Writing a Good Grant Application

At the moment, I have around 34 ‘active’ applications and proposals on my desk – some of them are newly arrived and unread, while others are either awaiting consideration by the Indigo trustees or I’ve requested more information from the applicants. Most of the 34 are likely to be declined, but a handful may well go on to secure funding from us. The question most applicants want to know is how to get into that small subset of proposals that funders actually go on to fund. There’s plenty of advice out there about how to write great proposals and a quick Google search reveals plenty of templates and examples. What follows, then, is not an exhaustive, objective list of do’s and don’ts, but rather a highly partial, subjective list of tips and gripes that others may completely disagree with. Now, with that disclaimer out of the way here goes:

  1. Clarity is king: The ability to express what your organisation does (or wants to do) in a clear and concise fashion is a great skill. Taking a complex project with multiple elements and distilling it into a pithy proposal is by no means easy. But being able to express your project in a simple and easy-to-understand way makes it easier for a grant manager or trustee to grasp what it is that your organisation is all about and can help instil confidence in your organisation. Try to imagine that the person reading your application has never heard of you and has only a limited understanding of the problem you are trying to solve or the context in which you work. Now re-read that application: does it make sense, does it clearly explain what you plan to do and is it easy to follow? This isn’t about having the best English or writing skills, it’s about the way you simplify your objectives and explain them to others. In fact, many of the least comprehensible proposals are written in beautiful English – lovely prose, but after four pages I’m still left scratching my head asking ‘Yes, but what do you actually want to do?’
  2. Brevity is your friend: If you’re submitting an initial application, keep it short. Regretfully, most applications are unsuccessful. So, why waste your time writing an epic proposal that might fail to make it past round one? Keeping it short reduces the amount of work you have to do and the amount of time I have to spend reading your proposal. And remember, if we are interested and want extra details we’ll let you know.
  3. Follow the guidelines: Just like a job application, make sure you follow any guidance offered by a potential funder. Before you approach a funder, read any guidance or FAQs they offer. It’s very apparent if an applicant has little understanding of a funder’s remit and priorities. Showing you’ve done a bit of homework on them and understand what they do can only help your cause. Even if you’re not successful this time around, creating a good impression is important if you plan to re-approach that funder in the future.
  4. Be realistic: It’s unlikely that you’re going to solve the world’s problems on a £10,000 grant, so don’t try to argue otherwise. Don’t make wild claims about how many people you will reach or how many lives you will profoundly affect. Instead, focus on what you’re good at and show how your work contributes in its way to tackling a specific problem or issue. Being realistic about your limits is not a sign of weakness, but shows you actually understand your field and your role in it.
  5. Budgets matter: One area where proposals often fall down is when it comes to the budget. There are a few potential hazards that could trip you up when it comes to budgeting. The first is how realistic the budget is. It’s entirely possible to read through a proposal, agree with its sentiment and then burst out laughing when you get down to the budget. More often than not, this isn’t because applicants overestimate costs, but rather the reverse. Perhaps believing their proposal is more likely to be approved if the budget is nice and small, organisations underestimate the amount of time and resources their project will need. Make sure that your budget closely correlates to your project activities and don’t be afraid to show the full costs of delivering a particular project. Be honest when telling funders how much something will cost – we appreciate it. The second danger with budgets concerns straightforward errors. Make sure that the amounts tally up and choose one currency and stick to it. We don’t mind if you send a budget in Nigerian naira, British pounds, US dollars, Kenyan shillings, Zambian kwacha or anything else – but once you’ve chosen your currency, stick to it. By all means, provide an estimate of the exchange value, but be clear when using currency names and symbols – if you’re asking for ten thousand dollars, don’t later write ‘£10,000 GBP’.
  6. Show consistency: Funders value determined organisations that demonstrate consistency. So, if you approach us with a funding proposal on, let’s say, chicken farming and we say no, don’t come back two weeks later with another proposal on palliative care. Firstly, we’d be suspicious of an organisation claiming expertise in two such disparate fields and secondly might suspect that you are more interested in getting funding than actually delivering projects you are passionate about. By all means apply more than once, but show that you’re committed to your work and don’t just jettison a project because one or two funders turned you down. There’s nothing wrong in persisting with an idea if the idea itself is good.

As I said at the top, this is a highly partial list and I don’t pretend that others would agree with me. And nor do I expect all proposals to be equally good, but hopefully these tips might help you put together a better proposal that stands a better chance of getting past round one. But remember, even brilliant proposals will sometimes be turned down where they don’t fit within our remit or where we just don’t have the expertise to make an informed decision. Rejection isn’t necessarily a comment on the quality of a project or organisation. And for our part, we promise to read every proposal that comes our way and give it a fair hearing.