Get the edge: Writing effective funding proposals for government agencies

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Whether you are head of a grant-writing team that is applying to a national funding body for tens of thousands of dollars of ongoing support, or a solitary volunteer requesting money from your local car dealership to help purchase hockey uniforms for kids in the community, basic principles of writing effective grant applications and funding proposals can put you way ahead of the competition.

In this three-part series, Mary W. Walters, author of Write An Effective Funding Application: A Guide for Researchers and Scholars (The Johns Hopkins University Press) and creator of a six-part audio series on grantwriting for nonprofit and community-based organizations, shares tips and suggestions with readers of CharityVillage on how to get the maximum impact from your grant-writing efforts.

Have you ever found yourself putting off the writing of a grant application until it was almost too late? Have you ever scrambled to get the necessary documents together for a funding agency at the last minute?

Well, you are not alone. Procrastination is a major problem among grant-writers everywhere – from academics to artists to those who are creating funding proposals for charitable organizations and nonprofit community groups.

And what happens when you put off writing your funding application until the last minute? Well, if you’re anything like me, it means you end up doing a less-than-great job with it — and that puts your application behind the 8-ball from the beginning. It’s as though you showed up for a triathlon still wearing your pyjamas.

After about thirty years of looking at grant proposals from every perspective imaginable, I know the reason for Application Procrastination. And I am going to share it with you. I am also going tell you how you can overcome it. After reading this article, your grant applications are going to be better written – and stronger contenders for funding – than they’ve ever been before.

eLearning

Need a crash course in effective proposal writing techniques? Our Proposal Writing eLearning course will help you learn how to create memorable objectives, create a program budget, produce and evaluation plan, and more! 

Application procrastination

  • The reason for all grant-writing procrastination is fear.
  • And the fear comes from insecurity.
  • And the insecurity comes from lack of knowledge.

Or, put another way:

Lack of knowledge –> Insecurity –> Fear –> Procrastination

Getting a grip on the insecurity

Let us look at a situation in which you are applying for funding from a national, provincial or local government funding agency — such as the Department of National Heritage, or Ontario’s Trillium Foundation. The guidelines of such agencies can look formidable, and if you don’t have a strategy, their funding requirements can stop you in your tracks.

You may worry that every other group that is applying has a better program than you do, and knows a better way to explain it. After previous failures, you may have begun to suspect that you need to know Somebody Important to get a grant from these people, or that they have some secret formula that you don’t know. You may be concerned that the program your executive wants funded doesn’t fit within the funding agency’s guidelines, or that your group is too new, and there’s no point in applying anyway. These are the kinds of thoughts, all based on lack of knowledge, that can immobilize you.

Knowledge is power

The first step toward a successful funding application is to find out everything you can about the funding program. This means that you are going to need to start far in advance of the deadline – but don’t worry – the grant-writing experience will become almost painless if you do.

Here are the steps you should follow before you start writing any funding proposal:

Learn about the funding agency

  1. Read the funding agency’s guidelines. Then read the application. Carefully. Print these documents out and make notes on them. Make absolutely sure that your group and your project are eligible before you start the application.
  2. Find out what the agency has funded in the past. By checking out the lists of previously funded projects (usually available on the agency’s website), you can learn a great deal about the board’s priorities.
  3. Learn about the official mandate of the agency and who sits on its board. Does it have a particular emphasis on reaching marginalized groups, for example? You will want to make sure to mention how your initiative fits with this goal.
  4. Find out who the review committee members are. What are they going to know about your group, or about your field of endeavour? What won’t they know that you will need to explain to them in the funding application?

After you have carefully read all of the online materials and printed resources about the agency and the funding program that you can find, write down whatever questions you still have about it and about how your program or project fits with it. Then find the answers to every one of these questions by:

  • Talking to people you know who work with groups that have been successful with their funding applications to the same agency; or
  • Asking your questions in online discussion boards with others who have received funding from the agency, such as right here on CharityVillage forums — or on the websites of the funding agencies themselves; or
  • Contacting the agency directly to ask for advice. Most funding agencies like the Trillium Foundation have staff available to help you with your application, to let you know whether your project is likely to fit their requirements, and even to help you rethink your project so that it will to better meet their needs. Do not hesitate to use this resource as it is made available specifically to help applicants such as yourself: those people are there to help.

Make lists of what you need

Still well in advance of the deadline, figure out all the information you need to gather together for your application. For example:

  • You may need to provide documents to the agency that show your group’s incorporation status or the names and addresses of your board members. Your financial statements may need to have been audited or at least signed off by an accountant. It can take some time to get such documents together: don’t leave them to the last minute.
  • Get any necessary estimates or quotes from suppliers, costs for facility rentals, or anything else you are going to need as support documentation from other people in order to make a proper and air-tight budget for your application. The budget is the core of the document and requires precision and good planning.
  • Determine how many pages of text you are going to need to prepare to accompany the application, and what information is going to go in them – do you need to include a history of your organization that is separate from the outline of the project, for example?
  • Do you need letters of support from members of your group, outside experts or community leaders?

Many agencies will throw out pages of material that go beyond the limits set out in their guidelines, so you need to know what you have room to say and what you do not.

Now you are in the driver’s seat

If you get together all the information you possibly can about the funding agency, about the application itself, and about the project for which you are requesting funding before you start to write the proposal, you are going to find yourself filled with confidence when you sit down to write. Procrastination will be a slain demon from the past. Rather than worrying about what is going to go wrong, you will be able to think about how wonderfully well your organization’s project fits with the mandate of the funding agency, and what you need to say to make this clear to the review committee members.

Rather than worrying about how to leap through invisible hoops, you will be feeling enthusiastic about the partnership you are building with the agency to make something good happen in the community.

Remember that these agencies exist to fund good projects. Rather than thinking about what you are asking for, think about what you are about to offer them: You are going to help the funding agency do what it was established by the government to do. If your project is sound and your organization responsible, the funding agency needs you: it cannot fulfill its mandate without you.

eLearning

Need a crash course in effective proposal writing techniques? Our Proposal Writing eLearning course will help you learn how to create memorable objectives, create a program budget, produce and evaluation plan, and more! 

The next articles in this series will focus on administrative issues such as developing the budget for a grant application, and writing effective final drafts of funding applications. It will also touch on what to keep in mind with different kinds of funders you may be working with besides government agencies, such as corporate programs and niche donors. But no matter to whom you are applying, or for what, the key to the entire process is knowledge. Knowledge builds confidence, and knowledge plus confidence will ultimately lead you — and your organization — to success.

Mary W. Walters is a Toronto writer and editor who has sat on the boards and review panels of provincial and national funding agencies, has assisted numerous grant applicants with their proposals, and has applied successfully for funding on behalf of several nonprofit organizations and community groups. You can find out more about her at marywwalters.com. The author of five books, including Write An Effective Funding Application: A Guide for Researchers and Scholars (The Johns Hopkins University Press), Mary has given workshops across Canada on effective grantwriting, and has recently developed three series of audiocasts on the subject for various audiences that are available at reallyeffectivewriting.com.

Photos (from top) via iStock.com. All photos used with permission.

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