How to get a grant

roma_comunity_montenegroWhen I was in Montenegro recently I checked into a small guest house and asked if they had internet. “Of course we do” boomed the big cheery lady who runs the place, but when I tried to get online it didn’t work. I asked for help and she went to fetch the Siberian who was living with his wife on the floor below. “He knows English” she cried as she hurried down the frozen stone steps.

A small, alert and friendly young man came in and tried to help me connect. But it still didn’t work, and we ended up on the outside terrace which was the only place (apart from his room) where the wireless signal actually did work. We sat there for hours, despite the rain and cold, and I learned about Siberia.  I also found out that he is a computer programmer working for a Spanish company. When I asked how he manages to do this in Montenegro he just shrugged and said “Internet…Skype…”

Oleg Shevelyov is from the city of Tomsk which is a university somewhere in Siberia. I knew the name Tomsk from flicking through the Rough Guide to Russia last year. I remember reading that it still had some old wooden houses standing, unlike Nijni Novgorod, the only provincial Russian city that I know, where Putin’s governor had a policy of demolishing all the old wooden buildings.

Tomsk is on the trans-Siberian train route — a 7 day journey I’ve always wanted to make — and is apparently a university town with millions of inhabitants. The big lady then appeared and served me lunch (cold cabbage, hot steak) which I ate with gusto, but my Siberian friend didn’t touch. He explained that he only eats raw fruit, vegetables, nuts and fish — which explains why he looks so young and healthy.

He then told me his wife is a photographer. By now I was connected to the internet and we were able to see her pictures online, and you can see them if you click here . Oleg told me that she photographs gypsy children in Montenegro and I know what a difficult task that is; it takes a lot of patience and a certain approach to be able to earn the trust of a Roma community to the point when you can portray them authentically in their daily routines.

Whenever I have photographed gypsy kids they perform for the camera and it becomes a big show; fun, but not really of interest. But when I saw her pictures I was blown away: they are incredible; brimming with colour, humour and action. They show the daily life of gypsies, which is much the same in Montenegro as it would be in all of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE).

My first reaction was that these photos are important, they portray a big and very misunderstood minority in a way which is neither detached, sentimental or sensationalist (some of the traps photographers can fall into). If these photos could be seen in the right context, such as an exhibition, people might realise that gypsies are just ordinary people, who happen to be living in abject poverty.

If anyone cares to look into the Roma issue objectively they will realise that the key issue is that they have difficulty accessing services or getting jobs. They have been excluded from mainstream society, schools and business for generations, and people tend to develop prejudices — such as “gypsies want to live in misery”, and “they don’t want to send their kids to school” — in order to justify this exclusion. Only a change of attitude, an openness, a willingness to listen and learn, on both sides, will enable the long process of reconciliation to start. Another common prejudice is that “gypsies are not human” and I think photos like these can challenge this.

Knowing what a tough life it is to be a photographer — most organisations don’t understand the value of good photography (after all we can all do it) — I asked if she works for anyone. I soon found out she gets no payment or sponsorship and this photographic project is a labour of love. I then slipped into a routine that I have been doing for years now: advising people how to get a grant. I spent much of the 1990s fundraising and now I am teaching businesses in Romania how to apply for EU Structural Funds. Getting grants and raising money has been part of my life for the last 18 years and I feel ready to share this experience with others. I then received a very polite email from Oleg asking if I would write an article about it, which is what I am doing now.

There are thousands of grant funds in the world and there is one golden rule which I think is valid for all of them: you must understand what the donor is aiming for. Why are they giving this money away? What do they hope to achieve? It is vital to know this because if you can understand their purpose you can quickly work out if your project will fit: will your project help the donor achieve his objective? If you know this you can then decide if it is worth applying for. If the answer is yes, and if your project will help the donor get what they want, then you have a rock solid submission that you should pursue with determination: keep applying even if you get rejected first time round. Donors are always looking for good projects, even if they don’t advertise this fact.

