Grant writing 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. The form can look like a committee of thousands created it, and every single person got their pet question in there.

Having worked on both sides of the grant-funding world, I understand why applying for a grant can cause anxiety, but also why despite all this, people still persevere. It can look 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.

When you’ve found a grant program that is a direct match, work your way through this process:

  1. 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 guidelines and compare notes. You want to know exactly what they are looking for.
  1. 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?
  1. 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 their website, going to their events, and watching any videos they put out. A call with a person adds another dimension to your understanding.
  1. Mirror their language. Get a handle on the language they are using. 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.
  1. Answer the question. 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.
  1. 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?
  1. 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. What problem are you fixing and why does fixing this problem matter now?
  1. 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?
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. Risk Management. They will also need to see that you have the right type and amount of insurance. And that you’ve thought about the possible risks to this project and have in place a plan to manage these risks upfront. 
  1. 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. 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 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. Find out what was wrong…and start again.