5 Steps for Getting Started with EU Funding

EU funding offers a multitude of exciting opportunities for the community, voluntary, charitable and social enterprise sector in Ireland.

Engaging in European projects can benefit organisations of all sizes, allowing them to develop new research, ideas, programmes, and resources. It can also facilitate collaboration and learning between partners throughout Europe and enable organisations to build an international profile.

However, researching the various opportunities and navigating the EU funding system can be daunting. These projects are a significant undertaking with many financial, administrative, and legal requirements. It is an investment of time and a significant learning curve, which can often take some time to yield results.  It is therefore important not to take on EU funding lightly and to carefully consider whether it is right for your organisation before making applications or entering into partnerships.

In 2016, The Wheel took on management of the Access Europe project with their partners Early Years Northern Ireland. The goal of this project was to build the capacity of Irish organisations to access EU funding through training, tailored advice, and an information service. The project ended successfully in December 2017, having supported Irish community, voluntary, and charitable organisations in driving over €20 million into the sector.  The full project report is available to download. 

One of the many useful outputs of this project is the following five-step guide to getting started with EU funding. Click on each step to learn more and to start your EU funding journey.

There are a number of different EU funding programmes available to Irish community, voluntary and charitable organisations and social enterprises. However, navigating these funds and finding out which ones apply to your organisation can be a confusing process.

To counteract this, The Wheel commissioned research into European Union funds for the period 2015 – 2020, the result of which was an interactive report, Building the Capacity to Access EU Funds – 2014 and Beyond by Professor Hugh Quigley.

Professor Quigley is a recent retiree from a long career with the European Commission, a visiting professor at the University of Ulster, and a pro-bono advisor to many Irish non-profit organisations, including The Wheel. He was also the chair of the Access Europe project, which aimed to build the capacity of Irish civil society organisations to access European funding.

Professor Quigley developed this report to be an interactive tool, with links to relevant sources from which readers can learn more about the various funding opportunities available. Reading this document is a good first step for anyone interested in getting started with EU funding. It will allow you to:

  • Get an overview of key issues affecting EU funding, such as Brexit
  • Understand EU policy and financial context
  • Review the EU funds with the most potential for the sector
  • Study the profiles of the programmes with the most potential for your organisation
  • Understand the over EU budget structure.

You can also visit our short overview of EU funding opportunities for the sector for a brief introduction to the types of funding available. 

Once you have reviewed the overall funding available to the sector and how it works using the interactive report, Building the Capacity to Access EU Funds – 2014 and Beyond, it is useful to focus on a couple of key funds that apply to your organisation and to study these closely. You can do this by visiting the programme’s website, all of which are linked to in the report, and reading their programme guides, work plans, and previous calls for proposals. You can also get in touch with contact points here in Ireland, national agencies, or the European team at The Wheel, for advice, support, and signposting.

Good funding programmes for organisations that are starting out in EU funding include Europe for Citizens and Erasmus+. These programmes are broad and, if they are suitable for your organisation, can serve as a gateway to further European funding opportunities. Both have a simplified application processes and extensive national support through the Europe for Citizens contact point at The Wheel, and the Irish national agency for Erasmus+, Léargas.

Being a partner in a project is also a good way to familiarise yourself with European funding application processes and project management, without the additional financial and administrative responsibilities of being the applicant. Building connections with other European organisations and networks is the best way to improve your chances of being invited into a project as a partner. See Steps 3 and 4 for more into in how to develop a plan and build European connections. 

Ideally, an organisation would start with a smaller and easier to manage project or as a partner and then work their way up to bigger, more ambitious projects, opportunities for which are ample under programmes like Horizon 2020. European funding is a significant undertaking for any organisation. It requires an investment or time and skills development for your staff. Starting small and working your way up ensures that your organisation has time to gradually build its capacity to engage positively with EU funding, rather that overstretching and over-committing itself to projects that distract from your core work instead of enriching it.

We recommend reaching out as much as possible while gradually building your organisation’s capacity with support from contact points, colleagues in the sector who have experience with funding, and from The Wheel's European Programmes Team. There are regular opportunities to attend training and to get one-to-one advice.

In Step 2, we emphasised the importance of starting small and working your way up in EU funding. A good framework to develop your strategy for European projects is to complete a European Development Plan for your organisation, a template for which can be downloaded here . The purpose of this plan is to provide form and structure to your organisation’s future in European programmes.

