5. Types of application
Module five of the GFMD MediaDev Fundraising Guide.
Clearly, each donor has its own procedures, many of which have evolved over time and continue to evolve, so there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all proposal. However, there are many commonalities that allow applicants to successfully adapt project ideas for multiple bids.
The headings below cover the different processes which are relevant to the media development community. There are, of course, others that are not addressed here but the intention is to raise awareness of the most commonly used approaches.
Several donors – principally foundations – have open application processes whereby organisations can apply for funding at any time using standard templates and application procedures. A few have two or three deadlines during the course of the year.
This is probably the most convenient approach, allowing applicants to spend more time preparing their bids and to submit an application only when all the elements are in place.
However, these programmes are also highly competitive and receive a very significant number of applications. It is difficult not to draw the conclusion that they must, at some point during the year, overreach themselves (i.e. run out of available funds).
On rare occasions, donors will approach an implementing organisation with a request to take part in a closed call for proposals or to prepare a proposal on a specific theme.
They may also ask an organisation running an ongoing programme to apply for follow-up funding if it is considered that the project is going particularly well and deserves to be continued.
That said, most donors are eager to maintain a reputation for equity and transparency, so direct approaches are exceptional. A retendering process whereby the incumbent fights off challenges from other contenders are more common.
Unless donors specifically state that they do not accept unsolicited proposals or an open procedure has been launched in a related field, it is possible to share ideas and concept notes on an ad hoc basis, particularly if you have a good working relationship with desk officers and you believe that your proposal is timely (e.g. linked to an event or a crisis).
On the vast majority of occasions, the donor will refer you to an upcoming programme or will reply that they have no funds available at the current time. If they respond at all. Direct approaches are often used for securing co-funding but it is worth recognising that most donor programmes lack flexibility and need to bend their own rules in order to allocate direct grants. They are also wary of setting dangerous precedents.
Open calls for proposals are the most common model with the majority comprising a simple one-stage process whereby applicants meeting the eligibility criteria submit a single application.
Under this model, the proposal which is likely to include a detailed budget and log-frame presents a comprehensive response to the objective, themes and/or priorities of the published terms of reference.
Applications are evaluated according to published criteria and grants may be awarded to one or several successful applicants, depending on the repartition of the funding envelope.
Varying levels of feedback are given to unsuccessful bids ranging from a simple rejection letter to formal opportunities to discuss the shortcomings of the proposal during a phone call with the grant officer.
CASE STUDY: THE EU GRANT APPLICATION PROCESS
Most EU calls for proposals are based on a three-stage process:
1 - Concept notes
2 - Full application
Concept notes are then checked for eligibility and assessed according to the strength/relevance of the narrative. Shortlisted applicants are asked to prepare a full application that consists of a narrative, budget and logframe.
Grants are provisionally awarded on the basis of the information contained therein.
3 - Eligibility check
The third stage comprises a detailed eligibility check during which institutional documents uploaded to the EU’s grants portal are reviewed and further documentation may be requested.
It is exceptionally rare for an application to be rejected at this stage.
Some unsuccessful applicants may be informed that their proposal is being held in a “reserve list” pending the eligibility check of successful applications. By the same yardstick, the chances of being awarded a grant from the reserve list are very slim.
Other donors apart from the EU run similar processes – normally without the third stage. Concept notes are aimed at reducing the investment of time and effort into developing lengthy proposals for oversubscribed programmes.
Bizarrely, some EU calls for proposals request applicants to submit a concept note and full application at the same time, although the process for internal evaluation is supposedly the same. This is presumably aimed at reducing the long lead-time for the application process but does little to reduce the frustration of unsuccessful applicants.
For more background see the Applications & offers section of the fundraising lexicon that accompanies this guide.
Only large international agencies apply for competitive tenders as a lead partner, although local partnerships within the consortium are highly encouraged. This is partly because the financial risk associated with service contracts is considerable but also because smaller agencies usually lack the financial and technical capacity necessary to meet the eligibility criteria. That said, a role as a consortium member (i.e. not the lead) can be very attractive financially and entails minimum bureaucratic overheads.
Tenders for service contracts begin with a forecast which can be published several months before the tender is formally launched.
The launch is marked by the publication of a procurement notice which generally includes minimal information about the programme, the budget amount and basic eligibility criteria (including financial and technical capacity).
Tenderers are encouraged to form consortia in order to meet these criteria and are invited to submit an expression of interest setting out their technical and financial credentials as well as examples of recent past performance.
Subsequently, shortlisted applicants (usually up to eight for EU service contracts) receive the Terms of Reference which provide a detailed breakdown of the required tasks and workstreams as well as prescribed qualifications for key personnel.
Consortia are given a maximum of 60 days to put together technical and financial offers which respond to the Terms of Reference. An important part of this process is identifying and securing the individuals whose CVs will be presented as part of the bid.
Very often they account for a significant proportion of the overall score and, therefore, it is vital to ensure that their skills and experience match those presented in the Terms of Reference as closely as possible.
