationship with a funder: "Listen to what they say and do what they tell you."

It sounds prosaic but, as Davies says, "So often we find that people just don't follow the guidelines. You may think that what you are told to do is not the way you would do it on the ground. But don't waste energy and time moaning about the process.

"You have to put yourself in their shoes as funders. They are giving away money not for fun but are looking to invest in you. You have to think how they are thinking, not how you would necessarily think if you were spending your own money."

Becky Williams, the development director for the Tate, also emphasises the need to grasp the agenda of any large foundation: "Look first at their objectives and the sorts of projects they are currently funding - then interrogate your own plans from [a funder's] perspective.

"Read the information that they publish and talk to the staff. Rather than thinking 'They should fund this great project,' examine it from their point of view and see how you can present some of your activity in a way that matches their aims."

Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow became the happy recipient of one of the largest ever HLF grants for Scotland when it received £12.7m towards its £25.5m refit. The bidding process was time-consuming but its rigour was actually welcome, says Alan Horn, the director of development for Culture and Sport Glasgow.

"We have found that, while the amount of work and research required and the particular way in which [the HLF] want information presented is quite intensive, it's actually about encouraging good practice," he says. "[They] have a lot of experienced and skilled people reporting to them as case officers and, as specialists, they are there to give assistance and scrutiny during the lifetime of the project."


Submitting to a major funder's process - and being successful - also triggers other funding opportunities.

"When it comes to working with others," say Horn, "having the imprimatur of the HLF on your project creates a sense of credibility. It means that you have gone through the process of scrutiny, you have satisfied [the HLF] that what you aim to achieve is achievable and that its [continued engagement] with your project will ensure it will continue to develop."

The RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) Grace Darling Museum in Bamburgh reopened in March 2008, having secured an HLF grant of just under £1m. The money went towards rebuilding the museum, incorporating its original brick facade in a new two-storey block with exhibition space and storage.

Environmentally-friendly innovations such as lambswool wall insulation are a key feature, but the priority was to secure the collection of letters, paintings and other artefacts illustrating the courageous Grace Darling's life.

The teenager helped rescue sailors in a great storm in 1838. The collection and museum was also "at risk". Among other ills, access for schools was poor, textiles were fading and pests had taken up residence in some of the portraits.

"The museum was in an old building with the collection in ancient cases. It had been volunteer-run since 1938 but there were no facilities there even to make a cup of tea," explains Maureen La Frenais, the project manager for the rebuild.

La Frenais advises others to weigh up where their project fits with a funder's priorities before applying. "Spend a lot of time talking to other people in your region and try to gauge where you sit in relation to other projects that they have funded. You do still have to do some second-guessing of what they want," she says.

You should also be prepared to meet some stringent conditions. "Funders always want you to quantify why you are after the money, and to explain the gamut of the project. Then their offer outlines what they expect. That can be quite tough. For example, the HLF condition was that we would aim for accreditation once the museum was refurbished," says Le Frenais.


One other difficulty, which seems less of a problem for large museums who are constantly fundraising, was overcoming an instinctive reluctance to ask for too much when finalising the Grace Darling Museum's bid.

"You have to ask yourself, should you be 'greedy' and ask for the full amount you need?" says La Frenais. "If you don't ask and discover afterwards that they would have funded a bit more, that's annoying."

The museum also received significant amounts from other foundations. The Northern Rock Foundation gave £99,000 and the Soil Foundation £29,500 to add to £150,000 raised by the RNLI's own appeal.

Le Frenais discovered that the larger the funder the smoother the process. "It was quite difficult applying for funding generally, especially from smaller [bodies]. The bigger funders seemed more prepared to put money into overall project costs, while smaller ones - those that gave £2,000 to £5,000 - wanted something identifiable, such as a showcase. And that's quite difficult."

Smaller funders differ from larger ones in other ways, too. Whereas it is essential to keep in contact with an organisation such as the HLF, smaller trusts can be less straightforward.

Some small foundations do not have the capacity to give answers to detailed inquiries over the phone. They may not even have someone staffing the phones full-time. That old fashioned method - the letter - might have more success.


1. Examine the funder's objectives and look at how your project would help fulfil them

2. Do not expect the funder to back your project, however worthwhile it is, if it does not relate to their agenda

3. Read the material the funder publishes and talk to its staff

4. Build a strong working relationship with a case officer, if you have one

5. Persuade them of the worth of your project, and they will be your supporter to the trustees

6. Not all funding bodies have the capacity of larger ones - be prepared to write to them for information rather than emailing or phoning.

(Image: Kelvingrove Art Gallery, Glasgow Museums)