This is a guest blog from Gemma Pettman. Gemma has been involved in running our fundraising training courses for the past six years (time flies!) so we're delighted that she agreed to share some of her top tips from these sessions in the Lime Green blog.
According to research carried out by the Association of Charitable Foundations, grant-making grew to £3.7bn in 2020-21, a new high for the sector.
But while grant-makers are giving away more money than ever before, competition for funding remains fierce. We can assume a significant proportion of this total was allocated to organisations who applied via formal grants programmes, which gets you thinking about how many of us are writing funding bids at any one time.
A lot is riding on the strength of our applications.
We need to know our organisations and individual projects or services inside out. We must be able to speak confidently about the people we support and how this grant will make a practical difference. We need detailed budgets - and the ability to explain them. And we need to wrap all of this up in a way that meet the funder’s needs and demonstrates how, by backing us, they can meet their own charitable purpose.
With all of these requirements, is it any wonder our first drafts can end up a little dry?
Given tight word counts and even tighter deadlines, is there any point in adding some sparkle to our funding applications? Do we need to worry about our use of language or achieving grammatical completeness?
I think so.
Put yourself in the shoes of the person assessing your grant. They pick up the 26th application they have read that month, and it captures their attention from the first paragraph. It offers a compelling ask, backed up by some carefully chosen statistics, and paints a strong picture of the impact the grant could have. Now, I’m not suggesting wordplay alone is enough to secure funding, but it could certainly help your application to stand out and be memorable.
Writing skills are something I focus on when I’m delivering Lime Green’s Writing a Successful Funding Application short course and I’ve summarised some of the tips we share below. These are offered with the caveat that, first and foremost, you should follow the funder’s instructions to the letter. Whatever advice appears in their application criteria trumps the guidance we’re offering here. Think of these as general tips you can apply as and when appropriate.
1. Answer the question!
Perhaps the most obvious advice but it is very easy to write what you want the funder to know, rather than responding with the information they have asked for. Try also to avoid getting lost in the detail. Often there is only room for your headlines – the big picture – so think about how you can summarise your most important points. Frequently questions have multiple parts, so it’s important to make sure you’ve answered every part.
2. Don’t write to the word count (at least, not initially)
Self-editing as you write is difficult so I suggest you start by answering each question as fully as you can. Then you can go back and edit (and possibly re-edit) until you meet the word count. This helps you to concentrate on your key points and ensure that what you have written makes sense.
In my experience, it’s also worth checking what constitutes a word – I have come across forms where everything from bullet points to dashes count towards the word total. If you’re in any doubt, do check with the funder.
3. Every word must earn its place
Staying with the challenges of the word count, aim for simplicity in your writing. Remove unnecessary words and consider restructuring sentences for clarity. Asking yourself ‘so what?’ in response to the statements you make can help you get to the heart of what you’re trying to convey.
For more tips on editing down your written work, check out this excellent guide (with some cracking archaeology metaphors mixed in) by content writer Richard Berks.
4. Tell a compelling story…
Some funders are specialists in your field and will understand the unique problems you exist to address. Many won’t be. Think about how you can help the funder to appreciate the issues. Explain what it’s like to be in the shoes of the people you support; consider whether you have space to include a short case study, or even a one-liner from someone you have helped.
Remember, you’re communicating with a person (with emotions and empathy) rather than an organisation.
5. ...but avoid PR ‘puff’
If you’re of the vintage that remembers the Ronseal adverts, you will know what I mean by taking a ‘does what it says on the tin’ approach. If not, it’s shorthand for accuracy, brevity and something being as effective as it claims to be, so evidence any bold statements you make in your applications and clarify points that could cause confusion.
6. Write for the audience
Unless they tell you otherwise, assume the reader knows very little about your organisation and approach. Keeping this in mind will help you decide what information to include and what supporting detail will be relevant. Mirroring the funder’s language can demonstrate that you are familiar with their work and have read their guidelines.
7. Keep the reader’s interest
As I explained earlier, grant assessors may read hundreds of applications every year, so think about how you can make yours more readable.
I suggest avoiding jargon and internal shorthand (those descriptions we use that are meaningless to people outside our organisation), using quotes or bullet points to break up text, and varying sentence length and structure. That can be powerful. Impactful. Plus, if the format of the application allows, you could even add photos or graphics.
8. Check, check and check again
Accurate spelling, grammar and punctuation demonstrates attention to detail. I like to print an application out in a different font and colour, then read it forwards and backwards to pick up errors. Because your brain anticipates what words are coming next, reading it from end to beginning helps you to pick up spelling mistakes, in particular.
You can also use ‘read aloud’ software and listen to what you’ve written, rather than reading it. Finally, ask a colleague or friend – someone less familiar with the content - to read it for you.
These tips should not only help to make your applications more compelling but might also mean they are more enjoyable to write. If you have tips you would add to this list, we would love to hear them. You can leave a comment below.
If you’re keen to sharpen up your application writing skills, check out our fundraising and bid writing training courses via the button below.
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