The Grand Designs of Grant Writing

Kate Gadenne – Strategic Grants

I’m a huge fan of Grand Designs. Apart from having a ‘bit of a thing’ for Kevin McCloud, I enjoy the birds-eye-view of the trials and tribulations of building bespoke houses. I also feel uplifted by the way good architecture - combined with effective project management - can enhance the lives of people brave enough to make their dream reality.

I find myself drawing a lot of parallels with grant writing.

Like building a grand home, an effective grants program relies on getting the foundations right. It also requires an ability to accept advice where you can get it and to take the time to build good relationships. When you get it right, the rewards are enormous.

Conversely, when we take shortcuts and forget to follow a consistent process, the end result is often disappointing.

In Grand Designs, the wrong foundations will make a building crumble - a tragedy for the individuals living in the building, but not much harm to anyone else.

Not-For-Profits (NFPs) have a lot more at stake. A good grants program enables NFPs to deliver on their mission to help the people and causes reliant on them for support. This is a big responsibility and a strong motivation to get the basics right.

With this in mind, let’s take a closer look at the foundations of a great grants program.

Assess if your organisation is grant-ready

Using the Grand Designs analogy, this is the bit where the prospective house builder finds the block, employs the architect, and gets their finance sorted – well before the first sod of earth is turned. In a grants-program context, this is where you need to pop on your hard hat, roll your sleeves up and do some work before you put pen to paper.

We recommend you have the following in place:

  • a list of key messages about your organisation,
  • a list of funder deadlines,
  • someone to write a strong application,
  • a prioritised, approved wish list of projects alongside project plans and budgets,
  • strategies to ensure engagement with funders and other stakeholders and effective grant stewardship,
  • a clear and current website,
  • project evaluation methodologies in place (they don’t need to be complex), and
  • historical knowledge of previous grants, and whether they have been acquitted on time.

Planning for grants

In Grand Designs, I’ve noticed that the most dramatic problems arise when people haven’t got their planning approvals in place. Some even need to abandon projects for months on end because they hadn’t done their homework and prioritised discussions with planning authorities.

When planning to submit a grant, the same thing is true. One can prepare the most beautifully crafted application imaginable, but if it doesn’t fit the funders’ guidelines nor their area of interest, it won’t succeed.

Here’s some tips for planning the right submission for the right funder:

  1. Understand what grants are out there by preparing a grants calendar of funding opportunities. (Strategic Grants Grants Expertise Management Systems can help with this!)
  2. Research prospective funders and identify if they are right for you. Are there synergies between the needs of your organisation and the charitable purpose of the funder? What have they funded in the past? Will their funding deadlines and distribution of funds suit your project timing?
  3. Call the funder to discuss your project/s. This is a vital part of the process and often neglected by those making applications. It’s a great way to kickstart a relationship with a funder, and to find out how likely they are to fund your project. Listen to what they say – and if they advise you that the project is not a good fit – don’t apply.

Preparing an effective grant application

In Grand Designs, this is the time where Kevin would be making a site visit to watch the foundations being laid. Building is underway and all the hard work put into planning is now dependent on the quality of the workmanship. In the grant writing context, the groundwork has been done, but you need to prepare a quality application to maximise your chances of success.

So what’s the secret to a winning grant application?

  1. Read the guidelines, read the guidelines – read the guidelines! If you don’t meet eligibility criteria – don’t apply. Check with funders directly if you are unsure.
  2. Talk the funder’s language – use simple language and avoid jargon. Don’t assume the funder knows about your organisation.
  3. Read the questions carefully and answer them.
  4. Tell them how your project addresses their criteria.
  5. Make sure project info is up to date and include any latest research, results or outputs.
  6. Use demonstrable evidence and cite your sources.
  7. Make sure you have someone who writes well to prepare the application.
  8. Illustrate the need well. Grants are highly competitive.

The last ingredient to achieve a house worthy of being featured on Grand Designs, and a grand grant application, is passion. Show your passion. Engage funders with your words. I can’t promise it will result in a visit from Kevin McCleod, but the results will be worth the hard work.

After all that talk of Grand Designs – I’m off to get my Kevin fix!

Visit the Strategic Grants website to learn more about our Grant-Seeker Workshops and other training opportunities!

Kate Gadenne is a Grants Strategist at Strategic Grants with approximately 20 years experience in communications, media and marketing-related roles. She has a broad range of experience working with nonprofits, government and defence, private enterprise and higher education.

The Grand Designs of Grant Writing



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