More tea, Grants Assessor?
by David Carnaffan
So, you’ve poured your heart and soul into a funding application. You’ve sent it. You’ve had a holding response and…you’ve waited, and in some cases, waited some more. Then, out of the blue you’re contacted. You’re informed that you have been shortlisted and the grants assessor wants to visit to find out more. You’re told that it’s still a competitive process and that you’ve done well to get this far. How do you go about making a good impression?
Before becoming a bid writing consultant, I was a grants manager for several different funders and worked on a freelance basis for others. I’ve completed assessment visits with several hundred organisations, some good, some less so. Having now spent some time working for delivery organisations, I have experienced and understand the nerves and fear brought about by these visits; the amount of time and work involved in the application and the importance of a positive outcome. I wanted to reflect on some of my assessment visits, and offer some advice on how to make the most of these visits, in the hope that it might help people to feel less nervous.

Make sure your visitors are comfortable. One thing to always ensure is that your grants officer has at least the comforts of the office. On one visit, my manager at the time accompanied me. After a long drive we were met at the project, shown around the building and then we sat down to an hour-long interview. On the car journey home, I was anticipating a debate about the pros and cons of the organisation (it had been OKish). Instead the conversation was abruptly brought to an end with:

“We’re not funding them. They didn’t even offer us a cup of tea.”

Perhaps there was no serious intent to the remark. Maybe it was presumptuous to expect a cup of tea, although it seems reasonable to offer any visitor a drink. Whether it realistically makes any difference is debatable. In most cases the assessor doesn’t have the final say, but they can influence through their assessment report. That report might be written immediately after the visit, a few days later, or in some cases up to a couple of weeks after the visit. At this point the assessor has their notes and their memory to rely on. You don’t want that memory to be clouded by negative thoughts. In this case, the application was assessed on its merits and went to the panel, where it wasn’t funded. Perhaps this would have been the case with or without a cup of tea, but who knows?

Be Prepared. The assessor will in most cases have a set of questions pre-prepared. They will most likely have multiple appointments on the same day and will be looking to get answers to their questions as efficiently as possible to move on to their next appointment. They are likely to have given you a crib sheet in advance, suggesting what to prepare. Consider your responses in advance and think about who, if anyone to bring into the interview. I always asked for a maximum of two people in the interview.

It might be tempting to surround yourself with everyone connected to the organisation, in order to make a really strong impression. What you’re really doing is putting an additional layer between the assessor and what they need, i.e. the answers to their questions. On one occasion I was faced with the entire management committee. What followed were intensive debates, disagreements, confusing strategic discussion and neighbourly chat. Every question I asked was answered by several different people, with several different answers. I ended the meeting without getting to the end of my question set (as it was largely pointless anyway) and having seen how the management committee operated, there was no way I would recommend it for funding.

Make an authentic connection. OK. Not easy. It’s also probably not the most controversial thing I’m going to say here. If the assessor likes you, they are more likely to go away thinking positively about the organisation. But how do you make an authentic connection? Certainly, offering them a drink and being prepared helps. But authenticity is slightly harder. Be honest. Share the good, the bad and the ugly, but always make sure you address anything negative. Remember that it’s OK to feel nervous and feel free to share it. Sometimes the assessor can feel nervous too. It’s good, if possible, to attempt to make a connection in advance of the visit.

One of my favourite applicants/grant holders would ring me on about a fortnightly basis. Everyone in the office knew who it was as she would shout down the phone at me. She was always so keen to share everything that was going on. I knew the ins and outs, the good and the bad. I was engaged. I felt involved. My opinion was valued. As a result, assessment visits were easy. Interviews were conversational and I got answers to my questions very efficiently. I also vaguely remember a decent biscuit assortment, but that’s another matter!

With all three anecdotes, I think the important take-away is that the grants assessor is a person doing a job. Your actions can make that job easy for them, or impossible.

So how do you get the assessor to visit in the first place? Knowing what motivates them is one thing and preparing good quality funding applications is another. We are experts in this. Give us a call on 0191 261 7756 to discuss your needs further.