What makes a charity strong? (Hint: it’s not the computers…)

What makes a charity strong? (Hint: it’s not the computers…)

Rocket Science has helped many charities understand their strengths and weaknesses through our Organisational Strengths Review service.  James Turner highlights what we have learned about their needs.

What makes a charity strong? Is it the people? The ethos? The work that they do? Just possibly the resources that they have?

Over the past two years, we have been finding out by surveying several hundred staff, trustees and volunteers across 15 different charities that have received Building Capabilities funding from the Big Lottery Fund.

First of all, just a word about Building Capabilities funding: it’s a great idea! The Lottery has long been criticised for solely funding project costs: at the end of the project, the charity is then back to square one. Possibly square minus one, because the group will have grown and employed new people who now won’t have any funding. Building Capabilities funding, however, is not project related – they are awards of up to £15,000 build the skills and abilities of the whole organisation.

The first step of a Building Capabilities award is to carry out an ‘organisational strengths review’ to identify areas to focus on with the rest of the funding. And, as I say above, Rocket Science has now carried out reviews with 15 charities. Of course, the word ‘charity’ is just as broad as the word ‘business’: the challenges of running Oxfam rather than a small local charity are as different as, say, running Sainsbury’s rather than a corner shop. We have typically worked with charities at the ‘Small to Medium Enterprise’ end of the spectrum: staff in the ones to tens, rather than hundreds; turnover in the £100,000s rather than millions.

A major part of our strength review is a 32 question survey asking about everything from governance to leadership to project management (try it out here for free). Collecting the responses together from all the surveys we’ve done, there are some clear trends emerging:

It’s about the people…

We send the survey to staff, trustees and volunteers at the charities we work with and by some distance the statement they agree with most strongly is:


“Our staff and volunteers have the skills and experience to meet the organisation’s objectives and goals”

One of the points coming through is the breadth of skills that charity staff typically have. Expertise often goes far beyond people’s job descriptions: project officers are often marketing experts; finance managers know the theory of evidencing impact.

It’s about the purpose…

The other major strength of charities is that people strongly relate to the mission and purpose of the organisation. And they feel their groups have clear, shared values which support their purpose. That’s the great thing about the charity sector: people want to come to work on a Monday morning because they believe in the purpose of what they are doing.

It’s not about the computers…

At the other end of the scale, across the 15 groups, the statement that people most often disagreed with was:

“Our computers, technology and software fully meet our needs and the needs of the people who work for us”

Sometimes, ‘disagree’ is far too mild a word. Comments such as, “Tech and systems are appalling! The support we receive from our IT provider is terrible…” are surprisingly frequent.

To conclude, BLF’s Building Capabilities funding is a great way of supporting charities beyond project funding. Another beyond-project-funding idea for BLF or other funders would be an ‘IT upgrade and support’ funding programme. And if you are reading this and your business is providing reasonably priced and responsive IT support, then, believe me, wherever you are based, there will be local charities looking for your help!


James is an Associate Director at Rocket Science based in our North East office.  You can check out his profile here.

Funders fix your forms! Here’s how

Funders fix your forms! Here’s how

Forms, forms, forms –  a necessary evil in grant-making, but how can we make them less frustrating for applicants and funders?  James Turner gives his advice!

Endless questions. Impossible questions. Pointless questions.  These are the Big Three faults of funding application forms.  I’ve been on both sides of the fence – both designing the forms themselves and trying to fill them in.  I know why the Big Three faults happen and I think I know how they can be fixed, too.

There are, of course, lots of good forms as well as lots of bad forms.  Many funders do think hard about what they are putting people through.  But sometimes maybe they don’t think hard enough and that’s how we end up with…

…Endless questions

If you’ve ever applied for funding for a charity, you probably know the score.  All you want is a few thousand pounds to provide a much needed service.  But the application form to get your hands on this money is 16 pages or 20 pages or 25 pages.  How does this happen?  First, in the long distant past, there probably was a nice, short, snappy form.  But over the years, a succession of assessors, managers and Board members have a succession of bright ideas: questions that simply have to be asked.  And so what was once a snappy form slowly accretes more and more questions until it becomes… Endless.

Solution #1: Funders review your forms.  Once every two years should be often enough.  And ask the simple question: What do we really need to know?

…Impossible questions

There are two types of impossible question.  The first type is questions that are impossible to answer.  Good example: a five year funding application which has a question along the lines of, “How will your project be sustainable beyond the life of the grant?”  To which the honest answer is, “I don’t know, it’s 2022 – I’m hoping to take early retirement by then”.  But you can’t say that, so you are forced to play a game and add in 200 words of plausible sounding stuff.  It doesn’t help you (200 plausible words takes time) and doesn’t help the funder (everybody will write variations on the same plausible themes).

 Solution #2: Same as above – review your forms.  Are there any Keeping-Up-Appearances questions that are only there because you feel they have to be there?And then there are questions which are impossible for funders to judge.  Such as SMART outcomes. I like outcomes.  Asking applicants to describe the difference they are going to make is a good idea.  It’s a way to see if a project has thought about why they want to do what they are proposing. 


 But to regiment this thinking into five outcomes of 20 words or fewer and make these outcomes specific and measurable and all the rest is futile.  It’s impossible to judge whether the outcomes are ‘good’ or ‘bad’.  So what gets judged instead is whether the outcome is SMART enough. Whether it’s an ‘outcome’ or an ‘output’.  Whether the syntax, even the verb tense, is correct.  None of this makes an application better or worse.  But this is what gets a heavily weighted assessment.

Solution #3:  Measure the things that lend themselves to measurement: How much funding is being asked for? How much cash or in-kind match-funding is there? How many people will be getting, say, 10+ hours of support?  Funders, in my experience, shy away from this kind of measurement because it feels mechanical and doesn’t involve much assessor judgement.  But mechanical or not, it’s far better than trying to judge something that truly can’t be judged.

Pointless questions…

Bigger funders will often have a grants management system designed to cope with a wide variety of different applications and funding programmes.  And the danger here is that questions get added because they are needed for the management information (MI) reports that the database can produce.

Solution #4: “Because the grants database says so” isn’t a good enough reason to include a question on a form.  Is it a legal requirement? Has the MI collected been used in, say, the last 12 months? If not, I’d ditch the questions.

Finally, there are questions that are, in assessment terms, literally pointless – the answers don’t get a score.  The justification normally goes along the lines of, “Although the question isn’t scored, it helps the assessor get a sense of the application and affects the overall judgement”.  But a completed application form will often be thousands of words.  More than enough to come to a view on an application’s worth without needing more unscored questions.

Solution #5: Check the link between application form questions and the scoring criteria.  If there are mismatches, ditch the questions or fix the scoring criteria.

There you have it: five possible solutions to the Big Three funding form faults.  Don’t think: “Because we’ve always done it that way.”  Think: “How can we make it better?”  Then you might get truly smart application forms.

James is an Associate Director at Rocket Science based in our North East office.  You can check out his profile here.