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A Funder's Perspective on Grant Applications: First West Foundation Q&A

Thursday, August 28, 2014
Grantseeker Monthly

Want to know what funders really think? Over the next several months, the Grant Connect team is interviewing grantmakers! We’ll discover what makes an application stand out, why certain proposals don’t get funded, and ultimately how you can improve your fundraising (in their eyes!).

To kickstart the series, we spoke with Seline Kutan, Executive Director of the First West Foundation, and Kim Davies, the Foundation Coordinator. First West Foundation is the charitable companion of First West Credit Union, British Columbia’s third largest credit union. Our conversation explored First West’s decision-making process, how charities can strengthen their applications, and their biggest application pet peeves. Below are the highlights from our conversation.

Tell me a bit about your foundation and the work that you do.

We have 11 different permanent endowments that support a variety of causes and varying geographic regions. The reason is that First West Credit Union has a multi-brand operating model. This includes Envision Financial in the Lower Mainland and Kitimat, Valley First in the Okanagan, Similkameen and Thompson Valley regions, and Enderby & District Financial in Enderby. Each of these brands has an affiliated endowment which supports charities in their respective region, and charities can only submit applications to the endowment active in their region. Aside from the three regional, we have a number of other endowments that have been created by retiring CEOs of the credit union, as well as members of the credit union. In that way we are operating like a community foundation.

How would you describe your application process?  

We have a two-tiered application process. It all starts with us exploring a project, usually over the phone, or sometimes by email. The conversation doesn’t have to be onerous. A quick 20 minute phone call could be enough for us to say “yes that project really fits within our funding focus, you may be eligible for a grant from one of our endowments. We will put you on our wait list.” Charities that are on our waitlist get invited to apply for a grant. We send them an application form via email. We also give charities a good feeling for what size of grant they can request, because we don’t want them grappling with whether to ask for $5,000 or $50,000.

Also, we don’t take just a sit back and wait approach for charities to call us; we actually do some outreach ourselves. We have a mandate to support charities and projects in every community served by the credit union. This can be quite challenging because some of the communities are really small and only have a handful of charities.

How do you evaluate applications and decide which ones to support?   

We put them through an evaluation process and give them a score. The evaluation is weighted so that half of the points earned for any given project are for the impact of the project on the community. We also look at other things like the viability of the charity, how long they have been serving the community, and their financial position.

We also look at the charities’ connection with the credit union.  For those that do have a banking relationship or some other connection with the credit union, for example if credit union staff volunteer for them or if there is an advocate from within the credit union, they get a few bonus points for that.

Charities that haven’t received funding from us in the previous two years get preference, because our board has requested that we try to broadcast our funding among as many charities as possible in our communities.

Then we put together a recommendation in terms of the grant distribution which goes to a grants committee for that endowment. They’re the first set of eyes that review the request. Then once they’re comfortable with the recommendation, it then goes to the board. Since we have several different review stages, it does take us a couple of months after the deadline before we can let charities know the status of their application. Last year we had 91 applications from organizations invited to submit a proposal and we funded 39.

What are the mains reasons that applications get declined?

One of the primary reasons applications get declined is that the project impact is weak compared to other applications. We make that caveat in comparison to other applications, because it all depends on what we receive in a given year. We are comparing applications to each other, not just to this nebulous idea of the ideal community impact.

Another reason applications are declined is that charities don’t answer questions clearly. When it comes to us evaluating the application we have a limited a time-frame and if the questions are answered vaguely, we don’t necessarily have time to go back and get more details.

Another reason that charities don’t get funding from us is that we have too many applicants from one community. For the ones that are above our evaluation threshold and get declined, we go to them the very next year and if they still require funding for their project, we invite them to reapply just by updating the budget numbers in the previous year’s application.

Do you provide feedback to charities whose applications are declined?

Yes, absolutely. Two years ago we started making our decline letters much more detailed, particularly to those who didn’t make the threshold of our evaluation process. We didn’t want them to continually reapply and to continue to expend those resources unnecessarily.  

We also receive requests by telephone and email for more information from the declined charities, and we are more than happy to talk to them about our process and give them a really good understanding of why they were declined. Often, though, it simply comes down to a lack of available funding.

Do you provide funding for operating costs?

Yes, we support operating costs related to the programs that charities are looking to fund through the grant requests. Charities need to be able to show the program budget separately from the overall budget for the charity. We haven’t put a limit or a cap on this amount. We just review the request and gauge it against other asks that we have received to determine if it is reasonable.  I don’t think I’m qualified enough to put a cap on it actually. It depends on what the program is, what the charity is trying to accomplish, where they are operating, and how many volunteers can support that program versus other programs that can’t have volunteers.

Is there anything else you would like to add that you think is important for our readers to know?

We really want to encourage charities to contact the foundation and ask questions!  When we have an idea of what the project is, we can better guide it for the applicant and they can know what they should ask for and that will help them in the evaluation.

We’d like charities to fill out the applications fully and that means reading and following instructions closely. For example, we often receive applications where the applicant hasn’t given us the charity’s full mailing address on the form where it says “Organization Full Mailing Address.” This seems like a petty example, but it creates more work for our staff and the applicant is the most qualified to provide the correct mailing address for the organization – especially where charities have multiple locations for their programming. 

We often also receive responses to questions where applicants have essentially failed to answer the question. Not that there isn’t a response, but the answer has very little to do with what was asked. In this case, I think the applicant probably didn’t understand the question and should have reached out to us to ask what we were looking for in asking that question. Often, a simple phone call or email can clear up confusion, but we rarely have any applicants ask us for clarifications.

Also, we’re trying to be equitable in our granting processes so we ask charities to only submit the completed grant application and their financial statements as part of the application process. Nevertheless, many charities send along other documents such as letters of recommendation which we have to discard.

My best advice to charities would be to read through the application form from beginning to end before attempting to fill it out. Make note of any questions that don’t make sense to you and reach out to us to clarify what we’re seeking.

Finally, remember that we as grantmakers want to support the projects that are going to best positively impact the community. So sell us on the need. Yes, we need to know what the program is and how a charity is going to deliver it, but what gets you the money is why your charity needs to run that program in the first place.

To learn more about the First West Foundation, visit their website at www.firstwestfoundation.ca. They are also more than happy to chat on the phone and can be reached at 604-539-5867.

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This blog post was featured in Grantseeker Monthly, the e-newsletter of Grant Connect. To receive monthly fundraising tips, blog posts, and interviews with funders, register for this free e-newsletter!

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