Author: Anna Spinks

/ Articles posted by Anna Spinks
A swansong for messy admin through digital grants

A swansong for messy admin through digital grants

The benefits of digital grantmaking

When it comes to using digital tools to get smart about managing grants, using an online application process is a small piece of the grant making jigsaw. Many organisations have online forms, but behind the scenes day-to-day of grant administration is still undertaken via a mountain of paperwork, a group inbox and a shared folder full of multiple versions of excel spreadsheets. I call this model of grant management ‘The Swan’ (serene on the surface, but paddling like mad underneath).  I find myself both frustrated and excited to come across a Swan. I feel the frustration at the time taken up just maintaining an accurate record of everything Grants Officers have to do – let alone actually doing anything.  But I also share a grant panel’s belief and optimism that ‘surely it should be easy to pull those figures together’.

As I manage four very different grant programmes, I am really excited by the benefits of going to a fully digital service not least the ease of use, but to improve the experience and make it more efficient for grantees, funders and administrators alike.

1. Intelligent forms: no more duff applications

Clever forms can stop applicants wasting time completing applications to funds that they are not eligible for.  Forms can validate answers so that reviewers do not have to pore over budgets that do not make sense and they can use logic to branch and ask applicants relevant questions. For an applicant, this is much more user-friendly, because they aren’t distracted by questions that aren’t relevant  or confused by generic instructions and guidance. This can actually raise the quality of applications because you can be more targeted in your questions, and consequently applicants are more succinct and direct in their answers – giving you  the information you really need. By displaying relevant instructions and tips, guidance is much more likely to be read and followed!

2. Robust assessment: freedom to concentrate on content and quality not coordination

Applications can go through an eligibility screening and/or bespoke scoring process. Our system captures comments, conditions and decisions, and can generate panel packs, review documents, score sheets and summaries and excel exports into templates with minimum effort.

Reviewer dashboard

This is all tracked and managed online and is a painless process for reviewers. We can customise what information is displayed, in what order, with associated guidance and direction. As the system is always up-to-date with the most recent activity, reviewers can score little and often,  workloads can be shared across a team, with individuals able to access and score the same application simultaneously. We can also apply weightings to assessment criteria, or apply ‘z-scores’ and ‘confidence weightings’ as well as record conflicts of interest – all without adding complexity or time to administration.

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This means that Grant Officers are freed up to analyse fund metrics and provide insights – such as what is the profile of applicants, are they scoring similarly in the review process, or are there emerging patterns in the strengths and weaknesses of applicant subgroups? Useful intelligence if you are trying to make sure you are reaching the right audience.

3. Tailored offers: diversity without complexity

It is easy to allocate, manage and update conditions and deadlines for each applicant. This helps to respond flexibly to individual project’s circumstances. Any conditions and deadlines are automatically reflected in the offer letters, grant agreements and emails that Grant Officers can generate directly from the system.  Documentation is associated with each applicant’s record, along with notes and comments left by Grant Officers. All this makes it easy for anyone in the team to understand what is going on – meaning that the world does not stop when Grant Officers go on leave and the auditor is kept happy (well, as much as they can be!).

4. Painless, accurate and timely monitoring

We can create online monitoring forms linked to the original application form. Applicants can update you on their progress and expenditure against the project’s milestones, activities and targets;  See at a glance who’s late, when you last nagged them, who has a good excuse and who has now earned a ‘grumpy email’. Applicants can view (but not change) previous submissions, see what deadlines are coming up and initiate their own monitoring. As with all online forms, they can start and return to a form later, and you can check on their progress so far.

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All in all, this helps ensure that your resources are supporting individual projects to realise their objectives and that your overall programme is on track to achieve its objectives.

5. Robust disbursement: Giving money made easy

Individual payments can be scheduled, approved and recorded in the system. Applicants and officers can see at a project level what has been requested, awarded, claimed and paid – and, if applicable, what milestones and activities these monies relate to. The system aggregates this information into a dashboard with an easy to view fund summary or allows you to dive into the detail of payment records, at a fund, grant or applicant level (all of which can be exported into Excel).

