Trust provides feedback for applicants
As the first round of applications to Ufi have now been assessed, we talked to Ray Barnes, Chair of Ufi about how the process has gone and what advice he could offer applicants who had not been chosen to progress to Stage 2.
How have you found the process?
I am very pleased at the amount of interest that this funding round has generated. This shows to me that Ufi has a real role to play in changing the way that learning is provided. We received a large number of applications and so had to set our shortlisting standards very high. No one likes to hear that their application has not been successful but we can only take forward those projects which we judge to have the most potential to make a difference to a large number of users.
How many applications did you receive?
We received 158 applications for funding from all types of organisations - roughly 30% from the private sector, and 70% from charities, public bodies, voluntary organisations and FE colleges.
What was the quality of those applications like?
Very mixed. This is our first funding round as a new charity and was an open call for projects that would help us achieve our aims of scaling up adult and vocational learning opportunities. We received some good applications, but also many that simply hadn’t understood the concept of scalability and which concentrated far too much on the needs and perspective of their own organisations. We also received quite a few applications from good causes which were really just speculative bids to raise funds. While we are sympathetic, these are not what we fund, as Ufi has a very specific mission.
Did you see a difference between the applications you received from the different organisations?
Not in terms of the quality of the solutions they put forward. The charitable sector and FE sectors tended to articulate needs better, and almost all of the most of the organisations we have shortlisted to Stage 2 have come from those sectors. The stronger applications tended to come from consortia which leveraged the knowledge and reach of several organisations.
What were the general strengths of the applications?
In most cases applicants made strong cases about the needs of their particular community or client group.
What were the common failings of applications?
At this stage we were looking for ideas. We didn’t want too much detail, but we did expect to see an outline solution which was scalable and thought through. We wanted to know what the need was, how the project would address it and how and why the project would be a success. Successful bids made clear arguments all the way through. Unsuccessful bids tended to fall down on the how and the why. For example, many bidders had ideas for creating e-learning content for a particular vocational audience - some of which were very good. However, many applicants hadn’t thought through how, having created this content, they would then ensure it was taken up as a scalable solution. Too many just told us they would make the solution available to others as a free resource on the Internet. They had not thought through how to convince the public and/or staff to actually use the products they proposed to create. Too many projects seemed to expect take up to come from natural interest - whereas we know that our clientele would need to be enthused.
How did applicants’ choice of technology influence your decision?
We were surprised at the low level of knowledge about the different types of technology available and what can be achieved with it. Some applications just wrote a long shopping list of different technologies without indicating why they were important or suitable - presumably in the hope that we would approve of one of them. In general we tended to mark down those applications which only used proprietary technology as being inherently less scalable. The best applications showed strong technical knowledge and proposed to use technologies which were consistent with their project aims.
What could applicants have done to improve their submissions?
In general, applications from smaller organisations would have benefited from partnering with another organisation to identify a more complete solution. For example we received some good applications from organisations who are doing very intensive work with low numbers of disadvantaged learners. Unfortunately we had to refuse these as they hadn’t thought through how their solution would scale up. Partnering with a delivery organisation who could bring experience and capacity would have improved these. Similarly, some applicants had good ideas for projects but very limited technological capacity. These would have benefitted from partnering with a specialist technology company.
What about the presentation of the bids?
The best bids were clear, readable and described the project succinctly - and the writer had taken the time to check the spelling.
Was value for money a consideration?
At this stage we weren’t specifically looking for value for money, but we are always aware that we are disbursing public funds. So we tended to view rather sceptically organisations who - without explanation - were asking for more than their annual turnover. Some of the applications from private sector organisations failed to make the case as to why Ufi should fund something which looked to us like a commercial proposition.
Can applicants who were turned down apply again?
Yes. The Fund will be open again next year, although the timescale is not yet fixed. As we finalise our decisions after Stage 2, we will be publicising details of the projects we are working with. The aim is to disseminate the lessons learned as widely as possible, so that future applicants can review their own projects in the light of our own experience.
What has the Trust learned from this process?
We feel that this process has uncovered some good projects which have great potential, but we will need to be pro-active in helping them focus to meet our aims. In this round there are several projects where the Trustees have used their discretion to suggest that the bid would be strengthened by partnering with another organisation, and there are a couple of applicants who have been initially refused but who will be invited to reshape their bid and reapply as their ideas are very strong. Once this funding round has finished we will review the outcomes of this open call and consider how else we could encourage innovation, for example by operating themed calls or issuing focussed ‘challenges’ for funding. I’d like to thank everyone who took the time to submit an application and invite them to keep in touch with us and our work.