Some donors know exactly what they want to achieve and they have all the procedures worked out, as well as lists of tried and tested suppliers. The EU, World Bank, UNDP and USAID all fall into this category. You can see what these donors want by simply studying their websites, or reading the application procedures. Generally, they all want to help improve the social and economic conditions in developing countries, through a huge variety of programmes, and the big donors also believe that NGOs (charities) can transform ex Communist countries, as the great philanthropists in 19 century England did. Although this idea is deeply flawed, in my view, it does mean there are huge amounts of cash available to NGOs working in the ex Communist countries.

If your project can help them achieve this, and if you can prove it will be a good project (which you do in the application form) you have every chance of getting funding. It’s important to realise that the donors need you more than you need them: without proposals, and people to carry out projects, donors couldn’t achieve anything.

In Romania, 32 billion euro of Structural Funds has been assigned since it joined the EU in 2007 and money is now available for almost every economic activity imaginable. Unfortunately most people have no idea why this money was given, what kind of projects are wanted or how to apply (the funds haven’t been promoted properly). As a result almost all this money remains unspent, and when the media finally realise how much money Romania is losing it will become a major scandal. But that’s another story.

But what about those donors who don’t promote their grant fund publicly? Surprisingly there are a lot of them and they range from company and family trusts that support a handful of long term charities, or “pet projects”, other funds that don’t have the staff to promote themselves or evaluate lots of applications, and embassies. I once developed a website ( which showed hundreds of donor funds, and there are other sites which offer this service.

Most big nation embassies have what they call “discretionary funds” that they can spend on projects they think will help raise their profile or make some kind of difference socially. With this information in mind you need to ask yourself “could my project be of interest to the Embassy of x?” and then think it through. Why would they want to support your project? Is there any publicity value in it for them? In my experience, embassies will occasionally support social projects if they really believe in it. We once got a grant from the British Embassy in Bucharest to make a film which challenged Roma prejudice. You can see the film here

This brings me back to Oleg and his wife. My starting point was that her photos are important, they should be seen by policy makers, the media and the intelligentsia in Montenegro, and they are good enough to travel around Europe (maybe even the world). But who would fund this? And how can I give advice considering I know nothing about donors in Montenegro?

What I can say is this: it should be possible to find money for a project like this in any developing country. The big funds (UN, USAID, EU) will be present in Montenegro in some form, and their aims will be broadly similar to what they do elsewhere: try to improve the social and economic situation. All of these donors have attempted to improve the condition of the Roma in developing countries, unfortunately with little impact, and it can be assumed that the Roma will be on their list of objectives in Montenegro, and that a photo project may be a good way to raise awareness.

But it can also be assumed that the application procedures will be complicated, their funds might have already been stitched up by sophisticated international NGOs (cosy relationships may have already been formed), or the donor is so tied up with its own bureaucracy that that good projects get ignored for all the wrong reasons (unfortunately this is what seems to happen with international aid). Although these donors have a lot of cash they generally prefer to use “old boy networks” rather than advertise, and have the hassle of dealing with thousands of applications. It is just so much easier working with people you already know.

For my Russian friends the best thing would be to visit the Russian Embassy in Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, and ask for a grant. It would be interesting to see how the embassy would react and I suspect their first reaction would be surprise. They would probably say “we don’t give grants…we’ve never been asked before…I’m sorry but we can’t help”. I would consider a reaction like this quite predictable as most embassies don’t let it be known that they have such funds and often they don’t really know how to make use of it. But I wouldn’t give up; in fact this would be the starting point.

Most people want to give up if they get refused, but you shouldn’t and keeping going is the key to getting a grant (filling in the forms is the easy bit). If you know that your project is very much in their interest, then you should keep trying to persuade them of this fact. What one can also assume about the Russian Embassy is that it would have to ask Moscow for permission to do anything unusual like sponsor an exhibition, a process that would take months, and so you would then go to the next step: apply to the other embassies.

But how would a photo exhibition be of interest to an embassy in Podgorica? First of all you must realise that Montenegro is one of the newest countries of Europe and therefore the embassies are new and it is unlikely they have worked out what to do with their discretionary funds, or established the cosy relationships that usually take care of discretionary funds. Secondly, all embassies need some kind of PR and media exposure, to mark their presence in some way; and an exhibition is an ideal way to get into the media (and show you care).

