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What to do before you apply: Learn about the problem. Educate yourself in digital approaches. Pick the right grantmakers.

This article will help you think about applying for digital funding. It’ll help you decide if you're ready and get ready if you're not. 

Getting ready to apply for digital funding is similar to preparing for any other application. You need to research the need, consider your project's approach, and talk to funders. 

But it’s also different. You need to do a different type of research, and learn new theories, design concepts and digital ways of working. 

Once your preparation is underway you can also use 7 tips for writing a winning grant application to help you. 

Should you apply for digital funding?


Since the pandemic charities are using digital tech more. Funders are recognising this. They expect to make more grants for digital work or infrastructure.

This creates an opportunity for you. Most charities are still learning how to win digital grants. So it is relatively easier to get ahead of the curve and be successful - if you learn how.

Different types of digital funding

“Digital comes in many more forms and all are funded across our portfolios, though it is ad hoc” - Funder 2, Catalyst Research

The word ‘digital’ has different meanings in the charity sector. 

The advice in this article mainly applies to grant seeking for:

  • Research and testing digital ideas
  • Developing a digital service or project (public-facing or internal)
  • Improving people’s digital skills (people you help or your own people)

It applies less to digital infrastructure projects e.g. hardware and software. 

Here are five steps to being ready.

1. Identify the need

Do this research stage first. Before anything else. Do it even if you think you already know what the problem is. The better you do it, the stronger your applications will be. 

Learn how to draft a problem statement. Zero in. Refine it. Zero in again.

Run user interviews with the people with the need. Learn about the problem in their terms. Ask them how they manage it in their lives. Ask them how they use digital technology - what helps and hinders. 

Even if the problem is internal (e.g. your organisation has challenges managing and understanding its data), talk to your staff about their experience and what they are trying to do. 

Doing this well will help you identify gaps in your knowledge and the necessary assumptions you're already making. 

For the win: after doing user research consider running a codesign session with beneficiaries to explore ideas and concepts.

2. Choose your approach and methodology

Digital services and projects operate differently to human-powered ones. They need to be designed iteratively. If you don’t do this then you’ll likely end up choosing the wrong solution or developing it in a way that people can’t or won’t use. 

Your approach should use some form of design that focuses on the needs of your users. Most of these type of approaches are similar. Design Hops are a good way to get started with design. A Hop will guide you through the research process too. 

If your project is likely to involve buying software or third party services then consider how your approach will ensure you pick the right tools or services for the job and achieve value for money. Talk to digital experts. Use Digital Candle

For the win: do a Design Hop and take Catalyst's free self-study Learn Design Thinking course.

3. Consider reuse and collaboration

As our culture shifts towards more collaboration and reuse of existing resources, funders expect charities to do similar.

Making reuse and collaboration a part of your approach will position you ahead of others. It will show your openness to copying and building on others’ work, and to sharing the learning and benefits of your digital work. 

"It is literally true that you can succeed best and quickest by helping others to succeed." – Napoleon Hill

Reusing or copying also saves time and money and avoids reinvention. Funders like this. 

Collaborating also represents better value to funders. Impact tends to be wider - across organisations and beneficiary groups.

For the win: search Shared Digital Guides and identify a Guide that you could learn from or be inspired by.

4. Consider your budget

Digital projects and services are best delivered iteratively. This is because it’s difficult to know what the solution will look like until you’ve done some design and testing. This in turn makes it impossible to define the output to a funder. So rather than saying to them ‘we want ‘£XXk to do or build a specific thing with these features’ it’s usually better to say ‘we want £XXk to find a digital solution to this problem’. 

It is also better to first apply for a small budget to do some research and prototyping. Then, when you have validated evidence of the likely solution, apply for a bigger grant using the evidence to make a stronger case than you could have otherwise . 

Also consider how much you might need to spend on external expertise. Funders will always want this to be justified, proportionate and good value. 

For the win: talk to 3 experts or digital people who could help, or use Digital Candle

5. Research potential funders

“We lack capacity to assess if digital proposals or digital elements are the right thing to do. We've no benchmark to compare it to. We would have to have complete trust in the chief executive and their research” - Funder 1, Catalyst Research
“Digital has become a golden thread that runs through all we fund - like equity, safeguarding, environment. It is part of a strategic framework guiding our grantmaking”  - Funder 2, Catalyst Research

Do good research and you’ll be able to identify those funders with whom you’ve a good chance of success. This will save you time and effort.

Also consider whether this is your organisation’s first step into digital funding or if you are maturing an existing digital tool, service or function. This may affect who you apply to. 

A. Learn about each funders’ appetite for digital

“Our trustee board has a digital expert. They are hands on and practically involved in grants assessment and monitoring.” - Funder 3, Catalyst Research
“We will get our heads around digital grantmaking - we’re just not quite ready yet” - Andy Armitage, funder persona, Catalyst Research

Read what each funder says they want to fund. Search their website for the word ‘digital’. 

Look at what they have previously funded. This is the best predictor of what they will fund in the future. 

Try to find out if they have funded projects like the one you want to run before. Talk to organisations they have funded. 

B. Talk to grant managers

“I get nervous. With digital we don’t know what good looks like. So we are at mercy of a good pitch, even for our own website.” Funder 1
“We don't have a digital strategy. I'd like to spend time investigating and digging in to it but I feel like I don't have time.” Funder 4

You need to talk to a funder if their approach to digital grants isn’t clear. Find out if they have a digital lead. Ask for a call.

Ask them these questions:

  1. What is your approach to funding digital applications? 
  2. What is likely to happen if we apply for a 100% digital project or service? 
  3. What if digital is part of a project or service e.g. it has digital and non-digital elements
  4. What digital applications have you funded or turned down before? Why? 
  5. How keen are you to fund digital work?

Try, through your questions, to gauge their understanding and confidence level with digital. If you think it is low then any application will need to be careful and include ways that reverse the risk to the funder. You may be better off not applying.

For the win: talk to 3 funders, ask them the same questions, compare what you learn.

Next steps

Once you’ve completed these steps you’ll be ready to make some applications. Read how to write a strong application.

Image attribution: Nick Webb on Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

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