Writing an application for a grant or funding doesn’t have to cause anxiety and late nights. Be prepared and follow this process to get your grant application right.
Over the years, I’ve had colleagues approach my desk with anxiety in their voice and a worried expression gripping their eyes. In hand, they carry a grant application form to a government department or charitable foundation. They need to write a grant application but the form looks like a committee of thousands created it, and every single person got their pet question in there.
In another life, when I was the one assessing the funding applications, I like to think I wasn’t responsible for adding in extra questions. I did my best to design easy to follow application forms and assessment processes. Having worked on both sides of the grant-funding world, I understand why writing your submission for a grant or funding can cause anxiety, but also why despite all this, people still persevere.
People stick with it because they have to; many not-for-profit organisations rely on the money given to them through funding grants. Others may have their day-to-day operations covered but if they want to do anything new that money has to be raised from somewhere. Sometimes people persevere because it looks like there’s a huge pool of money just waiting for a home.
This is not really true. Think of it more like an old-fashioned lolly shop, the ones with every different type of chocolate, sweets, and candy in all their multi-coloured glory in glass jars on wooden shelves. You just know that some you’ll hate and some you’ll love, and then there’s a lot in between. Grants are a lot like that, some will be wrong for you, some almost there and others a direct match. The funding body also knows this too. They will have very clear ideas on what they want to achieve. And unless you are that right match in every way you just aren’t going to be picked.
How do you know if you are the right match? Before you start, you need to be very clear on what your organisation stands for and what it achieves. Then given most grant programs are project based – and very few provide ongoing or operational funding – you need to be very clear on what your project is going to deliver and what they get by giving you a grant. Once you’ve got this worked out, then you can go looking for the government department or charitable foundation offering grants to match your project.
Start searching on the Internet; in many countries, both government and private providers have online portals listing grant programs and funding organisations. But don’t rely on these, you should know your industry and know who the active players are in the funding scene. Go to their events and stay on their newsletters.
When you’ve found a grant program to match, work your way through this process:
- Keep digging. Thoroughly read the guidelines. Go through them meticulously and when you think you’ve covered everything, read it again. Have someone else read the grant guidelines and compare notes. You want to know exactly what they are looking for. Make a list and start gathering the information.
- Check out their back-story. How did they get started? Who have they funded in the past? Has something like your project already had funding by this organisation or someone else? If so, why is yours different – and why should yours be funded?
- Call them. Give the funding organisation’s contact officer a call with very specific questions. Many have strict rules about what they can and can’t say. They have to be fair to all applicants, so they are unlikely to give you any special information. What you want to do is get a feel for their language and culture. You can pick this up from the grant guidelines, reading their website, going to their events, and watching any videos they put out. A call with a person adds another dimension to your understanding.
- Mirror their language. Get a handle on the language they are using. What’s the difference between ‘output’ and ‘outcome’? If you don’t understand what they mean, check their glossary or call up the contact officer. Then make sure you mirror this back, use the right language in the right place. It’s also a matter of style. There’s no point putting in an application to a charitable foundation with a focus on the arts sounding like a science graduate – unless, of course, you can prove quickly and clearly to them why you are speaking like this and why it matters.
- Answer the question. Many will have an application form for you to fill in. You need to very clearly and quickly answer each and every one of their questions on the form. Treat it just like doing a final year examination. Go through each question, underline key words, drill down into what they are looking for in that part of the application. Then give it to them.
- Be clear and detailed. Make it easy for them to understand what you want to do with their money. Tell them clearly why your project matters, and what impact it will have. They also want to be reassured that the project will get delivered, that you have the ability and the capacity to do this work. This means you need to answer in detail: who, what, where, why, when and how.
Who is doing this?
What are you going to do?
Where are you doing this?
Why are you doing it?
When are you doing this?
How are you doing this?
- Deep understanding. While you are busy being detailed, you also need to firmly place your project within the bigger picture and have a deep understanding of the relevant sector and the issue you are addressing. Make sure you do your research and develop a deep understanding of why your project is absolutely 100% necessary. Then you need to highlight clearly the contribution you want to make. What problem are you fixing and why does fixing this problem matter now? Why should you be the one to get the grant?
- Your contribution. They want to see how far you are prepared to go to make this happen. Are you just applying for a grant because the money would be nice? Or are you a serious player committed to transforming something that actually matters? Are you serious and have you set aside budget and staff to make this happen?
- Partner up. A big shift in the last ten years has been the move to greater collaboration and contribution. Funding providers want to see if anyone else thinks this is a good idea too and have put their money and / or staff in to make it happen. They will also want to see the evidence that they have, such as a letter from the partner detailing their contribution.
- Legal requirements. Many funding providers will only give out funds to incorporated organisations or may have other legal and taxation requirements. Check what these are right up front. If you don’t have the appropriate legal structure you may want to partner with someone who does, or depending on the size of the grant become the right legal entity.
- Risk Management. They will also need to see that you have the right type and amount of insurance for your line of work, and their own requirements. They will also want to see that you’ve thought about the possible risks to this project and have in place a plan to manage these risks upfront.
- Get the budget right. You’ve absolutely got to get the budget right, nothing will sink your project faster with the selection panel than a budget which seems way too high or way too low. The budget needs to be as well-researched and articulated as everything else you submit. Get quotes, ask people who will know how much things actually cost. What is this whole project going to cost? What resources do you actually need to deliver this? How much is each going to cost?
You can do everything right and submit a great grant application...and still not get funded. These things are never certain, even if it looks like a perfect match. There’s a lot of competition; the volume of applications will be extremely high. It’s a hard gig.
But don’t despair.
Get feedback from the funding provider, go to the debriefing session for unsuccessful applicants, or call up for a one-on-one chat. You need to find out where the problem was: with the actual project or with the application?
Was the project not the right fit for that organisation? Was there something wrong with the project? Maybe they weren’t convinced of the need for the project or something was off with the budget?
Or maybe it was the application? Maybe you didn’t have the right information or communicate it clearly.
Find out, re-group…and start again. Except this time you’re most of the way there. You have words to work with now.
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