And all embassies would agree that “something needs to be done” for the Roma minority. What better way of doing all this than sponsoring an exhibition of photos — which is also a lot cheaper than many types of other projects. And what a great opportunity for the Russians to show they have caring, sensitive, artistic people as well as the political bullies that we always see in the media.

The important thing at this stage is not to give up — always a huge temptation when applying for a grant — and to keep going. In fact, I would say the hardest thing, by far, about getting a grant is to get started, and to maintain momentum. Not to give up.

Another deceptively difficult step is to summarise your project in a way that is both concise and clearly focused. And it is vital that your project has a really clear and achievable target — such as organising an exhibition — and not to complicate this with other things that need to be done. When people know there is a grant available they tend to start thinking bigger than they are able to organise, perhaps with an eye on getting as much as possible from the donor. This is risky and it is best to keep your project as simple and focuses as possible.

I am often surprised how many people who are doing interesting projects don’t think they are eligible for a grant, or how few people know about grant funds in general, or who can’t be bothered to apply, or think they would have no chance, or (in Eastern Europe in particular, where the conspiracy theory is alive and well) the whole process is corrupted and stitched up.

But it is incredible how many grant funds there are, how many activities (social, economic, environmental, cultural, scientific) would be eligible for grants. And experience has shown me that most of the time the donors complain about receiving rotten project proposals and that they are always on the lookout for new projects.

This article was published in Romanian in Dilema Veche.

17 Responses to How to get a grant

  1. Luljeta says:

    Well where to start.
    You asked for my opinion, I live in Kosova the newest country in the world, and we really need found rising in here, and we need a lot of grants, I do support your article.
    I used to work as grants officer in an USAID founded programme “Chemonics” we used to give grants for farmers thru ought Kosova, encouraging minorities to apply, and when you mentioned that applying is the easiest part grantees don’t think like that, as I could here from them, they were saying is there any easier way to ask for a grant? And I think that for donor’s the hardest part is the report time, they are never on time.
    For Kosova I have lot of ideas that could work to get granted, but how to get the grant it is not a piece of cake.

    Good Luck

  2. Manuela says:

    Your article is amazing, due to the people you wrote about but also for the good advice. I’m a Romanian student and I know how many good ideas people around me have but unfortunately they remain only ideas. I think the most critical step is actually starting to search for funds. As you said, a good and simple idea persuasively presented could help anybody find money for their projects. And this is probably what you are trying to teach to the people at your trainings about EU funds.

    I am interested in African immigrants in Bucharest and I know how hard their life is. Reading you article, it occurred to me that I might be able to do something for them by getting in touch with embassies.

    Can’t wait to read your next article


  3. Ramona says:

    Good article, Rupert. I really enjoyed looking at Anna’s photos.
    I’m a Romanian living in Kiev at the moment and volunteering with the International Women’s Club Of Kiev (IWCK) on both sides: in fundraising and fund disbursements. At the moment, the grant competition is open.
    This is to all of you who have good projects, all over the world: take Rupert’s advice and apply. And don’t give up. There’s a lot of donors with a lot of money to give and too few to give it to. Over here, we’re desperate for good projects. And, as Rupert said, we can’t do the projects – we can only help financially in their accomplishment.
    All the best,

