You’ve always had it. That persitant, lingering feeling that something was wrong. You’ve asked yourself two questions: Why hasn’t anyone done something about it yet? What is the solution? Then it happens, that feeling of warmth and happiness – you’ve thought of a solution. You were brave enough to take the first of many steps, founding your own social startup, your own non-profit organization, starting work on a solution you believe in. Now begins the real struggle.

Funding comes in all shapes and sizes. To name just a few: impact investing funds, mission investing, private investors or public grants. Thousands of different funding programs with bureaucratic restrictions and stringent guidelines make it very difficult to find a match. The following steps will provide you a comprehensive introduction to the most strategic methods of locating and securing public grants.

Scoring funding - the first 5 steps:

  1. Mind mapping of potential projects
  2. Time management
  3. Research 
  4. Database and Analysis
  5. Customize

Step 1: Mind mapping of potential projects

In the beginning was the idea, and the idea was…

Everybody is excited about your idea. Everybody wants to hear more about the organization you are working for. But, at some point, you will feel as if you’ve hit a wall: “Great idea, but we can’t give you any money – sorry, but your plan is not part of our portfolio strategy; we have a different focus this year. If you created something else, or changed your idea, then we could discuss it again. But, great idea! Really great!”

You wanted to change the world with your idea. Now, the world wants you to change your idea. Even the thought of adaptations gives you the “heebie-jeebies.” On the road to successful funding, one day spent crafting a mind map with your team is a day well spent. For fun’s sake, let’s call it “the Find Map.”

Take a step back - think of all your organization’s possible target groups and the reach of your potential projects. Create a stakeholder map for each project and cogitate on how your existing network might be able to contribute. The key question: which project has the most potential to target specific niche groups, while at the same time connecting with valuable partners?

 Step 2: Time management

 The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time, but… (Bertrand Russel)

…the Art of Funding is also the art of patience. Think hard: are you equipped to handle the funding process on your own? Do you have enough time to dedicate large chunks not only to finding the right funding, but also to networking, the application process, and reporting? If you do not have the resources, make it clear when and to whom you delegate the task – it is extremely important that a member of your team is responsible for the entire process. If you do not consider this up front, you will lose a lot of valuable time, even after you’ve successfully funded a project. Because receiving money also means providing proof that the funds have been used as expected, if the project budgets have been planned unrealistically or sloppily, you will be forced to enjoy many a cancelled holiday.

Step 3: Research

Down the rabbit hole

You proudly decided to do it yourself. Take your “Find Map,” and begin to reflect on the social and economic impact your potential projects might have. This information will give you the direction you need – they are your North Star on the funding horizon (aside: Horizon is an infamous European public grant program). You may now be overwhelmed by the thousands of program and funding options. Don’t panic! Start at the local level – check out what your city and state have to offer. Then, consider all the national ministries that are thematically compatible with your endeavors. At this level you will find information concerning the strategies that influence the offered funding programs, as well as important announcements related to these programs. Each program that, at first glance, suits the needs and qualifications of your project should be considered as an option. Now search the even wider web of European funding; after a week you will be able to observe which topics are more likely to receive funding and prioritize the remainder of your search accordingly. Now, stop messing around and dig in.

 Step 4: Database and Analysis

 A mad tea-party

Even though all the information seems to be accessible online, be assured that this is not the case. Go buy books and databases of funding organizations and programs. These will include much-needed contacts. Your “Find Map” should now consist of possible projects, summarized in terms of their impact. Each of these should ideally be linked to different program possibilities. Basically, you have created a funding filter. Now the madness can begin – create a basic database containing your ideas for each potential project, because next step on your road to successful acquisition of funding is to glue yourself to the telephone. Guidelines mean two things: strict regulations and bureaucracy, but also room for interpretation. As a consequence, a big part of researching a specific program is reading up on it and trying to discern everything possible about its “grey area” and any additional requirements it might have. Use this vital information to expand your database.

Step 5: Customize

 An unexpected word – Creativity

You finally have a shortlist of programs to lead you in the right direction. But, there are certain things that just don’t seem to be a fit. The time has come to think outside the box. This means finding partners that make you eligible to apply for certain programs and drafting concepts for projects perfect not only for those programs, but also for the mission of your own organization. Meet with the people in charge and ask the right questions. Here’s an example: one guideline might suggest that you need to cover 30% of the project’s costs with your own contributions. Sadly, you might not have that kind of money. A perfectly good question to ask could then be: “Is it acceptable to list volunteer contribution as our own contribution?”

It’s not all about the money. I want to finish with some extra motivation. Mastering the art of funding doesn’t mean just digging for money. It is actually an excellent way not only to get better acquainted the goals of your own organization, but also to network and develop your business model. Don’t take the fun out of funding!

To get a better idea of other funding options, check out tbd*'s Social Startup Guide 2015.

Additional platforms and resources

EU Commission Research and Innovation Funding Opportunities Portal

 About the Author


Manuela Zierau is working as a Business Analyst for Public Funding at Berlin Startup Consulting. Her job is to find the best funding options and strategies for early stage startups, organizations and associations. She studied History and Rhetoric as well as management in Tübingen, Port Elizabeth and Leipzig. She sharpened her profile by focusing on Risk Management of International Development Projects and is very passionate about social impact measurement.

Originally published June 17, 2015

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