10 Ways to Improve Your Next Grant Application

Posted on 19 Jul 2018 Last updated on 3 Sep 2018

The following briefing draws on material from the popular Training People one day training seminar, ‘Researching and Securing Grant Aid’.

1 - Forget about the money! (At least initially…)

When considering making a grant application to a funder (perhaps a government agency or a large private foundation) many organisations start with questions such as, ‘What staff and other resources do we need’, ‘How much money do we need?’ and ‘How much money can we get?!’ These are important questions but they should not be the first ones on your agenda.

In our experience, the primary concern of funders is that your project is well planned and that it will truly make a difference in the lives of your client group (or in your area of interest). Perhaps paradoxically, therefore, the best way to secure funding is to initially forget about money and resources and concentrate on ensuring that you have a well planned project which effectively meets a clearly identified need.

Carefully targeted, thoroughly researched and well argued grant applications from appropriate organisations or partnerships are the exception rather than the rule.

In making an effective application important questions to start with include, ‘What are we trying to achieve?’, ‘What are the real and positive differences we are seeking to make in the lives of our service users?’, ‘What methods can we use to fulfil our aims?’, ‘How will we know when we are succeeding?’.

There are many good resources that can help you systematically think through how to structure a compelling project plan (including some free ones - try typing ‘free project planning for not for profits’ into your search engine). Find a good planning system and make it your own. When you’re satisfied that you have a well planned and worthwhile project your thoughts can then turn to how best it can be resourced!

2 - Do your research thoroughly…

Up to 50% of applications received by funders do not meet their published criteria (ACT - Association of Charitable Foundations). ACT also state that, “Trusts are deluged with large numbers of poorly targeted and poorly executed applications, making it difficult for trustees to identify those organisations most worthy of support”.

Carefully targeted, thoroughly researched and well argued grant applications from appropriate organisations or partnerships are the exception rather than the rule. Of course, this represents a significant opportunity for those organisations that are prepared to spend time and effort on careful research! As a very basic minimum you should read the guidelines published by the funder. Other research methods that might bear fruit include:

  • Talking to other organisations supported by the funder.
  • Get the annual reports of charities doing similar work to your own – in many cases they will have published a list of funders who have supported them that year.
  • Get funders annual reports and studying past grants.
  • Check if the funder has a web site - increasingly many do.
  • Phoning to talk personally to them – if they encourage this then it’s always a good idea to phone - this may save you a lot of time and effort spent putting together an application that actually has little chance of succeeding. Make sure to make an advance note of the main points you want to cover in your call.

3 - Remember – ‘People give to people…’

When considering making an application, one of the first questions to ask is, ‘Is it possible to get a face to face meeting with this funder?’ This kind of personal contact is worth many times more than simply sending a ‘cold’ application. Organisations often use their contact network (trustees, patrons, committee members, etc) to secure meetings with funders and many organisations try to ensure that those associated with the organisation have a good range of contacts with government, industry and private funders. The most successful organisations work hard to build and maintain an influential contact network. In our experience, a planned, personal, face to face (often ‘peer to peer’) approach is essential if your organisation is to have continued major success in securing grant aid and major gifts.

4 - Build your credibility

One of the primary reasons why applications get funded is that the funders are convinced that the applicant organisation is well organised, has a good track record and is an appropriate organisation to carry out the proposed project. Any grant application should stress your organisation’s strengths and outline its successes in organising similar projects in the past. Perhaps this could be done by quoting relevant fact and figures about your achievements (‘Last year we provided a telephone help line service to 520 callers’) or quoting from positive evaluations of your work (‘87% of those attending felt that our presentation had been helpful in assisting them to know what to do and where to go for help if they were worried about depression’).

Perhaps you have some prominent people involved on your Board or Management Committee – make sure you mention this in your applications.

5 - Clearly define, in compelling terms, the need you are seeking to meet

The ‘Needs’ section of your proposal should be a concise, convincing overview of the needs your organisation wants to address and should be about the needs and aspirations of your beneficiaries not about the needs of your organisation. Any statement of needs should be supported by evidence – for example, authoritative statistics, testimony from people known to be knowledgeable, etc. You should include information that is as specific and ‘local’ as possible e.g. a community group dealing with the needs of a local area will have a more compelling case if they can quote facts and figures specific to their area.

6 - Use the KISS Principle and avoid jargon and waffle!

KISS stands for ‘Keep it short and sweet’ (it also stands for ‘Keep it simple, stupid!’ but, of course, we would never use that one!). Say what you need to but keep it as short as possible. Where there isn’t a form to fill in, use a logical structure - move from the general to the specific and avoid needless repetition.

7 - Spend some time on the budget

When you do get around to working out what funds you will need, it’s a good idea to spend some time on your budget. In our experience of assessing grant applications for government and private funders, many organisations pluck figures from the air! It’s not a good idea to ‘rough guess’ what items might cost – the most important thing about budgeting is to make sure that you have a logical basis for your figures.

This may include basing salaries on an appropriate salary scale, calculating office overheads according to past experience, getting quotes from suppliers or basing equipment costs (e.g. computers and office equipment) on catalogue prices. Funders can tell the difference (often at a single glance!) between a budget based on guesswork and one which has been thoroughly calculated – it’s worth spending the time to do this. Oh…, one more thing, make sure your budget adds up – you’d be surprised at the number that don’t!

8 - Ask yourself, ‘Why wouldn’t they fund this?

Often a good way to strengthen your funding application is to try and ‘pick holes’ in it – a good way of doing this is to circulate a copy of the application to colleagues and further discuss any aspects of the application which strike you as being weak (or not as strong as other aspects). Having identified the weaknesses you can then work on putting them right.

9 - Let your Uncle Tony read it…

This is one of our top tips! When you are satisfied with your application draft, let someone else read it. This should be someone outside your organisation, preferably someone from outside the not for profit sector who has no knowledge of the subject matter you are describing in your application. You will be very surprised at some of the things an ‘external reader’ will point out – for example, you may find that some of the phrases and concepts you take as being fully understandable aren’t in fact that clear!

10 - Play the longer game…

In our experience, the organisations that have the most success with their funding applications are the ones who are generally active and well known in their fields of interest.

Organisations who develop their own policies and thinking on major issues in their field, respond to national or local government and other consultations, comment on reports & draft legislation, develop their own campaigning materials and campaigns, get represented on appropriate local, regional or national umbrella bodies, pressure groups, ‘think tanks’, task forces, etc and form alliances and partnerships with other organisations to take forward joint aims often find that this, quite naturally, spills over into successful fundraising.

We hope that some of these points have stimulated some thought – good luck with your latest application!

About the Authors

To organise a highly participatory one day training course on ‘Researching and Securing Grant Aid’ or to discuss your consultancy needs contact Training People on 0044 (0) 28 9261 7396, or e-mail trainingpeople@gillassociates.com