Partnerships & Resource Development/Resources & Documentation/Presentation by John Andersson at Wikimania 2015
This presentation was given with the hope to give some quick tips and trix and hopefully inspire some other chapters to initiate, or continue, their work around grants.
My name is John Andersson and I am working for Wikimedia Sverige as a Project Manager. I am amongst other things responsible for our work with grants for externally funded projects and it is this part of my work that I will focus on today.
In 2014 we got 125 thousand euros from external sources through project grants. In this number I do not include FDC or money donated by individuals. Last year it was equal to 31% of our budget. The prognosis for 2015 is that it is going to be even higher, probably around 40% of the budget. We also have secured funding for next year and have a couple of very large applications that we are very confident that we will receive. We are really quite happy with these numbers!
One of the benefits with External funding is certainly the money that it can provide your organization with.
On the other hand, I would argue that there are more benefits for a Wikimedia organization to work on external funding than just the money. Regardless of your success rate this is work worth doing. These other benefits are something that I am hoping to highlight today.
I will try to give concrete examples to make it more understandable. If you feel you have a good example as an addition, please feel free to share!
Also, feel free to ask questions during the presentation if something is unclear.
What is external funding?
When talking about external funding there are a lot of different things one could include such as FDC funding, corporate sponsorship or donations from individual donors.
This is however not what I will talk about today, and these things are something other chapters have much more experience with. I will instead focus on the project oriented applications, so called grants. That is where you describe a specific project with goals and with a specific budget to achieve them and hope that you will be chosen to get funding. This is something that we recently have been pretty successful with in Sweden. We have put in a lot of time and effort into this and I hope by sharing some things your work might go a bit faster.
The possibilities are of course different depending on which country you are from. Obviously I mainly know the situation in Europe but there are a couple of things I still would like to mention. You might think this is only for some countries, but I do believe that pretty much every country has some opportunities.
In the U.S. many extremely wealthy people, families and companies have funds from where you can apply from. Many of them are quite modern and appreciate IT projects, which is a great benefit for us.
In many other countries international aid money can be an option. Especially if you, as a local organization, are willing to take the lead and work together with other organizations from other countries.
In Sweden and many Western countries there are usually an abundance with both state money and money from rich people that, before the welfare state a hundred year ago or so, created funds for social benefits. And these large sums of money have collected interest ever since. These funds are often rather traditional and IT projects can seem a bit scary for them... so often you have to adjust the focus in the project description a bit.
In the EU you also have billions that are available for EU wide projects or for regional projects. E.g. the Horizon 2020 fund has a whooping 80 billion Euros for research available until, as the name suggest, 2020.
My point is that there probably are some great opportunities out there and you should take the time to start looking around.
Our Underlying Rationale
Wikimedia Sverige has been working on external funding opportunities for around 4 years now.
It started with the rather simple idea that we needed money to be able to professionalize things. We did not have much of a plan or a strategy for this work at this time and it was kind of ad hoc and we took opportunities when they appeared, rather than working proactively.
The reason we took the decision to work more actively on different grants was that the board had the idea that it was important to diversify our income when the Chapter became an employer and started hiring people. After all, if the Foundation would change their approach to Chapters the board didn't want to be forced to let everybody go and lose the knowledge and partnerships gained.
Nowadays our very ambitious goal is to get funding for half of the budget from external sources. To put it in perspective we have 6 staff members now and a budget of 738,000 USD.
So I would like to say a few things about our strategy around this.
This job is not done in a vacuum. Indeed every year Wikimedia Sverige, like other Chapters develop our annual goals through a strategy meeting and then it is decided on at the General Assembly.
All our work should be in line with and help to fulfill these goals. Hence, the ones of us who work on grant applications need to know the goals very well and make sure to consult these guiding documents frequently.
By now, our office has been given a lot of freedom to pick the projects that we should focus on. Our experience is that this is very important as the time period often is limited and you have to act fast.