  4. Rupert says:

    Thanks for these interesting comments. Your comments make me realise how unevenly spread grant funds are (like wealth). I remember working on a grant proposal to rebuild the primary health care system in Kosovo, in 1999 and we got over 10,000,000 euro. It was too easy, because the main donors were throwing money at Kosovo at the time. I then heard the donor funds de-camped and moved to Serbia and other places; the fashion had moved on. The problem is that you can create a dependency on these funds. Something similar happened in Romania with NGOs thinking the only source of funds is international donors, dismissing the idea of fundraising from their local community, businesses or running membership schemes. And now Romania has 32 billion Euro of EU Structural Funds allocated to it between 2007 and 2013, and it can’t spend this money because of red tape. Other examples I know of are Iraq, where the British Government closed down all its “middle income country” programmes in places like Romania, Russia and Latin America, as it needed to find a billion euro to chuck into Iraq. And after the Tsunami the flood of aid to SE Asia became an obscene money grubbing fight between NGOs. But this is the “big picture” of government type donors who, unfortunately for those working there, often end up becoming an instrument of foreign policy. There are thousands of other donors — particularly private foundations — many of which are genuinely independent and focused on particular areas, which are looking for good projects. So don’t be discouraged by my cynicism. If you have a clearly focused project, and you are determined to do it come hell or high water, then you have a good chance of getting grants. The money is there, you just have to be determined about getting it, and not give up. My problem, and I suspect the problem of many people, is that I am focused on too many projects and therefore. If I would focus on just one — like making a documentary film about Alex Balaenscu — I’m sure I would find the money.

  5. Magnus says:

    Great article – really appreciate how it flows from the country to the guest house, to the techie guy, to the photos, to the grants.

    I too have been working in grants for years – as an NGO worker, in Kosovo (!) but also Romania, Bosnia, Eritrea, Liberia, Sudan, Indonesia and a few others. I was always applying as part of a large NGO project, usually for big funds to do things that would affect tens of thousands. So the funds were big and our expenses (staff, offices, etc.) also high.

    In a way it can be easier as a small outift, where the costs are lower, but I always found the small grants to be just as complicated to apply for, so were sometimes less interesting.

    Now I’ve moved to Portugal with my family and researching local issues, planning to build a house using only natural materials, in an attempt to learn how to live in a way that does not destroy the planet. I am writing about some of these issues on:

    Point is that there are EU funds around here and Rupert is always encouraging me to apply. I had never thought that I could do it outside a big organisation / NGO, but why not? As he says: you can only try. And don’t give up. OK, I’m in!


  6. Stephanie WM says:

    Rupert, I loved your article about the Siberian family in Montenegro AND the useful advice about accessing grants. And you’re so right. Donors have to give. That is their remit.
    Another piece of advice I would give is that if you are in a position to talk to the donor before filling in their forms he/she can give you invaluable advice how to do it. Go to see them if possible, even fill in the form and take it to someone in the donor’s office who you have befriended (yes do this too) and ask them if they think you could improve it or if they think you’ve got it right. In other words have plenty of dialogue with the donor, if possible.
    However I also agree with the last person who wrote a comment: you can create a dependence on the funds.

  7. Anna says:

    Rupert! Thank you a lot for your article. I’m so glad that you like my photos. Actually when you work on some subject, you dive into it completely and very often don’t see any positive result and feel only dissatifaction of yourself because there are still a lot of work. Thus your point of view is very valuable for me. The article itself inspired me to continue working on this photo story and to search for money in various funds. Today I was in Russian Embassy in Podgorica. The first phrase people from the Embassy said: “We don’t have money for sure”. They are very pleasant people and were glad to talk with me, but they don’t support any social projects. There are some small events related to Embassy that usually promoted by local press for free. They are not interested in Gypsies, but might be interested in Russian-Montenegro contacts. They don’t know anything about other Embassies. Right now I just left them my contacts. Anyway it was my first experience of talking with such organizations. I’m going to work toward this direction! Though in near future probably in another country.
    Luljeta, Manuela, Ramona thanks for your comments as well! Soon I’m going to update my Gypsies photos (I finally have processed next portion after a long time of disbelief).

  8. Stefan says:

    Unfortunately one of the main problems with these funds is that people are not really aware of their existence. Another problem, especially in Romania and the other surrounding countries is that there is a stereotype around corruption and birocracy, so people find it hard to believe that NGOs or embassies would actually give away these kind of funds. In my opinion some measures should be taken in order to increase awarness in this matter and people should find the necesary confidence to expose their ideas. There are a lot of great ideas waiting to be put into practice and it’s really good to know that there are people out there who support these projects. People should just be more confident and aware in order to tackle these funds. In Romania there is a big problem around the funds allocated by the EU, especially in the rural areas. Money has been given to develop the infrastructure in agriculture but so far nobody seems to take any action, especially because of the fact that these funds haven’t been promoted properly.


