Local economies: top 10 tips for applying for competitive grants in the UK
So you want to get some resources for your local community?
I’ve been writing grant applications for public sector organisations and private businesses for over 25 years now. I’m pretty good at it, I know a lot about it – but it’s never been a full-time job for me.
The reason I am good at it is that – it’s never been my full-time job! To write a convincing grant application for an economic development project – you need to pull on different skills and experiences – e.g. a) experience of actual project and service delivery; b) a decent knowledge about the various facets of economic development and regeneration; c) knowledge about the types of funds and appropriate use of public funds; d) experience and training in managing internal public sector project development, approval and finance; and e) a good local and national policy radar to understand what kinds of projects will be popular at the moment.
In other words – get a team around a project that is knowledgeable, can develop and debate ideas, chew over practical solutions and options, and have someone who can probe and test these in terms of making sense and good use of public money.
Here in the UK, the funding environment is pretty fluid, putting it politely. Now – we could be principled about this, and refuse to play ball with this situation – but the fact is, there are very few sources of funding for local communities today. Any serious economic development outfit has to work with the system, and find resources to deliver positive change and impact.
Top 10 tips
So – hold onto your seats… here’s my top 10 tips for applying for local competitive grants (such as Levelling Up Fund and the Towns Fund) in the UK…
1. It’s a lot of work to be successful. There’s no ‘special sauce’ to a grant application
A successful grant application is a combination of good information and evidence, some in-depth insights into the problem, opportunity and beneficiaries, and practical knowledge about setting up and managing projects and programmes using public funding. Don’t kid yourself this is something you can pull together a few days before the application deadline. Most grant applications ask for financial commitments in principal. Is your major, leader or boss really going to sign this off, if its not clear what the commitment is for, the risk profile is like, and what the benefits will be?
Its an intensive process over a short time period. Many localities are struggling for the staff time and resources. Hiring consultants can help. At a minimum, does you consultant know a lot about economic development, and have a good practical knowledge of projects, interventions, and an ability to analyse evidence to shape the rationale and case for a project? They will need to.
And you need a range of skills. I am great at analysing the evidence, economic case, logic, intervention rationale, market failure, appraising benefits and BCRs. I’ve got a good knowledge of initiatives and delivery in enterprise, skills, regeneration, innovation, unemployment and technology over the past 30 years. But I’m not a property guy. I don’t know what the local demand and rents are like for your proposed workspaces – you will need some real estate market intelligence for that. However – I can tell good real estate intelligence from bad, so I can offer some advice on that.
2. Set clear and simple objectives
A really good project will always have clear objectives and end goals in mind. Many of the problematic projects (and government policies) I have encountered over the years have started with vague objectives – “let’s do something about….” I’ve evaluated over 100 projects and policies and this is the no. 1 cause of failure – no clear objectives.
Perhaps the worst culprits are where a project, policy or programme has been launched to be seen to be doing something, and they thought they’d work out the detail later, but never got around to it. If you have clear objectives and goals in mind – then its easier to design the intervention and activities that will be funded.
3. The project mixes ambition, foresight and need
You have a good idea, on available evidence it seems to be a good potential solution. I’s also a bit (or a lot!) novel, a bit exciting and new. You have to make a good case for your project and explain how it will be transformational. Meanwhile it needs to be pragmatic and deliverable. It’s a tricky balance. It comes back to earlier points about setting clear objectives, and describing some steps to deliver them that seem plausible and deliverable.
4. Keep it straightforward. Currently complex projects aren’t very successful at funding awards
Projects that tend to be too complex will be less likely to get funding. If the appraiser can’t understand what’s going on, they won’t be able to score it very well. It’s a challenge to do this for projects that tackle novel problems or opportunities, and try to be innovative in funding tools and vehicles. Unfortunately, at the moment, HM Government just isn’t too interested in these. Perhaps hold fire, and develop these ideas until the right funding mechanisms come along.
So… your project is fairly straightforward and clear – you’ve laid out the problem, the solution, the investment, the benefits. There’s not too much going on, it’s all fairly tangible… and deliverable.
5. Decent matched funding
The national government isn’t going to 100% fund your project. You need to find match. There are a few avenues – if you own the land or property – this is a matched fund investment, you just need to get it valued. Private match is good, although MHCLG/MLUC haven’t been too interested in this in their project appraisals.
6. Get solutions for most of the barriers to a quick project start and delivery
Most UK government grant awards are made if a project has planning approval, in-principle match funding, good buy in from beneficiaries and stakeholders, no other major issues such as contaminated land or is contingent on major investment as yet to be secured.
You need to have an analysis of the added value your project will bring, and why it would make a bigger impact or be more beneficial than just letting the market run itself. Thinking about the ‘counterfactual’ arguments helps here – e.g. the do nothing scenario, or what happens with a range of different types of intervention / use of funds?
8. Read the Green Book guidance
Read the Green Book guidance. It’s such a helpful guide to project concept, looking at options, demonstrating need, choosing the best solution and being prepared to be appraised and judged. The myths about the Green Book don’t help. That one about benefit cost ratios (BCR) – the Green Book doesn’t specify this, it’s the government department that does. Green Book mainly asks for a well-reasoned and evidenced objective and delivery options. It could be to cut carbon emissions; or to make the local economy more inclusive. Honestly – the Green Book is good project management and public finance sense. If you follow it – you will have better designed projects and will get more impact from expenditure.
9. Know the pitfalls
I won’t go into too much detail – but be aware of why grant applications fail. The top reasons include:
- Poorly conceived, poor understanding of problem or challenge
- Poorly scoped delivery tools, mechanisms, and organisations – literally the project starts with no idea what to deliver, how it will be delivered, or by whom
- There’s no economic rationale or thinking – e.g. if we invest here, do we put lots of people out of business? Do we hand a massive profit to business?
- No mechanism or framework for monitoring and appraising performance.
- No financial diligence or controls – don’t know who the money is being given to, don’t check its been spent on the intended activities
- No ‘bedding in’ period. Projects don’t simply start with outputs or activities straight away. You need to recruit a team, test the market or beneficiaries and improve and adapt
- Too many unresolved barriers or contingencies. Even if funding were awarded, there’s too much that can potentially go wrong
- Funder too rigid in determining what gets spent, how and to do what. Central government isn’t great at understanding real on-the-ground problems or delivering economic development and change. This is often reflected in the design of grant funds. My advice would be to start making the advocacy case, but also trying to disaggregate activities into fundable blocs.
10. The funding situation is fluid – don’t give up on your good ideas
The funding situation is very fluid in the UK, it can change at short notice. Just look over the past two years and see how many new funding initiatives have emerged. Ok they have been small, but they have left many localities grappling for project ideas and getting these worked up in enough detail to apply for grants. So – if you have the time and resources, its worth scoping out and getting some details in place for your ideas for projects, initiatives, services and investments. You never know – a funding pot might appear next year.
We provide funding advice and can help put together your grant application
We specialise in building the economic case for funding bids, intervention logic, narrative, estimating benefits and impacts and calculating NPV, NPB and BCRs. We have a track record in: Levelling Up Fund, Towns Fund, Future High Streets Fund, Strength in Places Fund, Higher Education Innovation Fund, ERDF, ESF, and Regional Growth Funds. Click here to find out more.