How to Choose the Right Grant Application Requirements

Sometimes the most boring tasks are the most important.

Take grant application requirements for example. Though building an application can feel like a purely administrative task, how funders structure their applications makes a big difference both in terms of who they reach and how they frame their relationships with grantees. 

For grantmakers looking to advance equity and support innovation, being intentional about how you build your grant application is where the rubber meets the road. As you build your program requirements, your aim should be to reduce grantee burden—the workload that your funding creates for the organizations and individuals you fund. 

Many funders are embracing equity-focused frameworks such as trust-based philanthropy and participatory grantmaking, which help address existing power imbalances across the sector. That’s great. But if you’re a grantmaker unsure of how to put values into action, your grant application requirements are a great place to start. 

Why good grant application requirements matter

If you’ve ever applied to a job online, you know that a poorly thought-out application can be an incredible waste of time. The same goes for grant applications. When you streamline your application, you not only save your grantees time, you enable your team to do the following.

1. Reduce grantee burden

Community nonprofits are stretched thin. Too often the grant application process piles on more work for these already overextended teams. To funders, that might not seem like a big deal, but for employees who have to budget their time as well as their mental and emotional capacity across many projects, every minute spent on applying for a grant pulls focus away from other, often more transformative work. 

When funders lessen the effort and time it takes to apply for a grant, they give grantees more latitude to put time and energy elsewhere. That’s no small thing. 

2. Support equity

Who has access to your application directly determines who has access to your grant funding. So, if you create an application experience that excludes some people, you’re baking inequity into your process. 

Equity takes intention. It’s not something that happens by accident. Creating an inclusive application is one piece of the puzzle. It ensures that you don’t perpetuate bias and unintentionally exclude certain groups from your program. Your grant form is meant to connect you with potential grantees. The last thing you want is for your application requirements to become a barrier. 

Embrace equity in your grantmaking

Learn how in our webinar with program managers from Artist Trust.

3. Level the playing field

When you take the administrative burden off of grantees, you open up funding opportunities to a much wider range of organizations. If you have a long, cumbersome application, only larger organizations with an employee (or team) dedicated to grant writing will be able to apply. Smaller nonprofits won’t have the bandwidth. 

Simplifying the process can be good for everyone. It lessens the workload for your review team, and it opens the door to many more applicants. Plus, reducing red tape can help break down some of the entrenched biases that can hold the philanthropic sector back. 

Brenda Solorzano, CEO of the Headwaters Foundation, explains the effect of streamlining their grant application process: “The stories we’ve collected of the work that’s being done with these general operating grants–it’s transformational in many of these communities,” she says. “And these are communities that don’t have big infrastructure, don’t have large nonprofits, don’t have development people. They’re the kind of people who wouldn’t be as competitive in a traditional application process.”

Reshaping their grant application requirements radically shifted who the Headwaters Foundation reached with their programs. In turn, they were able to make a meaningful, long-term impact. 

4. Keep nonprofits focused on their mission

The whole point of a grants program is for funders to put resources into the hands of organizations doing important community work. If, in exchange for funding, you’re pulling a significant amount of the team’s time and energy away from that work, you’re undercutting their ability to stay focused on their mission. 

When you streamline your application process, you give grantees more time to invest in the work that matters most. That time saved could go into building relationships within the community, strategic planning, professional development, or innovating for the future. These are the efforts that will help organizations be successful in the long term.

5. Build stronger relationships

Rather than seeing the funder/grantee relationship as hierarchical, many grantmakers are reimagining it to be more collaborative. A big part of an equitable, long-lasting relationship is the ability to operate from a place of trust. Rather than viewing the application as your chance to vet potential grantees, think about it as an opportunity to check if your missions align. 

Streamlining your grant application is a great way to center grantees in your work. You’re letting them know that you value their time and energy. Plus, it enables you to move with the urgency they feel. When organizations are trying to meet community needs, they don’t want to be slowed down by funders who take months and months to collect and review grant applications.