However, this is possible because of trust from the board and they can always say no to a project before it would start if they would feel the need for some reason - thankfully this has not happened!
We try to find equal funding for all of the different focus area that we have decided on in our annual plan, such as GLAM and Education. However, in practice this is not something we follow strictly as you need to invest your time in the applications where you have the best chance to find funding overall.
When we pick partners we look for organizations that share our beliefs and vision OR have expertise that we need and are willing to adjust for the project. We believe that we can affect these organizations to align more and more with our ideas over time if we start working together.
I work closely with my colleagues to utilize their network and expertise, depending on the focus of the project we are designing. Together we quickly can assess the opportunities. It is really important to work together for the best results.
Lessons from our work (things we learned over the years)
Finding a suitable fund
We can not apply for everything. There just isn't enough time and we don't always fit the profile that the funders are looking for. For example we are not a research institution and there are a lot of funding set aside specifically for them. In these cases you might need your partner's help and have them send in the application and take a bigger role.
You know, most researchers need to argue how they will disseminate the research results and Wikimedia's projects are excellent choices and it is your job to tell them about this and that your organization is willing to assist them as a formal partner. And they often lack non-academics in their applications which is a weakness.
There are literally thousands of funds in Sweden to pick from, and it is the same in many countries. One of our most important tools is our list of funds. We created this list early on. The list give us an easy overview of what funds are out there and when we should start working on them and when they might have more information about open applications.
In the list you will find information about what the fund's aim and goals are, what time you have to send in the application, how much you can apply for etc.
I strongly recommend that you start by creating a list for your country.
When we are evaluating a certain fund and start working on the application we give a grade regarding its alignment and value for us and also how likely we think we are to be successful. This help us prioritize which applications we actually are going to pursue.
When writing the application
When writing the application there are of course a number of things to think off.
Start thinking about what you believe this project can solve, i.e. the reason why you care in the first place. You always need to carefully describe what added benefits your project will create. Explain not just how it benefits your organization's work and your field but society in general. What are the societal benefits with free knowledge, Open data etc. Make a list in the beginning and be sure to include as much as possible in the text.
Look at the instructions. Start by copying the headlines and limitations in length for each section etc. This is information that the fund nearly always provide you with. If they don't provide you with this information online make sure to contact them and ask them. They usually have some standards that they follow or some kind of guidance they can offer. This is crucial or otherwise you most likely will end up spending hours adjusting your work to their template when you at the end find out what they demand or you simply won't get the money.
Finally, when writing the application, try to put yourself in the shoes of the funding agency. Think about these questions:
- What are they looking for? How can their text be interpreted? Try to answer all the different ways of interpreting it.
- Why do they have this call? What kind of internal goals might they have (if it is e.g. a state agency or EU funding, they will have political guidance that you should take into consideration)?
If you are hesitating about anything above, call or write to them for clarification. Do not guess! It really sucks if you loose substantial funding because you didn't do your job and made sure you understood it all. Often you will also get a better understanding of the other questions above if you have a conversation with them. They are not robots or semi-gods and most are happy that you got in contact with them instead of waisting their time with a failed application. Also, they are more likely to remember your application when they have had a personal interaction with you.
Be sure that you are careful when writing the text. Write out the obvious, don't use internal lingo or abbreviations, present what you will do in the very beginning of the text (don't force the reader to guess), have a logical flow to the text and make sure that all of the sections are pointing toward the same conclusion. Go through the text at the end and look for these things and ask volunteers and other interested people to have a look at it with a fresh pair of eyes.
How to get partners
Sketch out what you have in mind before you start contacting other organizations. You know, put down a rough draft. They have their own goals and should be able to quickly see if the project fits with their aim. The best partners are busy people and you cannot expect them to investe a lot of time in the initial preparations if they don't know you since before. Preparing a rough draft also makes it possible for them to explain to you what they think that they could contribute with. This way you control the process and you can make much more happen in a shorter time period.
