Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Online grant application tips - Part One

The use of online applications is increasing each year, particularly by larger foundations and corporate philanthropic departments, and once adopted they replace the old paper submission format. In spite of our electronically connected world, some nonprofits still prefer the paper submission approach, and avoid online applications.
Many nonprofits feel that online applications are cold, remote and remove the passion element from the equation. That is probably what they are meant to do. Large foundations and corporations can receive as many as 5,000 applications for one grant. They are going to eliminate any application that even remotely fails to meet their criteria, and the online application makes that easier. In some cases, awards don't come down to whose mission is most deserving, but whose program negotiates the online application most efficiently.
Foundations, corporations and government grant opportunities  provide up to 50% of all nonprofit income, so simply crossing online applications off your funding opportunity list just isn't a smart business decision. Learning to live with the format is a necessity today.
It should go without saying, but read the RFP and the grant instructions completely, including any location limitations. There is no single, standard online application format. Online applications vary from fillable pdf documents used by small foundations to various regional so-called "common grant applications", to well designed and fairly user-friendly custom cybergrant applications. Each requires the grant writer to adapt your information to the format. You will have to create a login and password for each organization, and sometimes for each application.
Save your login information in-house, including passwords. That way if something happens to the person originally submitting the grant, the new person can access the application. While most logins will give you the "forgot your password" prompt, not all of them do. Save the grant ID number as well, since you may apply to more than one program area. Once submitted, you cannot edit anything or submit further information unless requested to do so.
Condensing your information
Online applications normally have character or word limitations for each question you must answer. Commonly those limits are 250-, 500-, or 750-words or 500-2,500 characters. The underlined sentence is 105 characters including spaces using 11-pt Arial. Some applications require the use of specific fonts, or they will convert whatever font you are using to the preferred format, usually Arial, Times New Roman or Courier. In general, use one of these three if there is no requirement stated. This is not the place for style points. Know the limits in advance, and be prepared to condense your copy to fit the character limitations. That carefully crafted, board-approved boilerplate probably will not work. Remember that spaces are characters, and some applications may not indicate whether they count spaces as characters. Create your responses in a word or plain text document before you actually fill out the application, and get a count.
If you just can't reduce your text to the limit, have a professional editor or grant writer review it. Some online applications are still simply not providing enough room, but in most cases, someone who isn't so emotionally involved with the text can still get the message out there without losing the context.
Unless they specifically say that spaces are excluded from the count, assume the worst. The Microsoft Word character/word count function does not always count characters in the same way as online applications, and you may have to expand the word count box (by clicking on it) to access the "character with spaces" count. I always try to err on the side of slightly shorter text instead of pushing it right to the character limit. 
Part Two will discuss specific formatting traps and flow.

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