What do people think about applying to the Wolfson Foundation?

Lightbulbs hanging from a ceiling

What do people think about applying to the Wolfson Foundation?

We were recently commissioned to survey applicants of the Wolfson Foundation, to help the foundation better understand the experiences of those applying for funding. This week, their Chief Executive Paul Ramsbottom takes us through what they learned from our research.

Paul Ramsbottom, Chief Executive of the Wolfson Foundation

We have a clear ambition at the Wolfson Foundation to be a listening, responsive and open organisation, staffed by people who care deeply about supporting the sectors we serve.

Part of that is reflecting on how we might improve. This was the motivation in commissioning nfpResearch to carry out another regular survey of applicants. We asked for feedback from successful and unsuccessful applicants across all our funding programmes. Our blog post on the report can be found here.


Support in challenging times

The report makes the point that the period it covers – the pandemic and immediately afterwards – were peculiar and extraordinary times. We are therefore pleased to receive so much positive comment and we do not take this  for granted. Our exceptional funding during the pandemic seems to have been the right funding at the right time.

We are reassured that our two-stage application process, including a light-touch Stage 1 application, is appreciated. We will continue to organise our grant-making in this way.

Given that many funders are shifting – for sensible reasons – towards unrestricted forms of funding, it was interesting to see a clear consensus that we should stick with our specialism of capital funding.

I am proud to work with a team who care passionately about the areas we fund. It is good to see this acknowledged in the report and translating into positive applicant experiences. It is also important for us to hear about the challenges facing virtually every sector we support. These are significant and, in some cases, unprecedented.


What we’re doing to improve

We have taken on board suggestions from respondents to provide more help and guidance, particularly at the initial stage of applying to us. As a result, we have:

  • Created an eligibility quiz to make guidance clearer
  • Put together the first of a set of case studies designed to support applicants. We will continue to expand this bank of resources
  • Enhanced the emails sent to Stage 1 applicants who we are not able to fund. Wherever possible, and set against the backdrop of the huge number of applications, we are providing more context to help applicants understand why an application was not successful.

While we hope that these changes build on the valuable feedback we have received, we continue to review how we are working and will trial different approaches in the coming months.


Less positive responses

While many unsuccessful applicants thought highly of the Wolfson Foundation, there was also less positive feedback, particularly from those unsuccessful at the first stage. We heard that applicants would like more personal interactions, including visits, meetings and networking opportunities. Unsuccessful applicants asked for more information to understand the reasons for the lack of funding.

Feedback on unsuccessful applications

We understand the frustration and disappointment when we are not able to fund an application, and the desire for more feedback at Stage 1 of our application process. For those who submit a full application at Stage 2 we always offer detailed and personal feedback. But like many funders, we face a growing demand for our funding, exacerbated by the challenges faced by the sectors we support. It is unfortunately just not possible for us to provide detailed feedback at Stage 1 to all unsuccessful applicants.

To take two examples from our most recent round of applications: we saw applications to our schools programme increase by a third. Under our health and disability programme, it rose by 70%. The vast scale of applications forces us to make even more difficult decisions about which projects we can support at a meaningful level.

We also have to consider the correct level of staffing resource, and where to use it. In the current environment, it seems unhelpful to reduce our grant-making capacity by spending significantly more on administration.

Visits and meetings

One of the great joys of grant-making is meeting individuals, visiting organisations and hearing first-hand about plans, challenges and ambitions.  Some applicants commented that, without meetings or visits, Wolfson can feel impersonal.

There is a practical point here. A small team administers programmes totalling some £38 million per year across the whole of the UK. We welcome queries from any applicant at any stage of the process. But to meet every applicant and grant holder would involve a significantly different staff structure that would be hard to justify.

There is also a point of principle. We want all applicants to have the same level of support and opportunity to access funding, whatever  their location or previous contact with Wolfson. This is why we don’t generally visit projects as part of the assessment process. Instead, our decision-making is based on the expert advice we receive through the peer review process and our expert panels.

We recognise that we can do more to explain how we make decisions and reduce concerns that some organisations have greater access to funding. In that context, it is worth noting that over 60% of capital grants in our most recent funding round went to organisations who had never previously received Wolfson funding.


A big thank you

We are enormously grateful to all those who took the time to respond to the survey. It has been helpful to refine how we administer our grant programmes. In a broader sense, it is also useful as we come toward the end of the current period covered by our Strategic Framework and think about our future. One strategic point seems clear from the survey – that our commitment to capital funding should remain.

Lastly, we are not simply interested in feedback via this formal process. We are grateful for comments – whether positive or negative – at any time. Wherever possible we are committed to act on suggestions for improvements.


If you're interested in this type of research for your own organisation, consider contacting us at insight@nfpResearch.com

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