In the template, you will find a brainstorming activity, which encourages you to list the various opportunities and barriers relating to EU funding for your organisation. We recommend doing this activity together with your colleagues. EU funded projects have many components: management, financial reporting, administration, etc. It is valuable to assess the ideas and concerns of your whole team. This approach also helps you to identify where you need more advice, training or support before undertaking the application process.

Remember: EU funding is not for every organisation! This activity encourages you to weigh up the pros and cons and decide if it is a valuable investment of your time and effort.  

If, after completing the exercise and ensuring you have the necessary information to make an informed decision, you decide that EU funding is a viable option for your organisation, you can move onto the next section of the template, which will ultimately become your organisation’s European Development Plan. It encourages you to define your goals for European funding in the short, medium and long term and to summarise what your organisation has to offer in a European partnership. The goals set should complement and advance your organisation’s overall strategic objectives.

This completed plan will keep you on coarse as you navigate the world of European projects. You can share it with potential partners to give them an overview of your interests in terms of European funding and, if you are invited into a project, you can refer back to it as a means of ensuring that any partnership you enter is in line with your set goals. It is especially important to be diligent about this with European funding given the scale of the opportunities and responsibilities it provides.

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It is much easier to be invited into projects than to be the applicant, particularly if you are just starting out in EU funded projects. By observing others, you can learn the dos and don’ts of coordinating a project. It is also easier to apply for projects with partners you know and trust, and it reduces risk and ensures the best chances of success for your project.

But how do you go about building a European network? Many organisations struggle with this aspect of European funding. Below are some ways you can go about building or enhancing your organisation’s European network:

  • Register your organisations on some of the common Partner Finding Portals to increase your chances of being invited into a project. Tip: use your completed EU Development Plan (or a condensed version of it) as your organisation’s profile on these portals to communicate clearly who you are and what kind of partnerships you are interested in.
  • Get involved in EU platforms or networks that are relevant to your organisation and become active members. Click here for some examples of EU platforms. Being active on platforms like these can also adds strength to an application as it shows a commitment to working and sharing at a European level.
  • Use the connections you may have already. If you know someone working in the same area in another EU country, ask if they are looking for partners or if they know anyone who is. Reach out to colleagues here in Ireland who are already involved in projects for partner recommendations. A personal connection goes a long way! 
  • Research projects that have already been carried out in your area and read the partner profiles. A simple Google search can yield a lot of interesting projects and usually contains profiles and contact information for the partners involved. Get in touch with those who would make good partners and let them know what kind of projects you would be interested in. If you can afford the investment, try to make a visit to high potential partners to solidify connections.

Overall, don’t be afraid to reach out! Other organisations around Europe are also eager to engage with funding opportunities and to expand their network and scope. Post-Brexit, Ireland will be the main English-speaking country in Europe, which will inevitably increase the demand for Irish project partners. Ireland has long been reliant on the UK as our go-to partners for projects but now is the time to look beyond that and seize the opportunities provided by being part of the European Union. 

Once you have identified a programme with potential for your organisation, make sure to monitor it for when calls for proposals are published. 

A handy way to keep updated about European funding opportunities for our sector is to subscribe to our Fundingpoint newsletter. Fundingpoint is Ireland’s largest funding grant database. Subscribing gives you one year's unlimited access to over 820 funding grants, as well as dozens of funding deadlines, including key EU funding deadlines. This takes the work out of researching and monitoring programmes and allows you to quickly and easily scan opportunities to see if they apply to you. 

EU funding programmes are thematic and are often referred to as the “financial instruments” intended to put policy into action. It is therefore very important to stay updated on European policy in your area so that you can understand the context and aims of the programmes. When making an application, make sure to refer to EU policy, white papers, and strategies. Information on EU policy is made widely and readily available through the European Commission website.  The current strategy in place is Europe 2020. Its goals are at the heart of current EU policy.  

Once you have an understanding of how the programmes work and which ones apply to you, you can start making applications as funding opportunities arise, with your European network on board as partners. The application process can be challenging but an excellent learning opportunity for an organisation. The first application will be difficult but each subsequent one will become easier and will strengthen your organisation’s scope, capacity, and network.

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