By centering the grantee experience, funders create more space for dialogue, feedback, and innovation. Not only does this exchange of ideas strengthen relationships, it also benefits communities more broadly. 

The 11 dos and don’ts of building your grant application

1. Don’t: Build an unnecessarily complex application 

* Do: Think about your application from the applicant perspective

Don’t create an application experience you wouldn’t want to go through yourself. For instance, if you ask organizations to upload documents, don’t ask them to also input that information into a separate form field. Limit redundant requests and make questions clear and straightforward. 

As you build your application, think about the individuals or teams on the other side of the experience. Try to make it as easy on them as possible. Before you publish your application, try to imagine you’re reading it for the first time. Ask yourself:

  • Are there confusing questions? 
  • Are any of the instructions unclear? 
  • Do you use too much technical jargon?

Err on the side of over-explaining and be sure applicants know who to contact if they have questions. 

2. Don’t: Turn applying for a grant into a guessing game

* Do: Make the full application available to download

It’s incredibly frustrating to sit down to fill out an application and realize you don’t have all the information you need. What seemed like a simple task has turned into a scavenger hunt. If you aren’t up-front about what applicants will need to submit to be considered, you’re potentially making the process much more difficult than it needs to be. 

Make your application downloadable so applicants have time to gather all the data they will need before they dig in. They can work with their teams to ensure they have everything they need to apply. For instance, if your grant application requirements include questions about budget, future programs, and beneficiary demographics, that could mean gathering data from three different sources. No one wants to do this while they’re in the middle of filling out the application. Don’t make them.

3. Don’t: Put all the work on one person 

* Do: Enable collaboration 

If you choose a grants management platform that limits applicants’ ability to collaborate, you might be putting the full workload onto one person. If teams can easily contribute to the application without disrupting one another’s workflow, they have the option to divvy up tasks more evenly. 

Look for a platform that makes it simple for teams by providing real-time collaboration, so everyone can see what work has been done and what’s left to complete.

collaborator field presence on collective application

Submittable’s collaboration tool allows applicants to see the real-time presence of other contributors.

4. Don’t: Make every applicant fill out the full form 

* Do: Use eligibility screening 

You don’t want to review applicants that don’t qualify for your grants. And organizations don’t want to waste time filling out forms for a grant they definitely won’t get. That’s why eligibility screening is good for everyone. 

Use a few quick questions to ensure that no one can complete your full application unless they meet the basic eligibility requirements—whether that be geographic location, nonprofit status, mission focus, organization size, or something else. 

Submittable offers eligibility screening to help ensure that only qualified applicants fill out the full application.

5. Don’t: Assume applicants can access your application easily

* Do: Find a mobile-friendly grant management software with a VPAT 

When you’re creating your grant application, you want to make sure everyone can access it. Choose a platform that’s easy to use for people of all technical backgrounds. 

You also want to choose an application that is fully responsive on mobile devices. This will help you reach people who may not have reliable access to a computer or WiFi. Be sure to test your application on a mobile device to ensure there are no issues viewing instructions, uploading documents, or submitting forms.

Prioritizing access also means choosing software that is accessible to people with a wide range of disabilities. Look for solutions with a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT™) to ensure the software you choose meets accessibility standards (psst… Submittable does). 

6. Don’t: Ask for publicly available information

* Do: Use your own time to do research

It may seem like no big deal to ask organizations to submit information that your team could find on its own. But if you look at it from their perspective, you’re asking them to take time to collect information that you already have access to. 

As a grantmaker, you can take a big burden off your grantees by gathering publicly available information. You’d be surprised at how much you can learn about an organization without having to ask. Look to public websites, past financial reports, and databases such as Candid to get information you need. 

When it comes to learning about the broader social context of your grantees’ work, you can do a lot of that research on your own. Your team should invest time in understanding the issues communities face so that you can understand how your grantees’ work fits in. Don’t rely on your grantees to educate your team. That’s not their role.  

