Writing Better Bids in the Competitive Covid Climate

This is a painfully competitive time for submitting funding bids, as evidenced by the record breaking submissions received by The National Lottery Community Fund.

On the back of a review of failed bids submitted to last year’s highly-competitive round of the Young Londoner’s Fund here’s an 11-point guide to upping your bid quality.

Pre-bid preparedness

  1. Evidence about need

Your evidence about need  should include data and anecdote. It also needs to be local: what’s happening in your immediately vicinity and experienced by your organisation. National and regional statistics suggest you yourself don’t know what’s going on.

Most importantly, you need to show you understand what the data means. Funders what to be funding experts, the people at the frontline of rapid and complex social change. So don’t just report a statistic, contextualise it and explain its causes and effects. There is no better way to show your expertise than writing a bid that is interesting and shares new knowledge.

  1. Be best practice

Does your service design match the best in your field? Funders know what this looks like, so do you?

Look amongst your peers and how you compare. In the London youth sector for example, there are fantastic organisations like Iconic Steps who are able to successfully engage over 90% of their intended cohort. That sets a standard of credibility, track record, and ability to engage young people that others should be seeking to emulate.

Each sector will have its core practice on which successful outcomes depend but practice which applies across all services includes:

  • Active meaningful involvement of users
  • Continuous organisational learning
  • Partnership working

Funders may also have their own distinct view on good practice. The Young Londoner’s Fund specifically want a ‘public health approach’ to tackling violence and youth disengagement. How does your work fit with this? Look across the five frequent funders in your field and see what philosophies of practice they highlight and what kind of organisations they invest in.


  1. What argument is required?

What is the scale and focus of the funder? Some want to invest in systems change, some on the whole organisation, and some just on the specific service they’re funding. Know which it is your funder wants and fix your argument on that.

In a time of emergency the likelihood is they want to focus on immediate and direct impact on users. However look out for ways in which their investment can lead to longer term benefits, like improved working practice and learning and preparation for any further lockdowns.

  1. Explain the logic of your service

This is easy to overlook especially when you’ve been delivering your service for years. A compelling bid will explain the rationale and logic of your proposed service and what outcomes it produces.

I recommend workshopping this with colleagues, even if the service is well established. Having a lot of eyes on it will help you think through any improvements you could make to the model and draw out key points. Don’t be afraid to talk about risks and dependencies as well: what you do is complex and its worth showing funders you understand complexity rather than pretending the world is simple.

Writing the bid

  1. Understanding the funder

What matters to the funder: what outcomes are they investing in? Root through all their papers about the fund and highlight the key ideas and language. I always think what is it that a person would take as good news to their managers, and is my proposal that good news? This helps me to think about what motivates them and whether the bid is aiding that.

  1. Answer the exact question

Sounds basic but so often people get this wrong. Answer the specifics of the question and answer this in full. If you’re tired, overwhelmed, been staring at the page for hours, have a chat with a someone about the question and that will help you refocus. Before I write the final draft I write out the questions again and double check that’s what I’ve answered.

  1. Outcomes-led argument

State your outcomes. Then restate them.

Your outcomes are what the funder is buying. So make them clear. If in doubt make them your first and final lines.

  1. Check for consistency

You’d be surprised the number of bids that start saying they’re working with 8-13 year olds and by the final paragraph are offering to work with everyone under 21. This is where mapping the service out beforehand helps because it means you’re really exact about the detail of your proposal.

  1. Credibility and track record

A common mistake is to assume your track record speaks for itself: it doesn’t. This bid is speaking for you so you need to evidence the depth and credibility of your skills and proven track record.

Evidence your credibility by user quotes, success rates, and quotes from stakeholders happy to endorse you. This isn’t about numbers of users but about the outcomes you’ve achieved with them.

As a tip: throughout the period of bid delivery, keep sharing your successes with funders so that you’re always building your credibility with them.

Budget and monitoring

  1. Full cost recovery

Really please don’t put in bids which don’t give you full cost recovery. Not only are you risking the quality and sustainability of your service and keeping your staff stuck in lower pay, but you’re dragging down income across the sector.

As a commissioner, getting bids I knew were underpriced was exasperating. You do everyone a disservice. Work out your full cost recovery, add a continency, and submit that.

  1. Monitoring

People can go a little haywire when it comes to promises around monitoring, as if outlandish offers of regular user surveys are what will win the money. It won’t.