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All this streamlines and simplifies disbursement for all parties – allowing payments to be made quickly, and makes the ‘giving of money’ as easy as it should be. The system can also manage funds with awards of a fixed amount, or with a non-monetary value such as capacity building support or awards.

6. Applicant experience: focus on support not compliance

Less administration means that Grant Officers can focus their time on the content and quality of their interactions with projects, concentrating on addressing needs and supporting outcomes rather than wholly on compliance. Whilst all the administration is online and virtual – in practice our experience is that working relationships become stronger, and we are available to provide more and better support by phone and in person.  We can also help individuals who need more specific help with a disability or language need.

Applicants are appreciating this more personalised experience, alongside the ‘one stop shop’ for information, with the ability to log in to view the status of their application or monitoring and to view or print copies of past submissions. We have more visibility and control over the information that is being submitted than ever before – so there are more ‘right first time’ submissions reducing the need for clarifications and corrections.

And its not just me who is saying this:

I have said it already and I will say it again – by far the best funding project we have been a part of with regards to application, set up, monitoring and evaluation!!!

Jess Hall, Senior Dance Development Officer, Saracens Sport Foundation and recipient of FreeSport funding administered by Rocket Science through our digital grants platform.


Rocket Science working with Flexigrant provides digital grants tools and services to our clients, ranging from the digital management of entire funds to the provision of specific functionality such as assessments to support in-house management of discrete elements of the grant process.  To find out more contact John Griffiths or Anna Spinks.

VCS Assist Tool

VCS Assist Tool

The VCS Assist Tool is designed to enable voluntary and community sector employment and skills organisations adapt to the changing market for their services.   Supported by ESF Technical Assistance, the Tool enables you to undertake a rigorous assessment of an organisation’s capacity to provide services in a market that is increasingly dominated by (lead) Prime Contractors and based on payment by results.

Please pop your email in below to access the VCS Assist Tool. The tool is and will remain free for all third sector organisations to use.

Your email address will be used only to track the number of users accessing the tool and to keep you up-to-date with any changes. We anticipate you will receive no more than 2 emails per year but you are able to opt-out of receiving emails from us at any time.


Funding Advice and Support for Rural Communities

Funding Advice and Support for Rural Communities

Scottish Government

As a key part of this review for Scottish Government of funding advice provision for rural community groups in Scotland, Rocket Science mapped the available provision of funding advice and support. The advice landscape is complex, with many providers providing a partial service, some being focussed specifically on rural issues, some providing broad advice. This work mapped out that provision according to key features:

  • What type of providers provide support? (eg, Local Authorities, National thematic organisations, funders themselves, Third Sector Interfaces)
  • Extent to which different types of provider have a focus on providing funding advice (ie, is that their core function?)
  • Extent to which providers focus on rural groups?
  • Extent to which providers focus on early stage or existing (and possibly trading) community groups
  • Extent to which providers are paid for the support they provide
  • What level of resource is collectively available in each Local Authority area (eg, FTE equivalents providing free funding advice for rural community groups)

Mapping of the funding advice market was conducted through desk research and through extensive consultation with providers, including e Survey, telephone interview and triangulating results at participative workshops. The market needs for advice on funding were also mapped through consultation with community groups (online survey, telephone interview and workshop).

The output of this mapping is a clear sense of the diverse market around funding advice and support, and key differences in the type of provision between different types of organisation.

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In feedback workshops, the central message was that the mapping was extremely valuable in providing an overview of the funding advice provision. One concern that was raised was the need to understand whether the quality of the advice provision was sufficient for communities’ needs. The investigation then assessed communities’ views on the quality of advice provision, finding that across 7 major types of funding advice needs there were broad gaps in the awareness and accessibility of high quality provision for community groups. We also found that some advice providers were favoured much more strongly than others, with unexpected results.