7. Don’t: Ask for information you won’t use

* Do: Clarify why you need each piece of data

When it comes to writing grant application requirements, more is not always better. You only want to ask questions that will give you information you care about. Sometimes grantmakers include questions because they seem relevant in theory, but in practice the answers don’t actually matter much. 

Go through your application and ask why each piece of information is necessary. This is also a good way to check for redundancies. 

Streamline your grants program

Submittable can help you lessen the burden on your grantees and your team.

8. Don’t: Require unique formatting

* Do: Accept files and write-ups for other grantmakers

An organization might have created a document for another funder. If that document includes all the information you need, don’t make an applicant reformat it to submit it to you. That’s a huge waste of time. 

Be willing to accept write-ups and reports created for other funders. And note this flexibility within your application. 

You can also accept multiple file types so that grantees don’t have to recreate content. For instance, if they have a video they created to explain their new program, let them submit that rather than requiring them to write out all the same information.

Submittable allows organizations to accept a wide variety of file types, including images, audio files, videos, spreadsheets, and more.

9. Don’t: Keep grantees waiting in limbo

* Do: Move with urgency

Your decisions as a grantmaker can have a profound effect on the organizations seeking funding. Their ability to run specific programs, hire employees, or invest in new training or technology might hinge on whether or not they receive a grant. Do your best to get them an answer as quickly as possible. 

Streamlining your grant application requirements will make it easier on your review team to complete their evaluations swiftly. But you also want to be clear with applicants about the expected timeframe so they can plan accordingly. Let them know when you intend to make a decision and then work to stick to those deadlines. If things change, get in touch. Don’t leave anyone in the dark.

Remember: this urgency doesn’t stop with the award decision. You also want to get funds into the hands of your grantees as quickly as possible. They don’t want to hear that they’ll be getting a check and then have to wait months for it to arrive. Choose a software that enables you to disburse and track funds digitally

Submittable makes it easy to disburse and track funds.

10. Don’t: Make every check-in a formal report

* Do: Use informal, verbal check-ins 

Taking time to check in with grantees is a great way to track your impact and strengthen your relationships with the organizations you support. But if you make every check-in a formal process that requires grantees to submit a written report, you’re creating a lot of extra work for their teams. 

Instead, think about incorporating more informal check-ins into your grant reporting process. For instance, a quick phone call could give you the information you need and be an easy lift for grantees. Not only does it lessen the burden, but it also gives you a chance to get a richer, more nuanced understanding of their impact, including all the little details that are difficult to capture in  a written report. Plus, these conversations create more space for honest dialogue so you can seek feedback about your processes and expectations as a grantmaker. 

11. Don’t: Tie your funding to specific programs 

* Do: Provide unrestricted funding 

Operating from a place of trust is not limited to the application process. It also applies to the funding itself. The organizations you support know best what they need and how to serve their communities. Let these teams decide how to spend the money you award them. 

Rather than tying your funding to specific programs or costs, provide unrestricted funding. In essence, unrestricted funding lets the nonprofit determine how best to use these resources to further their mission. Maybe it goes right into programs or maybe they use it for staffing, technology, or rent. The key is to trust that the grantees know what’s best. 

Find the right software to support your mission

Using the right grant management platform enables you to streamline your processes, taking the burden off your grantees as well as your own program managers. Without the right tools, the administrative tasks can pile up and get in the way, affecting your ability to advance equity and forge meaningful relationships. 

Submittable is a social impact platform built to help grantmakers launch, manage, and measure their programs with ease. Find out how we can help you build a workflow that’s right for you and your grantees. 

Laura Steele

Laura Steele is a content writer and editor at Submittable focused mostly on the world of grantmaking and corporate giving. Her work often explores the connection between technology, equity, and social good. She also writes fiction and nonfiction. You can read some of her stories and essays at laurapricesteele.com.

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