What the world's great novelists would have to say about writing online grant applications

For the overall art of grant proposal writing, I think that Mark Twain said it all by saying, "when in doubt, tell the truth."  For the special area of online applications, I think that E.M. Forster, George Eliot and Charles Dickens have something to add!

E.M. Forster would say, "Only connect." (That's what he said in Howard's End.)

In a previous post, I wrote about how online applications make it possible to research guidelines and submit a proposal--all without first having a phone conversation or email exchange with a program officer to learn how to best target the proposal to the funder’s interests.

But just because you can submit the application with no contact with the funder, it doesn't mean you should!

Before hitting the "submit" button on that online grant application, I suggest you do your very best to call, email or meet with a representative of the funder.

Make the purpose of your outreach substantive. You can ask clarifying questions about the guidelines, or informally present two priority projects that both fit the guidelines, and ask which may be more appealing to the funder.

Unless the guidelines specifically request no contact with the funder, it is always advisable to try to reach out. 


Charles Dickens would say, "Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else." (That's what he said in Hard Times, though I don't think he really meant it.)

Chances are that the reviewers of your online applications are looking at hundreds of submissions. Get to the point right away!

In her article "Responding in the Twitter Age: Proposal Writing for Electronic Applications," published in the Journal of the Grant Professionals Association, Betsy Northrup recommends that you use the "pyramid style" of writing that you may have learned about in high school English or journalism class. Provide the detail and nuance at the end of the response, not the beginning. Don't assume that the reviewers will be reading every word--they may only scan your responses, paying the most attention to the first line of each section.


George Eliot would say, “What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?” (That's what she said in Middlemarch.)

There are ways to make online applications less difficult to deal with, both for your nonprofit organization and for the grantmaker that will receive them.

Here's how to make online applications easier for you and your organization to create: One of the challenges with online applications is that each question comes with its own word limits and even specific directions. Also, it can be difficult to have different staffers log in and out to review and edit the text. Finally, you run the risk of losing your work if the application system is not sophisticated or if you make an error in saving it.

To avoid these problems, I suggest that you build your own application template with which you will create a complete, final draft of the application. Several weeks before the deadline, visit the funder's website to access the online application (you may need to create a log-in name and password and pass an eligibility quiz just to view the questions). Copy and paste all of the questions and directions into your own Microsoft Word document (or other tool such as Evernote or Google Docs). This will be the document that you use to draft the application. It is better to circulate this document for editing than to give different people access to the online application. Then, when you have completed the text to everyone's liking, simply cut and paste the final text into the online application.

For an example of what your template should look like, download the Grant Planning Worksheet that the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation created for their prospective applicants. As they explain it, their "worksheet includes instructions, plus all the information required by the Online Grant Proposal. Please note that the worksheet is for planning purposes only. You must complete your Online Grant Proposal via this website."

Here's how to make online applications easier for your funder to read: Keep text formatting as simple as possible. Don't use fancy formatting and special symbols. Avoid creating charts, bulleted lists, and even italics and bold text. The funder's online application management system may translate these symbols into unreadable gibberish after you hit the "submit" button.

To create engaging online applications, another handy tip offered by Betsy Northrup is to use statistics and write the numbers as digits, not words (35, not thirty-five). As she writes, "eye-tracking studies revealed numerals stop the wandering eye, even when they're embedded within a mass of words that users otherwise ignore."