6 Things to Consider When Applying for Funding

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Authors: Mihai Patru and Bradley Chargualaf *

Mihai Patru is Caravanserai Project’s Executive Director. Bradley Chargualaf is the Director Of Programs of the organization.

Our first-hand experiences with both applying for and offering funding have given us quite a unique take on these opposing yet complementary processes. Having navigated both situations many times, we have narrowed down six key lessons from an infinite list of do’sand don’ts. Some are the result of learning from our own mistakes or of successful strategies we employed in seeking funding, while others are observations based on patterns we have noticed as a grant-maker. 

Both sides of the coin

At Caravanserai Project, our work is partially made possible through funding from grants and contracts, all of which require an application process. We are fortunate to have achieved many great successes: over $3.5M in the last 2 years from grants and contracts as the result of applications we developed and wrote in-house. Yet in some cases we fell short, either because we were not quite a good fit, or perhaps our pitch did not resonate with those making the decisions. In other cases, we may have missed key details such as an explanation included in those tiny footnotes. Yet, each time we have gained valuable insights that we employ for the next grant application process. 

Additionally, our active involvement in programs like the California Dream Fund of the California Office for Small Business Advocate and SEED 2.0 of the Employment Training Panel has offered our team a unique and different perspective. Serving as the grant-maker in these programs, it is our responsibility to thoroughly evaluate all applications, carefully consider the strengths of each applicant, ensure that the proposed project aligns with the scope of the grant, and assess the applicant’s capacity and experience to effectively utilize and make the most of the funds. 

In our experience, some narratives appeared insufficient for and disconnected from the times we live in, while others were clearly the result of copying and pasting from other prior applications. Conversely, many well-presented and noteworthy applications have offered us valuable lessons, such as timely introductions to relevant issues we did not know much about and challenged our perceptions of things. They have also inspired us through their proposed innovative solutions and unique perspectives offered. Just in the last 12 months, our team has reviewed over 500 applications and selected around 150 entrepreneurs for funding so far.

Whether applications are successful or not, we have observed common habits and patterns across the board. Below we present six common-sense tips that you as a grant-seeker should consider adopting before hitting the “submit” button for your application. They don’t require the involvement of any professional grant writer, but will increase your chance of success. 

1. Look for a good match

Like in any successful relationship, both the grant-seeker and the grant-maker must be a good match. In most cases, the request for proposal (RFP) provides enough details to inform a potential applicant if that opportunity is worth pursuing or not. Sometimes info-sessions are provided by the grantor to help with the application process. If so, take advantage of such opportunities. 

As grant-seekers, it is not uncommon to at times submit an application that is perhaps not a perfect fit. Even if the main requirements were met, maybe the funder did not have a history of supporting the work being proposed, or perhaps the venture was too small/too big to grab their attention. But if you believe in your venture and think it’s a relatively good match, give it a go! There is always a risk as we can never be certain of the outcome of an application. If anything, you will learn something in the process to apply for the next grant opportunity.

On the other hand, we have to admit, there is always something rewarding about challenging a funder with a new approach. Sometimes it is worth the effort. But be sure to understand and meet the minimum requirements. If these are not met, each party is wasting their time: the applicant and the reader of the application. 

For example, one of our programs requires fluency in the Spanish language and there is no way around it. For another, being legally incorporated after July 1, 2019 in California is the main requirement. Yet, we are still receiving numerous submissions that do not meet these very basic and specific requirements. 

2. Show that you know your business

To increase the likelihood of being awarded the grant, make it easier for the grant-maker by clearly demonstrating your purpose and the nature of your business. There is nothing more frustrating for grant-makers than reading applications that fail to adequately convey the applicant’s scope of work, identify who their clients or beneficiaries are, outline the value proposition of their products or services, and even how they are running their business. It is unlikely to convince anyone to invest in your work if these essential elements are not clear, realistic and supported with pertinent arguments. 

Too many applicants, for profit and nonprofit alike, make the mistake of using unnecessary buzz words meant to impress the audience. It will not! On the contrary, it will only serve to call into question the applicant’s readiness to deliver, or their expertise and understanding of their sector. 

Too many applicants, for profit and nonprofit alike, make the mistake of using unnecessary buzz words meant to impress the audience. It will not! On the contrary, it will only serve to call into question the applicant’s readiness to deliver, or their expertise and understanding of their sector. 

Some of the applications we have reviewed fail to use clear and straightforward language when it comes to describing their work and it is hard to imagine how funding them would be a good investment. We always appreciate aspirational and inspirational thinking but at the end of the day the Devil is in the details. While using words like “uplifting”, “empowering” etc. is meant to convey your passion, avoid overusing such terms and stick to the main point.  Be clear, be specific, and tell the grant-maker how your business offering meets a need.

