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Inside our grant making - how we make decisions

Author: Manny Hothi, Chief Executive, Trust for London

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Our Chief Executive Manny Hothi speaks about his experience as both a fundraiser and a grantmaker, to provide an insight into how funding decisions are made at the Trust.

I spent the first half of my career working in roles where fundraising was just part of the job.  As my time in the foundation sector has progressed, I’ve tried my hardest to hold onto the experience of having to apply for grants.

Unsurprisingly, the thing I remember most is the lack of job security. This is one of the reasons why foundation jobs are so privileged - we operate without most of the uncertainty that is inherent in the charity sector.

I also remember the long application forms, burdensome reporting requirements, and being unsure about how funders would react if outcomes weren’t met. I feared speaking to funders. Would I say the wrong thing and jeopardise our funding? Or come across as only wanting to speak to them because I was ‘after money’?

The inner workings of foundations were mysterious. They felt like a protected world where outsiders were not allowed – something that books like Modern Grantmaking have helped to redress.

My memories about funders are largely about being scared or nervous, which is not great! I think this is where funders need to be more aware of themselves and make a real effort to be less scary - I certainly don’t want anyone to feel this way about engaging with us.

In this blog, I want to demystify the world of foundations and make the next time you speak to us a little easier on your nerves. I think the simplest way of doing this is to talk you through how we make decisions about grants at Trust for London.

Our grant-making process is split into four stages: providing support before applications; shortlisting applications; assessments, and the final application and decision.

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I used to shy away from picking up the phone to potential funders. I just didn’t think I was allowed to do it – that they would just say ‘sorry, it would give you an unfair advantage if I give you advice’.

The reality is that funders are always speaking to potential applicants about their ideas. It is a core part of our job.  Unless there is a conflict of interest, we will always provide advice on whether ideas might fit with our priorities.

Some organisations have the confidence and capacity to come to us directly. This could be because they know members of staff, either because we have worked with them before, or they’ve met us at a meeting or event.

We are very conscious that smaller organisations may lack the direct relationships to contact us directly, or they may have the same impression that I used to have – that you are simply ‘not allowed’ to call funders. To try and tackle this, we now offer organisations the option to book a phone call with us before applying so we can provide advice and guidance. If a phone call is not suitable, we can also arrange to speak through other channels.

We are trying to do more of these calls as they are proving to be very valuable for applicants. We can advise on whether the work fits our funding areas, how to tailor an application, and crucially, whether it meets our eligibility criteria. We think this results in better applications and helps people save time by not applying when they have no chance of success.

Sometimes people approach me as the Chief Executive because they believe that I wield the power. It doesn’t work like that! We make decisions together as a team, with discussions on specific proposals led by those with the most expertise.

If you choose to apply for funding from us, this is what happens next.

When the deadline passes and your application is in, our job is to see if it makes the shortlist.

Your application will be read by at least two people with the right expertise and interests. It will take us a few weeks to read everything before we meet to discuss.

At this stage, we will check to see if your application meets our basic criteria. Around 60% of applications are rejected at this stage. We know this is hugely frustrating for everyone and we want to reduce it. We will be doing a few things in the coming year to do this, but principally we want to encourage as many applicants as possible to speak to us before they apply. Please call us first!

If your application meets our criteria, your assigned grant managers will discuss your application with the rest of the grants team and we will make a decision to either shortlist your application, defer it for further conversation with you, or reject it and provide you with feedback.

If you are shortlisted, the good news is that there is an extremely high chance that you will be funded, especially as we do not shortlist more projects than we would be able to fund. But we do want to speak to you first so we will arrange a visit meeting. This will be online or in-person, you can decide.

The visit is the first real opportunity for us to build a relationship. We want to help you have the best possible chance of being funded, so the conversation will be about how we can make your application as good as it can be. We will also have to ask some questions so we can do our due diligence on things like safeguarding, finances and governance.

Sometimes one of our Trustees will also join a visit so that they can understand more about the work we are funding. We think this is really important as it means our Trustees can stay connected to the work and can see the value in it.

We are very conscious of the power dynamics of coming to visit. We might make some suggestions as to how you could tailor your application to our priorities, but we really don’t want to be a funder that comes and tells you how to do your job. And we don’t want to put you on the backfoot.

We know this is a fine line to walk and how we exercise our power is something we discuss frequently. One area where we are comfortable being a bit more directive is on diversity and lived experience. We want the organisations we fund to reflect London’s great diversity, and for those with lived experience to be given the agency they deserve through our funding. This is something we will push you on!

After the assessment we will give you some advice on how to adapt your application. Once you submit the revised application, we will read it again, have another discussion as a team and move forward to the final decision.

Most grants are signed off by members of our Senior Management Team. This happens in a meeting where your grants manager provides their assessment of your application with their recommendation. This isn’t like Dragon’s Den, where your grants manager will pitch your application to the decision makers. Instead, it is a much more collaborative process – we make the decision together and most of the time will follow the recommendation. If there is any major disagreement, we have the option of letting our Trustees decide.

Similarly, decisions on grants that are high risk are made by our trustees. For example, it could be because the grant is for a lot of money, it may involve some reputational risk to the Trust (something we are normally ok with), or there could be a conflict of interest with a staff member.

By this stage your application will have been discussed several times. This means that most issues will have already been ironed out and we are really just giving it the final go-ahead. We do sometimes have to reject applications at the final hurdle, but grant managers will forewarn applicants in advance if this is a possibility.

When the decision has been made your grant manager will get in touch to let you know the outcome. This usually happens on the same day as the meeting as we know how important the decision is for organisations. As you might expect, one of the best parts of our job is giving people the good news!

Our process has evolved over time and we continue to try to improve it. This includes making it more user-centred and minimising the stress that applicants experience. If the process is less stressful, we think it will help us build great working relationships with those we fund. After all, we cannot deliver our charitable mission without you.