The results are being collated into key recommendations for a new model for provision of funding advice to find innovative solutions to the existing gaps in the market.

VCS Assist – Preparing the VCS for ESF and BIG funding

VCS Assist – Preparing the VCS for ESF and BIG funding

VCS Assist – Building the skills of VCS to secure ESF and Big Lottery Funding

Voluntary, community and social enterprise organisations face increasing challenges to maintain high–quality employment support for customers with complex needs, in a commissioning environment which is driving unit costs down and incentivising lead/prime contractors to focus on the most employable at the expense of the harder and more expensive to help.  Drawing on our primary research and evidence of previous programme evaluations, our recommendation to refocus future capacity building support was accepted by London Councils and the European Programmes Management Unit (EPMU), responsible for ESF in the capital. In 2012, Rocket Science was part of a consortium of organisations, including London Voluntary Service Council (LVSC), London Training and Employment Network and the Black Training and Enterprise Group which successfully put forward a new model of technical assistance for third sector employment-related service providers.

The “VCS Assist” partners identified a range of skills and cultural changes required to ensure that providers, whatever their size or specialism, have the opportunity to adapt to the new climate and continue to meet demand for their services.  The new skills needed include: articulating an offer (which may include creating delivery partnerships/consortia), pricing services competitively, developing and understanding client pathways and pitching directly to lead contractors, and delivery partners; contract negotiation and managing cash-flow in a payment–by-results system.

We are continuing to provide support and training to hep organisations prepare for the new ESF commissioning rounds 2014-2020 and working with the London Voluntary Service Council in the build up to the Building Better Opportunities Fund from the Big Lottery Fund.

For more information contact Caroline or John

Cost benefit analysis for NEET prevention programmes

Cost benefit analysis for NEET prevention programmes

Cost benefit analysis of NEET early intervention programmes – West London Alliance

Rocket Science has been working on the Youth Strand of the West London Alliance’s 6–borough “Whole Place Community Budget” pilot.  We conducted a ‘deep dive’ review into the provision and support for 16-18 year olds in West London, the barriers and challenges, what works and the implications for programmes to reflect requirements for Raising Participation Age.  Our research led us to a new model of early intervention developed by Impetus PEF (“Think Forward”) designed on an “invest to save” basis to prevent young people becoming NEET by offering those identified as most at risk a dedicated life coach.   A 2-year pilot of 5 coaches in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets had enjoyed a 98% success rate – only 6 of 320 teenagers referred to the programme did not progress into post-16 learning or work. Tower Hamlets was nevertheless unable to continue the model owing to budget constraints.

The Private Equity Foundation (PEF) was at the time looking to scale up a programme to reduce NEETs, and to fund Think Forward through a Social Impact Bond.  Rocket Science worked with Impetus PEF and the West London partners to identify ways to replicate the Think Forward model in the context of Whole Place Community Budgeting.  In making the business case for a new preventative approach to tackling NEETs, Rocket Science consultants were trained in how to use the New Economy Manchester Cost Benefit Analysis toolkit which enabled us to quantify the anticipated cashable savings over 5-10 year of more effective early intervention with young people showing a clutch of RONIs (Risk Of NEET Indicators) in years 6 and 7.

We assessed the potential impact of a proposed West London pre-NEET 14-16 intervention. This involved 100 young people selected as being at risk of NEET supported by a dedicated coach for the duration of the programme (up to 5 years). The aim of the £450,000 intervention is to reduce the numbers of NEETs in the target area/group of schools by 50%.  We estimated, from previous pilots, that the outcomes would be:

