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Making every word tell: What we're looking for in our grant submissions

2017-August 24
Don Matteson, Chief Program Officer 

Now that we've wrapped up our second round of grants under our revised process and finished our second grant applicants survey, it's time to take a few minutes to process what we've learned.

One of the major changes we made going into this year was to simplify our application questions. We used to have about 14 questions, some of which seemed terribly redundant. We've streamlined that to four questions (nine, if you count the project summary, two questions about organization information, one question requesting a timeline for grant activities, and one question on evaluation metrics):

  • What do you want to do?
  • Why do you want to do it?
  • How do you want to do it?
  • What do you need to do it?

Some folks felt that the questions were well-intentioned, but not sufficiently distinct from one another. Others felt that they didn't have the opportunity to explain their project sufficiently. Feedback aside, we sometimes felt that the information we got from grant applicants wasn't as complete as we needed to understand what they were proposing.

In this post, I want to spend a little time expanding a bit on these questions. This same information will make its way into a document that grant applicants can download and look at alongside their grant application as they're writing.

Before we get into those four questions, I'll also add a brief explanation of what we're looking for in the Project Summary. This has been an interesting question, mainly because we ask people to be super concise. The response is limited to 300 characters (including spaces!), so there's no room for padding. Consider it a chance to, as Strunk and White wrote in The Elements of Style, make "every word tell."

What are you trying to accomplish? (Project Summary)

Imagine explaining your project in two very short sentences (or two tweets). That's what we're looking for here. This is the express elevator pitch.

What do you want to do?

This is the longer, slower elevator pitch. We're looking for a high level, general description of what you're trying to accomplish. Don't get into the concrete details/day-to-day aspects of the project yet — that's going to come up later in the "How do you want to do it?" section below.

Why do you want to do it?

Tell us why you see your project as important and/or urgent. Give us some background information to help us understand the issue(s) and how it affects your community. This is also where you'd want to make some really clear connections between your project and the Foundation's goals (they're listed in the grant guidelines). If you're trying something completely new, tell us why you think it will work/be helpful. If this is something that's been done elsewhere (or in a different context/with a different population), tell us why you think it'll import well to your community and/or the people you serve.

How do you want to do it?

Now you can get into the nuts and bolts of your project's activities! Be as detailed and concrete as you like (remember: no character limits, but be kind — we have to read 40 or 50 of these!). If your project will depend on the strength of local partnerships, be sure to describe where these stand and what you'll do to develop and nurture them.

What do you need to do it?

Since you're applying for a grant, we assume you need money. Give us a sense of how much money you need and what you expect to spend it on. If it's not necessarily obvious how an expense fits in with the project you're proposing, feel free to offer a brief explanation in this section. We hope you'll include administration and overhead in your discussion; we offer an administration/overhead rate of 15% on grant requests with program expenses over $100,000, and 20% for grants with program expenses of $100,000 or less.* If, for some reason, you don't want to take any administration/overhead, that's fine — just be sure to make that very explicit in this section so we know that's your plan and not an oversight. Even though this section seems focused on the dollars, some required resources might not come with a price tag. If it makes sense, you can also use this section to discuss less tangible requirements (e.g., culture change, interagency cooperation, and community engagement).

Well, that's pretty much it. I hope that offers some clarification about the questions we ask, what we're looking for, and how much you should (or shouldn't) say when answering them. Let us know in the comments if you have any other questions about our questions (meta-questions?) or drop me a line at [email protected]rg.

*Examples: If you have $75,000 in personnel/direct program expense, you could take a 20% rate, which would result in $15,000 of administration/overhead, bringing the total request up to $90,000; an application with $110,000 in personnel/direct program expense would be allowed a 15% rate, yielding administration/overhead of $16,500, for a total request of $126,500.

Photo by Daniel McCullough


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