28 February 2018
Between 2002 and 2007 I worked as a Grants Officer for the Big Lottery Fund in one of its regional offices (I was based in the UK-wide grants time, but we were located in the East Midlands office). My team was disbanded in favour of two assessment centres in Birmingham and Newcastle. That was a decade ago. Late in December I heard that Big Lottery Fund were “pausing” their flagship Reaching Communities (RC) Programme to allow time for staff training. I was aware of structural changes aimed at decentralising grant making in some way, and had seen jobs being advertised around the country.
So I’m interested to see a renewed focus on more localised intelligence within the assessment process. In fact I welcome it, and wish all of the new assessment/outreach officers all the best in their new role. I hope that you enjoy it as much as I did.
Having launched a new RC application form and guidance only last year (2017), focussing on their “People in the Lead” strategy, I assumed that the Big Lottery fund would return to business-as-usual when it “un-paused” its Reaching Communities assessment work (aimed at 2nd April 2018). However, I was also picking up rumours that the assessment process, application form and possibly guidance might be changing as well. So yesterday I telephoned the Big Advice Line. Here is what I found out.
The focus of this period is to train the new staff recruited last year, in order to place a greater emphasis on local intelligence in the grant-making process. I was told that “the first couple of pages” of the recently-published guidance will probably remain the same, and the application form may do also.
The significant change will be how you commence an application. It appears that Big Lottery Fund will not accept any applications to the Reaching Communities Programme without first speaking to one of the new regional officers (I don’t know what their specific job title will be), who will mostly be home-based.
Applicants will explain their project and presumably receive input and feedback, before they complete the first-stage application form. I can only assume that the process might be similar to that of the Lloyds Bank Foundation, (but without a visit) whereby the officer is the gate-keeper for the funding programme.
Crucially, the nature of your application will be tailored in some way to the size of the bid. This may be ‘lighter touch’ – more akin to an Awards for All bid – for smaller grant requests, and more demanding for larger.
Whether this will essentially create a three-stage bid process is unclear. And the extent to which the quality of the decision-making process will vary from region to region is anyone’s guess. Will local officers become gate-keepers of the first-stage process, or alternatively rubber-stampers within an additional layer of the application process? Time will tell, although I’m sure that will be a focus of the 3-month training period during programme closure.
Either way, there will almost inevitably be a bottle-neck at this new ‘enquiry stage’ when the programme ‘un-pauses’. Those applicants who submitted a bid before it closed to applications in January, but who have already been rejected within that process, will seek feedback and enquire whether they can submit a fresh application. Those unable to get their bid in before closure will have been working on their bids in the interim, and will want a green light to submit. Presumably, all will be pushed into a ‘first-come-first-served’ situation as new staff seek to get up to speed in their role.
I was advised that the Big Lottery are aiming at a period of a couple of weeks between first contact with an applicant, and that all-important discussion with the local officer. But how long until that time period is achieved and normalised?
We don’t know because none of this appears to have been formally communicated.
There does appear to be a recurring theme of poor (almost non-existent) communication from Big Lottery Fund in recent years. In early 2017 it was the unexpected and poorly announced closure of the Reaching Communities Buildings Programme. Twelve months later, that scenario was repeated in the ‘pausing’ of the main RC programme. And now, certainly among charities that I work with, there is confusion and uncertainty about what will happen next when the RC Programme reopens.
If you have heard more or can shed more light on the matter, please get in touch – especially to put me straight on the facts. If you are frustrated with the lack of information, contact the Big Advice Line on 0345 4 10 20 30 and let them know, in a constructive way – I always find those answering the phone to be friendly and helpful. You can also subscribe to their news updates via their homepage https://www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/.
And if you are planning to submit a bid when the RC programme reopens, then I wish you all the best. I would certainly recommend that you use this time to plan your bid based on the current guidance and application form. Most importantly, take note of the emphasis on an Asset-based approach to planning and developing your project.
Whatever happens with the RC Programme, we do know that Asset-based fundraising is going to mean the difference between funding success and funding failure. If you know of any good resources to help organisations develop an asset based approach then do get in touch (firstname.lastname@example.org).