Here is a story about how to get a grant.

When 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. 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 first published on

EU grants, fundraising, Montenegro, Oleg Shevelyov

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