How to ask for money

A guide to getting media funding

Ever asked for money, serious money? If so you’ll know how hard it is to know where to start. Is there any way of making it easier – and maximising your chances of winning that funding?

There are a lot of organisations out there that do have a very good case for funding. They may be non-profits, they may be arts or media organisations, in places where investment sources are hard to find. They may be doing great work. They may have a great story to tell. But when it comes to making their pitch for a slice of the philanthropic or government funding that is also out there, suddenly these people whose business is all about communication are not sure what to say.

So if you are one of those organizations, how do you ask for investment money when you know all about your own business but you are not really investment-minded?

Three words that work

The answer is: it’s all about language. International funding organizations are not fairy godmothers, they are actually investors. And to get investment money from investment people you have to think like an investor.

The world of investment has its own bottom line (which is usually profit), and it has its own vocabulary. If you want funding, you have to enter that world and speak that language.

To get investment you must think like an investor

Let’s say you are a media organization, and the political climate where you are working is difficult. So your daily mindset is all about accuracy and standards, independence and integrity and mission. You are thinking stories and impact – things that are real but difficult to quantify.

Good ideas – but right now we are going to put all those ideas in a box, and lock it away. Because the investors you are about to ask for money don’t really think like that. They don’t like unquantifiable things. What they want is something quite different.

Which is? Well, here are three ideas that always resonate in the investment world. They may not be part of your everyday vocabulary, but they are going to be very useful all the same.

The first idea is valuation. That means, what is an organization or a company worth, and what could it be worth? The second is the idea of the catalyst. What could unlock the potential of the business, and how will it do it? And the third idea is verification. You say there is hidden potential in an enterprise – then go on and verify it, with hard, measurable data.

These are three words and three ideas that investors will recognize. Investors use these concepts when they analyse an investment proposition for its potential profitability. Not everyone uses exactly the same terms, but everyone understands the process.

So think valuation – catalyst – verification and you are already on your way to getting a hearing. The challenge now is to map those ideas on to the reality of your own organization.

What are you really worth?

Valuation is our first idea, and valuation is really at the heart of the investment business. A famous investor called Benjamin Graham once wrote a book about this called The Intelligent Investor, and that book is the bible of value investing – it was the first and perhaps the best attempt to lay out a structured process for working out the true value of a company or organization. The book was published more than seventy years ago and it is still used.

We can leave aside the fine details of how to value a company on the public stock market, because we are probably dealing with private organizations here. The important point is that any kind of enterprise may have value or potential that is not being realised. And when you are approaching an investor and asking for money, that is the kind of value they want to see. They want to see potential that could be unlocked, and make the organization better – more efficient, better able to achieve or enlarge its ambitions, or even more profitable.

You may be worth more than you think

That is why we think valuation first. An investor is not going to be interested unless there is some hidden potential there in the first place. Convince them of that, and they will be ready to go on to the next stage.

Catalyst is where the action is

Investors like to say they think long term. But that’s often only partly true: they may think they are more patient than the next guy, but they still want to see results. They don’t want to hang around for hidden potential to come good if it is going to take a generation. And that is why they like the idea of a catalyst, something that makes the change happen.

For a conventional business a catalyst might be something like a change in the law or the rules that makes their business easier, or a change in the market like a currency devaluation, or getting approval for their product. It could be a change of management, or the acquisition of another company.

For organizations with a social purpose it might be different. It might be learning new skills. It might be hiring new people. It might be acquiring a new technology. And the catalyst might well depend on winning the very investment that you are asking for.

In other words, the catalyst is anything that alters the game for the better. The most important thing is that the catalyst is not a vague hope, but something tangible, and relatively quick. And its impact must be measurable.

Verification is where you lock it down

Valuation and catalyst are about possibilities. Verification is where you move on to practicalities. Verification is about showing that your valuation is fair and your catalyst will work. This is the sharp end of the investment process.

For a conventional investment in a commercial company the verification process is usually about burning shoe leather. The investor will go to the company and meet the management. The investor will visit the shops, the factories, the offices. They will want to look at the accounts, and search for third party views online and in real life.

Your investor will ask: what's the competition?

For a non-profit or a social impact organization this is where you can really shine. This is where you can show your skills. You can show what you have already done, and how it leads on to the logical next step. You can show you are capable of absorbing the investment, and using it efficiently. Every extra layer of relevant data adds to the verification that investors crave.

And that’s not all

At this point you should have established good terms with your potential investor. Now they know that you are the kind of organization they want to fund. Everyone is on the same page.

But there is plenty more to do. You will need to think about setting out milestones – a series of targets for your enterprise to meet after you get the funding. You need to think about payback if this is debt investment, or how to measure growth if it is equity investment. You need to think about whether the changes you plan are sustainable. Remember, your investor needs to report back to their own board and show that they have got something for their investment – and they want to be sure that you can deliver.

Investors want to know you can deliver on your mission

That is the next stage – and a good investor can help you with that next stage. The key thing is to establish common understanding first – and valuation plus catalyst plus verification will take you a long way towards building that understanding.