Rather often the interesting partner organizations have a strict hierarchy or other procedural issues that will slow down things and if they can present something early on to their board etc., even a rough draft. Then they are more likely to be able to join during the short time periods that you usually have to work on an application.
Use your existing network to find the best possible partners. They know their field and a lot of good people. Most are happy to be asked and guide you.
A lot of people and organisations don't like this creative process for some reason or have had a low success rate when writing grant applications. So if you are willing to take the lead a lot of them will be happy as long as you listen to their wants and needs. By letting them take this freebie they owe you and you also get to keep creative control.
Always remember that Wikipedia is a project people love! Your expertise is interesting for a lot of organizations! If you act quickly you can often pick and choose what partners to add.
The costs associated
Sadly not all of your applications will go thru. This is something you will have to be ready for. Even great applications fail because of extremely hard competitions. You have to shake this off and continue. After all you can often reuse the material later on.
Still, we have had a good amount of success. In 2014 we wrote 8 successful applications and 6 that were not approved. The success rate correlates quite well with time investments but there were a few surprises!
We invested a total of 21,000 € (~23,000 USD) into our applications in 2014. But for every invested euro we got around 6 euros back. So not a bad deal at all! Especially since the texts and plans can be used in the implementation phase as well. This year we are on track to do even better.
What more does it give?
I would like to give a few concrete examples of successful applications and why we found the work around them valuable regardless of how much money they gave us in the end. These effects might come even when the application in the end does not go through!
First of all, many of the application gave us new partners - it was a reason to take contact with other NGOs, GLAMs, universities and companies, as you offer them something positive and don't just demand that they release their material etc. For example we have been involved in a number of projects and events with a company called MetaSolutions that we worked together with, and it all started with a joint application.
Secondly, some applications are valuable because they increase our visibility among decision makers. They have the effect of making other organizations in a specific field hear about us because they keep an eye on who gets funding - similar but not the same as the previous one. New opportunities are reached, for example it increases chances that we are contacted when they have projects they are working on, including new funding opportunities that we might have missed, ask us about our opinion as they know we care (it increases visibility among decision makers). For example we are now invited to different open data projects and events thanks to our externally funded work with Wikidata. In fact this is what enabled me to come here to Wikimania as we were contacted to join an application that another organization was working on since they had heard about our willingness to apply for funding.
Thirdly, you understand other organizations that you want to work with better from the start as you can ask them for all the info you need when planning the project. Hence, you will have a better understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. For example we now know a lot about how universities and GLAMs are functioning internally. For example about the different preparation times they need, about the large overhead for universities and the strict hierarchies in these organizations. This will help you to also execute other projects. They also get to know you and your organization better.
Fourthly, when you get funding you get even more visibility as the funds often send out press releases etc. that the media sometime picks up. E.g. the Women on Wikipedia project has been highlighted even before the work started. It show what your organization care for.
Finally, you have the IKEA Effect. You all know IKEA, the Swedish furniture company? The IKEA Effect is the psychological effect you get when you are taking part in creating something by yourself and have made an investment with time and effort, i.e. building your furnitures or creating a project together to find external funding. As it is relatively easy to invite organizations to work on a joint application you get them to invest in a field that we care for.
The staff involved will more easily embrace the concept of free knowledge regardless of the outcome of the application. At least I have anecdotal evidence that this is working and that the staff becomes more involved in the free knowledge movement afterwards. For example we have seen this with the National Museum of Fine Art in Sweden who we worked on a database application with and they now want to keep on working on it despite us not getting funding at that time. Before they were not very active in this.
What we could do together in the near future
I am about to start working on a Meta page where we can share ideas and best practices and collect relevant learning patterns. Just search for External funding on Meta in a few days and you will be able to start add things and discuss.
Wikimedia Sverige is also interested in joint EU applications, as well as other international projects, together with other chapters. This is something we could and should look into more.