3. Show, Don’t Tell: Use the Power of Data

There is no better way of convincing your audience than providing compelling data to support your claims. Using flashy or grandiose language might be good to get your passion and mission of the organization across, but objective data and tangible evidence will influence the reader to your cause.

Provide quantitative data that illustrates what you do and what the grant will allow you to do. Show the impact you have had before, and if it is a new program, show numbers on similar initiatives that demonstrates its potential and/or proves its effectiveness. Including this type of quality data increases your credibility by showing that you know your business’ potential, pay attention to detail and results, provide a track record of your previous accomplishments, and can effectively convey what you will do.However, don’t get too mired in too much detail.

You can also just as easily get lost in the numbers. Nobody wants to read statistic after statistic that doesn’t add any meaningful value to your pitch. Think about the funder and be selective with what data is necessary to help tell your story, support your claims, and that underscores how you will meet the funder’s expectations. What is the scope of the program? What data do they want to see and what data is compelling? Make the numbers speak to their priorities and concerns. 

4. Seek an investment, not charity

Whether an entrepreneur seeking funding is representing a nonprofit or a for profit business, framing their request from an investment perspective has become the norm. No grant-maker is just giving money away without some tangible value proposition. A return on investment (ROI) is expected, albeit not always in financial terms. The investment may yield any number of meaningful impacts: from supporting underserved individuals for increasing their financial literacy, providing homeless individuals access to showers and resources, to a percentage of the profit or shares in a company, etc. Take care to learn what your would-be investors value and expect for their investment grants.  

As grant-writers, we all should think in terms of the results we are able to generate with a particular grant, contract, or investment. Grant-makers will always read an application looking for what can be achieved with the funds a grantee will receive. Be prepared to answer the fundamental question: What exactly is the return of that investment?

We have read many grant requests that fall short of making a compelling case in their favor by not being able to clearly explain the end result, both short and long-term. There is no better way of demonstrating the return on investment than quantitative data: numbers of individuals served, sales growth, products delivered, etc. It does not have to be complicated – keep it simple, relevant, and achievable.

5. Stay relevant and connected to the world

Any entrepreneur or organization is pursuing a cause because they strongly believe the impact of their solution (product or service) is relevant and brings added value to the world we live in. In this age and time, it is surprising and disappointing to read applications from entrepreneurs and organizations that seem to lack awareness of what is happening around them. Any grant-maker is looking to understand how the grant-seeker’s work, products and services are in-sync with the socio-economic dynamics we are experiencing, whether they are an LLC, a sole proprietor, or a nonprofit. 

For example, an increasing number of funders enquire about the applicants’ commitment to DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion), and how DEI is embedded in the decision-making process as well as the organization’s DEI practices. This reflects an overarching expectation that grant-seekers should take these principles into account in the execution of their business objectives. 

A much too common response we have seen is the applicant(s) merely disclosing their own personal minority or underrepresented status. While this is fine to disclose, the applicant’s membership in a particular minority group alone does not necessarily make them or their venture a promoter, supporter, and practitioner of DEI values. In fact, we have learned about situations that demonstrate the opposite. Surprisingly, one application we received answered the DEI questions with a lengthy response about nondiscriminatory practices against pets (dog breeds, in particular). Clearly this missed the mark! 

6. Make it worth everyone’s time 

Seeking funding opportunities and embarking on the actual application process requires commitment, time management and resources. From taking the time to develop your narrative, conduct research and collect data to support the claims included in an application, to carefully proofreading and making sure that there are no typos or grammar mistakes, everything matters. Even creating and thoughtfully incorporating aesthetically coherent visuals that reflect who the applicant is demonstrates attention to detail as well as confidence and respect for whomever is at the receiving end.

Unfortunately, we have seen numerous incomplete submissions, where questions were either left unanswered or only partially answered. Some even submitted narratives that did not make sense or were in no way connected to a particular question. Incomplete or low quality submissions are not likely to be given serious consideration or receive a positive answer.

Time is a valuable and precious resource for both the grant-seekers and the grant reviewers. Just going through the application preparation process alone takes an investment of time and energy. If you are taking the time to apply, make sure the effort is worth the investment and commit to a complete and quality submission. 

The long list of do’s and don’ts related to applying for funding is impossible to exhaust. Some are more general than others and it is always the context (and the specific requirements of an RFP) that makes them more or less relevant. Moreover, there is no perfect application, and the reviewing process is to some extent influenced by the reviewers’ own experiences, expectations, and interests. Yet, your chances for getting a grant are far greater if your application submission is clearly written, to the point, compelling, and meets the stated requirements while advancing both the work of the funder and the applicant. 

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