Get organized with these top tipsOriginally published: February 2017. | Last reviewed: February 2017.
Once you've done your research and found a grant opportunity that's a good fit, you're ready to write your application. What do you need to consider before you start?
Get the timing right
Meeting the deadline is an obvious one — but it can also be beneficial to get your application in early. Submissions arriving close to the deadline are more likely to be rushed and therefore include simple errors that may even mean your proposal gets rejected. If applications are accepted on a rolling basis and evaluated at, say, quarterly trustee meetings, take that into account. Applying too close to the trustee meeting date may result in your application being held over to the next one, as trustees can often only consider a limited number of applications each time.
Plan ahead so you have sufficient time. You'll need time to:
- Read through the requirements, application forms and accompanying notes, and FAQs
- Gather any requested supporting documents, such as details of finances, case studies, research to support your proposed project or evaluations of past projects
- Draft detailed answers
- Prepare a budget
- Work through revisions with program staff
- Double-check your work — ideally having it read by a fresh pair of eyes before you submit
How much time should you allow? Every process is different. Some trusts and foundations may have only a short application even for larger grants, while others will require the same detail for a grant of £5,000 as for £25,000. Larger grants may have a two- or three-stage process — for example, an initial short application followed by a more detailed proposal, a telephone interview and/or a visit to your charity. As a rough guideline, if you already have the relevant information to hand, expect a more complex application to take two to five days while a very short application process may only take one to two hours.
Contact the funder, if that's an option
If the grantmaker offers a contact person, make the most of the opportunity to get in touch — especially if something is unclear on the application form or you want to check your project will be considered.
"If you do not have an existing relationship with a trust, then giving them a call is a great way to raise awareness of your organization," says Alessandra Green, writing for Cause4. "But make sure that your call has a purpose: making a relevant query is fine, but don't ask for information that is already on their website or in their annual report. They will not appreciate you wasting their time!"
Because many grantmakers are understaffed, you can probably assume they don't have capacity to take calls if no contact details are offered.
Some funders will request a phone conversation before you apply for grants that exceed a certain budget. Make sure to do this if requested.
Involve contributors early
Even if you're putting the application together on your own, you'll likely need input and/or approval from at least a few key people — such as your line manager, finance director and the relevant program manager. If you're partnering with another organization or proposing to work with them as part of the project, start those conversations early so you can be clear on what you're proposing. Let any contributors or reviewers know early on what you'll need from them and when. Set interim deadlines to keep things on track.
It takes persistence and organization to keep your proposal moving forward alongside everything else on your to-do list. Depending on the size of your application and the available resources, you might choose to hire a professional fundraising consultant. If so, make sure the person has a good track record and that you feel he or she can understand your charity. Rather than an outsourced assignment, you'll need to work together, ensuring the consultant can access information and people from your organization when needed.
Keep scope in mind
It's tempting to fit a project to an opportunity. Remember, though, you'll have to do what you promised if you're successful. Don't get carried away. Don't commit to something you'll struggle to see through in reality, just because it sounds more impressive in your application.
Answer all the important questions
Many funders will provide an application form setting out exactly what they want to know. For those that don't, use the Institute of Fundraising's guideline on how to structure an application.
In both cases, put yourself in your readers' shoes and consider what they want to see in an application. For example:
- An application that's clearly tailored to the particular grant on offer, not something generic
- A realistic budget that's within the accepted range (mentioning any other funders of the project, if relevant)
- Clear indication of what that budget will cover (and perhaps what it won't cover)
- What the outcomes will be, and how you'll measure them
- Proof that your organization will be able to deliver the proposed work
- Clear explanation of what makes your project distinct from others or what gap you're filling
- Your exit strategy (what you'll do when the funder's money runs out)
Be specific, convey your passion and justify your role
The Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, one of the U.K.'s largest independent grant-giving organizations with grants offered totaling around £37 million each year, advises applicants to be fact-based and stay away from vague claims. In other words, don't say: Many people will benefit. Do say: 30 children between 8 and 10 years of age will learn an instrument over six weeks.
