Challenges & Tips for Funding Civic Tech
Words by Nonso Jideofor • Jan 11 2022
A list of fundraising challenges commonly faced by civic tech organizations, and tips to help get through them.
It’s well-known that cashflow is an important lifeline for businesses. What isn’t as well known, is that the same can be said for non-profit organizations. This, among other points, stood out in the Support Squad session facilitated by our Co-Director, Lorin Camargo, in August of 2021. Also highlighted during this meeting was the belief that civic tech organizations often face a fundraising tension between displaying flashy tech and communicating impact to funding partners and donors. It was agreed during the meeting that the latter often yields less success. In this article I will share some fundraising challenges and tips relevant to civic tech organizations, pulled from both the Support Squad conversation and my own personal experience.
Before diving into the challenges and tips, here is a quick background on why I am writing this post. In January of 2021 I took on a part-time role as Code for All’s Funding & Partnerships Manager. It has been an exciting year working to help find resources in cash and kind for the network. In previous partnerships and fundraising roles, both functions were subsumed in other job titles and allocated a percentage of time. This role has been fully dedicated to partnerships and fundraising and has involved writing proposals, creating diverse lists of funders and partners, sending outreaches and campaigns, coordinating requests and needs, organizing subscriptions and managing collaborations on project and business development efforts. This post has been written with others in mind who are navigating fundraising for their civic tech mission and projects. It is also an outreach to folks in the civic tech community working on fundraising initiatives who would like to connect to talk about ideas and potential collaborations. We would be more than happy to talk through ideas and facilitate connections. You can either comment with your own experience and immediate priorities on the #fundraising channel of the Code for All Slack or reach out over email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Fundraising Challenges for Civic Tech Organizations
The bulk of what has been noted as challenging below is based on the perspective of the organization looking to raise funding. It is important to note that in some cases, from the perspective of the funding partner, the goal is process efficiency, fiscal responsibility and due diligence. Rather than a criticism, there can be collaborative efforts made towards examining and lowering these barriers.
- Budgets tend to underestimate time and funds (rightly so as scarce resources) required for outcomes desired. The implication is that even though funding partners like the idea of evidence-based and impactful work, it becomes less appealing once they realize how much time and funding it will take.
- Less than necessary interest and priority is given to fixing processes (typically requiring additional research) because attention often goes straight to digitization. Digitizing a broken process just gets you a broken digitized process, versus something new and innovative that solves a problem.
- Funding opportunities are rarely flexible, and are instead often tailored to priorities and agendas that have been pre-set by the funding partner, based on a previously acquired understanding of a problem in flux. This leaves little or no room for ideation, innovation, experimentation and failure. In some cases, the window funding is misaligned with when the problem exists, making it impossible to have a just-in-time response.
- Funding partners might strive to include new organizations but generally fall to old patterns — the tendency to fund what they know. In design and communication, the intention to include newer organizations exist but through execution, they are excluded (or barely get enough funding to keep the lights on).
- Developing a winning application involves a lot of unpaid work in advance (less so if the role is fundraising but a lot of work nonetheless), and sometimes it might mean mobilizing a small team within and outside the organization. In competitive processes, this amounts to a lot of person-hours when all submissions are taken into account and only one or few move forward. Where do all those brilliant ideas and data go?
- Funding initiatives and information can be scarce, opaque, behind paywalls and inaccessible (language and presentation). These can include data on who funding partners are, what their processes and key criteria are, what winning guidelines are, when they are funding, and so on.
Fundraising Tips & Tricks for Civic Tech Organizations
A winning proposal among other things is a compelling story, with good background research and requiring good project management. Also noteworthy, when possible, do it through team effort. Below is more detail on these points and other tips and tricks that can help your fundraising efforts.
- Many times, it comes down to a compelling proposal. Good storytelling helps, especially at the outset of each proposal. Aim to write like a journalist — make the first line compelling, use the beginning of the proposal to show examples, expertise and pedigree, and use data/statistics where applicable.
- The acronym BANT (Budget, Authority, Needs, Timeline) & MP (Mission & Procurement) is a good checklist to figure out which funders to pursue. When navigating the initial conversation and deciding if an opportunity is right, look at the partner’s ability to make changes, what their budget is, what their timeline is, attempt to articulate their needs, ask for the procurement process to be explained, and make sure there is mission alignment.
- Invest some time in advance to do background research and become familiar with the problem and context if you aren’t already. This can be useful in several ways beyond just being prepared, such as thinking through ways to target and adapt your expertise and experience. It can also surface important points that might be too-costly-to-miss blindspots for the funding partner.
- Don’t limit the project to a list of requirements, turn it to something that is the vision for users. You could do so by exploring why the users are there, being aware of what they want, and framing the proposal in terms of the users and what could be different for them. As you do so, also keep in mind that there can be more than one category of user in every project and you can choose to prioritize.
- Listening to stakeholders and staying flexible with your strategy and tactics to meet the funding partner halfway can be priceless. Getting engagement and ultimately success is a combination of doing what you need and doing what the funding partners want in order to get the project rolling. It can come down to offering a bit of the flashy tech and strengthening processes or having a sexy slide (i.e. good visualization) to lead the user into the content – the sexy stuff helps bring people in to look at the valuable stuff.
- When developing proposals, normalize asking for support and aim to do so as early as possible in the process. In addition to good storytelling, the beginning of the proposal should also be used to echo back an understanding and appreciation of the funder’s priorities and framing of the problem.
This post was made possible through the contributions made by participants in the fundraising and partnerships support squad meeting held in August 2021. If you have found this useful and would like to join the conversation, connect with us on the #fundraising channel of the Code for All Slack.