  9. Thank you all for these really interesting perspectives

  10. Oleg says:

    I’m a bit late with my comment, sorry.

    I really enjoyed your article Rupert. At first it was interesting and funny to read your description of our meeting and to get a side view. At second I’ve got some new ideas that we didn’t discuss. And third you’ve gathered some people interested in the topic. Commenting they have been investing new knowledge.

    You are right so many people don’t even know about existing of such grants (not saying about not believing in them because of burocracy). (Just today I talked to my friend who was very surprised to hear that it’s possible to get such money from goverment). Thus talking and writing articles about the grants helps to discover new perspectives and finally can even significantly improve one’s life giving a chance to work on his own ideas.

    As for me I was inspired to know that you have a company that can exists on government grants (am I understand you right?). That you can do things you really like, different social projects, to help people. That it might be really creative work, not just a stuff for commercial.

  11. Alex says:

    As you suggest in the article the grants are almost everywhere. I have experience in working with funds in Romania, PHARE and now Structural Funds and I would like to add something else in discussion, the fact that together with this grants and I’m talking in principle about EU, we are having another great “benefit”, a really big monster which is called birocracy. I don’t know who invented it, but for sure, your big and nice project idea will become a microscopic organism in the front of this huge monster. If you’d like to get a grant for an environment project I think the best project idea will be to not get any because for sure you will save the life of a bunch of trees, about that is the amount of paper that you’ll have to submit for getting it (Structural Funds especialy). So beside the fact that these grants are really poor promoted, when you are finding them another barrier appears in your the face.
    I don’t want to disappoint anybody or to express here my frustrations but if you want to take a grant you should be prepared for the worst.
    Good luck!
    Congratulations Rupert again for the article and for the idea of writing about this!

  12. Cristina says:

    This is a really well written article because it draws attention both upon the many great ideas and interesting projects that are out there and especially upon the people’s ignorance regarding the existence of these kind of funds. I admit that I have never considered developing a project which would have been based on external funds. Since I am a student, my world consists in ideas, I am surrounded by them, by their creators and also by their abandonment.
    Maybe the existence of these funds will be better promoted in the future and together with it those things that need society’s attention (in this case the gipsy community )

  13. Daciana says:

    Really true. You take is in the first part of the article in a very interesting world that I would like to see in the future.
    Besides that, you are very right about getting funding.
    There is a big chance for everyone in this world to see their idea come true, if only one would look over his shoulder.
    I can see opportunities almost everywhere and if I didn’t see it, somebody did.
    I think a bit of creativity in seeing opportunities and not problems is the key.

  14. Radu says:

    Hi there!

    Apart from is there a more recent and complete website with financial aid sources? I’ve plenty of friends who say they have projects but no money to develop them.



  15. Ada says:

    I have enjoyed reading the article specially that I fully agree. There are grant funds and not so many people know how to look for them. But…in the same time there are plenty of answers like “we regret to inform you that we cannot process your request because the aims of your organization do not correspond to our priorities”. What should be done next? Try again. Fail again. Fail better. ?

  16. I’d just love to know WHERE TO LOOK for a grant. I’ American, married to a Romanian. We have western agricultural edcation and experience, 20 acres of land, a home and a first class barn in a village in Mures County. We want to create a small dairy farm (10 cows) with western practices to provide a model for the region for young people who have access to land in the villages but who are migrating as fast as theycan into the cities. Big cities in Romania are surrounded with small villages that could provide a wonderful resource for food and other products to support the needs of those cities. Modern practices, with elements of permaculture and alternative crops such as hemp, herbs, lavender, specialist cheeses, you name it, could all breathe life into small dying communities and assist an economy that is suffering the same difficulties as states throughout the European union. I’ve TRIED to find money for our project, and need it because I’ve run out of personal finances… not just for this, bt also for my Roma school (92 kids to educate, feed, clothe, and prepare to enter mainstream education when they are ready). I haven’t the foggiest anymore on where to look.

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