Over-promising on monitoring will come back and bite you. It costs money and time and can alienate users. Only offer to collect data that (a) shows in the simplest way you did what you said you would (b) helps you improve. If at any point you want to know more you can add new mechanisms but don’t promise it upfront.

How charities can influence commissioning

Originally published by Lloyds Bank Foundation, 10th December 2020.

I look back at my voluntary sector days and think how differently I would have approached working with local authorities. It’s important to understand the pressures they face but also to be tactical in winning influence. Having been on both sides of the table, here’s what I’ve learned about what charities can do to effectively influence commissioners and secure funding.

Be an early influencer

Commissioning can take one or two years until the contract (or other agreement) is signed. Throughout this time, the commissioning process will shift between moving sporadically, seeing sudden bursts of activity and at other times, periods of silence. This can make commissioning hard to engage.

The single most important thing you can do is to engage early and shape the early thinking about what needs are to be met, and how and why. By early, I mean before the commissioner has even got around to thinking about the contract. You should try to shape the commissioner’s thinking on what are the most critical needs and values, what aspects of service design are the most significant, what outcomes matter most and make sure users’ voices and good approaches to service delivery are at the fore.

This is the golden window of opportunity because commissioners are at their most receptive to solutions and new ideas. Be on the front-foot in shaping knowledge, information and discussions. Don’t assume that commissioners have unshakeable views on these issues or that they have the whole picture regarding information and ideas. Consider this a collaboration and share what you know, be proactive, find out what they know or don’t know and help them fill those gaps. Your insights are invaluable so make sure to offer them.

Understand the commissioner’s priorities and be empathetic

If we can learn anything from these fractious times, it’s that persuasion and partnership require an open mind and good grace. No matter how difficult relationships have been, they’ll only improve through positive efforts.

Take the time to understand the people you want to influence. What are their pressures? What do their bosses expect from them? What’s their own point of view? (often understanding someone’s work history can help inform this). The more you understand and listen, the greater chance you will have to influence decision making.

Definitely read their latest commissioning strategy and be familiar with the main needs set out in their Joint Strategic Needs Assessment. A really important document is the Medium Term Financial Strategy. This really drives the immediate financial decisions of statutory bodies – so if you read one thing, read this.

When meeting commissioners, my advice is:

  • Have 1-3 positive, concrete things you want to share – whether it’s ideas or case studies
  • Ask questions – giving them the space to talk is how you’ll pick up information
  • Don’t be put off by a negative reception to your ideas. Listen to why you’re getting any push back and ask questions as to why the commissioner doesn’t agree – getting heard can be a process of negotiation so don’t stop at the first ‘no’!
  • Leave on a positive note and follow up with a thank you and hopefully some further information

Nothing is as helpful as spending face-to-face time with a commissioner. Make time for it and don’t just leave it for contract reviews. Think how to make yourself a partner, not just a contractor.

Don’t be afraid to sell and market the strengths of your charity

I was surprised how little pro-active marketing commissioners receive from charities. Almost none. They won’t know about your results, knowledge and skills if you don’t tell them so create opportunities for commissioners to learn about what you do. Think about how to help them understand what you do and how good your charity is, whether that’s by inviting them to events, posting them a colourful quarterly ‘thank-you’ card or share a powerful case study which demonstrates success. Sometimes commissioners can’t see the woods for the trees so help them see the bigger picture.

Crossing the sectoral boundaries

Provide – or encourage others to provide – opportunities for cross-sector exchange. This could be through seminars and training events on shared interests like research practice or emerging needs and service models. Do this through your local CVS – or to be even less contentious, go for a credible non-sector body like The King’s Fund. If you spend half a day in a room with interesting experts, you can build many bridges, learn alongside your commissioners, and share ideas and experiences.

My own experience has taught me that crossing sectors – taking a secondment or another role – is invaluable and the skills, insights and attitudes that the voluntary sector can bring are exactly what will improve commissioning practices.

Always be prepared to walk away

You should always be in a position where contracting is a choice so be prepared to walk away from a bad deal or a service approach you don’t believe in. Too many charities are subsidising services. You should aim for full cost recovery or avoid bidding altogether. Try to avoid being entirely financially reliant on contract income or you will become tied to the values and standards of the commissioner. Diversifying your income stream gives you more freedom to pick contracts which work for your charity. Working with public services needs to be a choice based on what is best for your values, the people you support and what difference your involvement makes. Many excellent charities know when not to take on contracts but find other ways to source funding and influence change. Think how you can be most effective and build that path.