Wading Through the Muck of Grant Guidelines

Do As I Say, Not As I Do.

Quoting Alanis Morissette, “Isn’t it ironic?” when funders publish grant guidelines that contain jargon, undefined acronyms, and vague descriptions.  These are the very issues that can prevent a proposal from being recommended for funding.  In the case of complex guidelines such as for a federal grant, sometimes one section of the grant guidelines seems to contradict another section.  Or, information about a specific component of the proposal may appear in more than one section of the guidelines, making it easy to lose track of everything they said.

Frustrating, isn’t it!

And, in the case of federal grants, we typically have 8 weeks or less from the time the grant is announced until the time it’s due.  So, there’s no time to waste in deciphering the instructions.

Read the Guidelines from Beginning to End

Gather as much information as you can about the specific grant you’re interested in, and then read every word.  Use a highlighter, post-it notes, red pen—whatever you prefer—to mark up the instructions for quick reference later on.

Eligibility – Are applicants limited by organizational tax status? Geography?  Budget?  Beneficiaries?

Purpose – What is the funder’s intent? Are there any limitations on how the grant funds can be used?

Budget – How much can you request? What’s the timeframe?  Do they fund administrative costs?

Preliminary requirements – Do you need to participate in a webinar? Submit a letter of intent?  Convene a planning meeting?  Complete a pre-application?  Acquire a DUNS number?  Register with

Content – Do they provide an application form? What information do they ask for in the grant narrative?  Do they want the information presented in a particular order?

Supporting documents – Do they allow attachments? If so, which ones do they require?  Do you have the option of including additional documents?

Formatting instructions – Look for details about page limits, font type and size, margins, line spacing, page numbers, etc.

Wading Through the Grant Muck

Even after you read through the complete set of grant instructions, there may be many things you’re unsure about.  I suggest you try one or more of the following strategies to help you wade through the muck:

  • If the funder provides contact information, reach out to them to seek clarification. They will appreciate your effort to understand their process and expectations.
  • If they schedule a webinar or grant meeting, submit your questions before or during the event. They may not answer your question directly, but they may respond by publishing a list of frequently asked questions (and the answers) on their website.
  • Set the grant instructions aside, and re-read them with fresh eyes the next day.
  • Ask a colleague to read the instructions and help you decipher them.
  • Or, as my colleague Joy Duling at A 25 Hour Day recommends, cut chunks of related information from various sections & paste them together so you don’t have to flip back & forth in the document.

Whatever You Do, Don’t Get Stuck in the Muck

Today’s take-away is to wade through those grant guidelines and do whatever it takes to understand what the funder wants before you begin preparing your proposal.

Looking Ahead

In my next GrantSpeak post, I’ll walk you through the IRS Form 990 to point out the wealth of information it provides about foundations and the grants they award.

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