  • Reduction in numbers moving onto JSA at 18 – 55%
  • Reduction in people claiming ESA/IB by 50%
  • Reduction in numbers claiming LPIS by 60%
  • Increase in level 2 qualification by 60%
  • Increase in level 3 qualification by 40%
  • Reduction in mental health interventions by 20%
  • Reduction in ASB committed by the cohort by 25%
  • Reduction in all crimes committed by the cohort by 25%
  • Reduction in safeguarding by 20%
  • Reduction in drug and alcohol abuse by 25%
  • Improvements in individual family and community well-being by 40%
  • Using the New Economy Manchester Cost Benefit Analysis toolkit we assigned monetary values to outcomes finding that the cost benefit overall was:
  • A fiscal benefit cost Ratio of 1.64 (£745,000 in benefits)
  • A economic benefit cost ratio of 0.83 (£380,000 in benefits)
  • A social benefit ratio of 1.86 (£848,000 in benefits)

The fiscal and social benefits indicators are positive over a five year payback period. The economic benefits are lower owing to the age of the young people involved and the fact that they are not in the work place for several years of the proposed CBA timeframe.


Contact John for more information

Promoting your impact

Promoting your impact

VCS Assist support for Camden Society

Through the VCS Assist programme we helped the Camden Society understand and demonstrate their impact they were having in securing employment for people with disabilities across all of their programmes. This was to help them demonstrate that their performance was far higher than national programmes in supporting disabled people into work as well as capture the experience of employers and trainees.  We produced an infographic, both static and web enabled using our Piktochart software to help them spread their message and impact to funders and prime contractors.   You can view the online version here.

Contact Caroline to find out more about our impact and visualisation work

Micro-business and job creation

Micro-business and job creation

Federation of Small Business

Rocket Science were commissioned by the Federation of Small Businesses to explore the employment potential of micro-businesses (employing fewer than 10 people) and the extent to which there was scope to enhance recruitment by micro-businesses by providing appropriate recruitment-focused support. We reviewed statistical evidence from across Europe and our findings included:

  • Micro-businesses make up nearly 94% of Scottish businesses and provide 27% of the private sector jobs in Scotland[1].
  • This underplays their significance in tackling unemployment:
  • Over 40% of unemployed people who find work in the private sector go to work in a micro-business or become self-employed[2].
  • 26% of recruits to micro-businesses across the EU are long-term unemployed people[3].
  • Micro-businesses, therefore, provide a disproportionate number of opportunities for those previously unemployed and a significant part of Scotland’s ‘demand side’.

We surveyed 580 micro-businesses and interviewed over 70 micro-business owners.  Our findings included:

  • Micro-businesses are a particularly diverse customer group
  • There are distinctive issues around recruitment for micro-businesses
  • Micro-business owners develop highly-flexible approaches to employment
  • Recruitment presents micro-businesses with a range of risks and difficulties
  • The level of risks perceived by micro-business owners far exceed the reality of those risks and often, in themselves, lead to decisions not to recruit – despite the fact that the business needs to recruit
  • Micro-businesses often have limited capacity to manage staff.

We uncovered significant under-employment by micro-businesses and clear evidence that a support service that focused on helping micro-businesses grow through recruitment would help to tackle the risks around recruitment that micro-business owners perceived. On the basis of these findings we developed a range of detailed recommendations for national and local organisations about what an appropriate service should look like.

Outcome:  Micros Untapped has proved to be highly influential report and in Scotland there are now ‘growth through recruitment’ programmes in place in over 5 local authority areas, with more in the pipeline.  Glasgow’s economic development arm, ‘Jobs and Business Glasgow’ reoriented their whole strategy to focus on micro-businesses.  Early results show a significant upturn in recruitment by micro-businesses in the areas where such a service has been put in place, and in two of the areas the project has been significantly expanded.

Contact Richard for more information


[1] Scottish Corporate Sector Statistics (2011), p.27

[2] Urwin, P and Buscha, F (2012).  Back to Work:  The role of small businesses in unemployment and enterprise.  Federation of Small Businesses.

[3] cf 14% for Small and Medium and 9% for those employing over 250, de Kok et al, 2011