Your application is serious, but don't be too dry. Share stories of real people who have benefited from your work, advises Katie Rabone, writing for the Directory for Social Change.
In addition, the Community Development Foundation recommends helping the funder visualize your project. If your application shows your enthusiasm for the work and clearly describes the benefits, the funder will feel it.
Similarly, make sure it's clear to the funder why your organization should be the one to get the funding. "Your aim should be to establish the unique niche that you occupy in the world of competing charities," Directory for Social Change associate trainer Trudy Hayden explains. "It is all about establishing your credibility to do the work you want the prospective donor to support — why you?"
Show you can be trusted
Any funder you approach for the first time needs to know you can be trusted. If allowed, include any relevant testimonies, project references, certifications and so on with your application. If not allowed in the application itself, provide links to them or make them easy to find on your website.
A track record can be difficult to prove if you're a new organization, but you can draw on the experience of your individual members, points out Jane Arnott from the Charities Aid Foundation (quoted in the Guardian): "Funders ask for track record to demonstrate that the organization is experienced and has the capability to run the project, so describing the relevant experience of your trustees, any staff and volunteers can be a good way to address a lack of proven results."
Avoid these common mistakes
Third Sector gathered the most common errors made by applicants from among funders — compiled in 2012, they remain relevant today. These include:
- Ignoring eligibility criteria. Funders regularly get applications that aren't eligible. Check your work, region, target audience and so on for fit before you go further.
- Asking for too much money — or not enough. Many funders will give you an accepted range and an average, which can be a good guideline. But don't go lower than is realistic! As one funder, cited in the Guardian, says: "It is better to be honest about what you really need than ask for less in the hopes of getting something."
- Too much information. If you're asked to stick to two pages, do it.
- Jargon and buzzwords. As one funder explains, throwing in the latest concepts for the sake of it just hides what you're actually doing, while relying on acronyms confuses the reader. It's better to apply in your own language.
- Budget errors. Make sure it all adds up!
- Copy-pasting. If you use the same text for a different application, the reader can tell. Tailor it to what you're asked for.
- Assuming prior knowledge. Don't assume others already know how you work. Ask an outsider to read your application before you submit it, and check they understand what you're talking about.
- Failing to explain the difference you'll make. This is a big one. Why is your work needed? Can you offer any evidence? How will beneficiaries' lives change if you get this funding?
Save your documents
File copies of all submitted documents where you and colleagues will easily find them later. If a funder comes back with questions or approves your application, you'll need ready access to what you proposed.
And whatever the outcome of your application, it's still a resource worth keeping. Although you won't be copy-pasting the whole text again, there will be paragraphs or sections you can adapt for future use.
Experts say success rates are typically one in four, so be prepared to win some and lose more. When you're unsuccessful, try to find out why. There's no use making the same mistakes all over again.
This article was produced with input from CCWorks, a U.K.-based community investment consultancy that specializes in helping organizations invest in community initiatives.
Cause4: Four tips for applying to trusts and foundations by Alessandra Green (2016)Resource Centre: Writing a funding application (2015)UKFundraising: Don't 'waste' money on grants consultants, small charities told by Ian MacQuillin (2014)Institute of Fundraising: Employing a fundraising consultant (2006) by Maggie TaylorInstitute of Fundraising: How to structure an application to a trust (2007)Esmée Fairbairn Foundation: Hints and tipsDirectory for Social Change: 5 top tips for charity proposal writing by Katie Rabone (2016)Directory for Social Change: Tips for proposal writing beginners by Trudy Hayden (2017)The Guardian: Best bits — how to get money out of grant-making foundations by Kate Hodge (2011)Third Sector: The top 10 funding application errors (2012)Community Development Foundation: Applying for funds — charitable trusts and foundations (2011)Institute of Fundraising: A recipe for the 'perfect' grant application by Deanna Wolf (2016)Knowhow Nonprofit: Trusts and foundations (2015)