Technical offers are evaluated by a committee in closed session and are scored according to the evaluation matrix. On occasion, the committee may request interviews with the candidates for Key Expert positions in order to assess the accuracy of the information contained in their CVs as well as to discuss their vision for the project.
Generally speaking (and Covid-19 aside), the results of these processes are announced fairly rapidly and the winning consortium starts work as soon as the contract is signed.
Competitive tenders are tough, requiring a very intense period of work and drawing down considerable resources. Leading agencies will commit teams of 6-8 people to large tenders as well as drawing in expertise from the outside. There is a high degree of sensitivity about conflicts of interest and insider dealing, meaning that challenges are relatively common and EU agencies take them very seriously. If a contention is raised during the tendering process, then the evaluation may be put on hold until the issue is resolved.
They are often structured according to themes or may be part of a wider funding programme (e.g. the Conflict Stability and Security Fund managed by the FCDO).
In simple terms, a framework contract is a closed list of preferred suppliers who compete for ad hoc grants, although they may also bring in partners from outside the framework as members of a consortium.
Procedures are supposed to be simplified and the timeframe given to organisations to prepare their bids is often very tight.
While the size of the grants attached to framework contracts can be substantial, this is not an approach that resonates well with many implementing agencies who argue that the procedures involved are opaque and skewed in favour of organisations that have the resources and track record to apply.
Note that there are two different interpretations of sub-granting. For US donors, a sub-grantee is effectively an implementing partner who is named in the application and who receives an agreed share of the available budget. For EU programmes, a sub-grantee is the recipient of "financial support to third parties" who applies for a grant on a competitive basis after the project has been launched. The paragraphs below deal with the latter interpretation.
Over recent years, donors have been eager to pass on the administrative overheads associated with grant management to implementing organisations. This involves including a sub-granting component in a wider grant or service contract.
Under this arrangement, the contractor allocates and administers a finite number of small grants according to the accountability rules established by the donor.
Effectively, the implementing organisations take on the role of donors in their own right.
Sub-grants are advantageous in that they allow small CSOs and media outlets in partner countries who would not be eligible for larger grants to receive donor funding.
Sub-grants can be allocated relatively swiftly and the administrative burden involved is usually lighter than that of donor-managed calls for proposals.
However, they do constitute a major workload for the administrating organisation which has an obligation to help inexperienced grantees with project management and financial reporting issues.
The grantor is also exposed to a higher degree of risk since the compliance of financial reporting is dependent on the internal systems of the grantees which may not be fit for purpose. Ultimately the burden of responsibility is carried by the grantor.
Efforts have been made to lobby the donor community to facilitate sub-granting processes by introducing a lighter workload for all concerned and by placing greater focus on mentoring the work of grantees and ensuring that the financing brings added value.
To date, these efforts have not resulted in any major concessions.
Arguably, the best projects are those which are based on a pre-existing idea that is adapted for the purposes of the bid.
These give applicants the ability to demonstrate that the core approach is tried and tested while also having sufficient flexibility to incorporate innovation or to embrace specific themes.
Projects which are developed from scratch in order to “tick the boxes” tend to feel artificial and staged.
The margin for creativity is usually determined by the type of contract in question. Terms of Reference for service contracts tend to be highly prescriptive while guidelines for calls for proposals provide far greater room for manoeuvre.
That said, very general guidelines often leave applicants guessing what the donor is actually looking for and are often subject to misinterpretation.
Large agencies often appoint a dedicated bid manager who will supervise the entire process but this, unfortunately, is a luxury that few can afford.
Nevertheless, there are standard management procedures that are worth bearing in mind, even if you are assigning multiple roles to the individuals concerned.
They can be summarized as follows:
Start by collating all the material which can be used to populate the skeleton you have produced (See Step seven: produce a skeleton of the narrative in the Project design module for guidance).
It is important to have a clear idea of how much you have to work with and this will enable contributors to hit the ground running.
Centralise all the documentation relevant to the bid, ideally on a platform that allows for collaborative editing and commenting.
Organise regular check-ins with all concerned. Some contributors will be more self-sufficient than others but you ’ll want to avoid a scenario whereby a writer produces reams of narrative that are superfluous to requirements or that are based on incorrect assumptions.
Ensure proper version control of documents either through online sharing or through keeping tabs on who is in control of the master document.
Avoid breaking your own deadlines.
Inevitably internal deadlines will slip throughout the bid-writing process but you should lead by example and make every effort to ensure that global deadlines are kept.
Prioritise those tasks and/or components of the bid which will make the difference between failure and success.
All bids consist of elements that are crucial to the evaluation process and those which are “nice to have”.
If you have limited resources, focus on the aspects that really matter – for example, a compelling Executive Summary, a robust Theory of Change, a strong risk analysis.
Build a network of contributors to proposal-writing processes and keep a reserve list.
You may need to bring in expert advice or additional resources at the last moment (particularly if one of your team is forced to drop out).
It is worth developing a wide network of tried-and-tested contributors – particularly experts in areas that regularly feature in donor programmes such as gender equality, duty of care and M&E.