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12 Tips for Filling Out/Submitting Online Applications

December 04, 2013

(Allison Shirk is a freelance grantwriter based on Vashon Island, Washington. She is on the Board of Directors of the Puget Sound Grantwriter's Association. This article excerpted from her upcoming book. For more information, visit www.allisonshirkgrantwriting.com.)

Headshot_allison_shirkTrees everywhere are rejoicing as more and more funders switch from paper to online applications. But for some grantwriters, having to disrupt the flow of their narrative to accommodate character-limited text fields is both inconvenient and cumbersome.

If you're one of those grantwriters, here are some tips designed to make the online application process a little more enjoyable and productive:

1. Get organized. As you create a login for the application, make a note of your username and password. Then bookmark the login page in your favorite browser so you don't have to go through the eligibility survey every time you come back to the application. Make a note of the date and time (including the time zone!) that the application is due.

2. Create a road map. Read through the application instructions and the application itself and map out where your organization and project descriptions need to be inserted. Identify the questions in the application that you'll need to write narrative for and make a note of data and statistics that need to be collected. List the attachments you’ll want to upload. Remember, not every organization can fit neatly into online applications, so highlight any special information you'll need to insert later.


3. Create a working document. One of the risks of typing right into an application form is having your session time out, causing you to lose your unsaved work. You can avoid that nightmare by cutting and pasting the questions from the application into a Word or Google doc. Some online applications are offered in a downloadable PDF format, but if you go that route be sure to double check the printout against the actual online application, making note of character limits and drop-down choices. If you’re having trouble moving to the next tab in the online application because error messages tell you that you haven't completed the page yet, type in some dummy text (e.g., "draft"); it should let you continue. (For number fields, type in a couple of zeroes as a placeholder.) Use the top header tabs to jump from page to page; the bottom "continue" button will only take you forward a page at a time. Be sure to place your online username/password and the application due date at the top of the working document so it's easy to find when you're ready to start entering your narrative into the online application.

4. Call rewrite! Take a minute or two to go back and read the instructions and any other information the funder provided. With that information in mind, sit down and revise your narrative to make the deepest possible connection between your project and the funder's priorities.

5. Enter the data. Once your working document is complete, start loading it into the online application, remembering to save often. (Note: Online applications often will have you type in your board members one board member at a time. Creating a list of board members and their affiliations that you can cut and paste from will save you a lot of time.)

6. Keep your presentation simple. As you load sections of your narrative into the online application form, it's likely that bullet points, italic and boldface font styles, and other text effects will not transfer over. To save yourself some aggravation, remove font styles ahead of time and replace bullet points with a simple dash. Note that if you chose to review the application in preview mode (if such an option is offered) and notice strange symbols showing up in the text, it might be due to smart quotes or other formatting carried over from the Word document. If it's happening a lot, you might want to cut and paste that section from Word into a plain-text editor like Notepad, save it to your desktop, highlight it again, and copy/paste back into the online application. You can also turn off smart quotes in Word by clicking the Microsoft Office Button > Word options > Proofing > AutoCorrect Options > AutoFormat > and uncheck replace "straight quotes" with "smart quotes."

7. Keep track of characters and spaces. Nearly all online applications limit the number of characters allowed for each question. As you are inserting text from your working document into the online application, highlight your answers in the working document and check your word count. (In Microsoft Word, this handy feature is located under the Review tab.) Note the number of "characters (without spaces)" versus "characters (with spaces)." Now check the online application for the number it uses -- it's usually with spaces (meaning less room for you to write). And remember: Just because an application offers you 2,000 characters for an answer does not mean you have to use them all. Funders greatly prefer that you answer each question succinctly rather than ramble on for the sake of filling space.

8. Use creative placement. Another reason to keep your answers short and to the point is that you may find you have important information to communicate that doesn't readily fit into the space allotted for certain questions. Look for answers where you didn’t use up the allotted space and see if you can squeeze in bits that otherwise might end up on the cutting-room floor. For example, if the application asks for a timeline for your project and you were able to provide it in a few short sentences, consider whether you can elaborate on another aspect of the project in the context of milestones and deadlines. Similarly, if you can't figure out where to talk about an award the organization received (as in the graphic above), check to see whether the application allows you to upload an award letter as an attachment.

9. Take the time to prune. Inevitably, there are going to be places in the online application where your answers just don't fit. In that situation, look for information that is duplicated elsewhere in the narrative. Maybe you described a specific outcome in two different places. Combine those sentences into a single stellar sentence using the best word choices. Look for unnecessary adjectives. Let the reader decide whether a project is "unique," "the best," or "innovative." Take the time to make every sentence in your narrative crisp and to the point. Then ask yourself, Are there any sentences that would work better in a different section? Think of the application as a sort of puzzle that is solved through a process of trial and error. Last but not least, delete extraneous spaces after sentences (you only need one) and paragraphs.

10. Take some care with attachments. When you are ready to upload your attachments, take some time to format them in the same font, add your logo to headers, and label them with consistent naming conventions (e.g., "Attachment 1: Most Current Financial Statement").

11. Read it through it one last time. Before you submit the completed application, read through it one last time for typos and to make sure it flows. Is anything missing or redundant? Would you fund the program or project? If your answer to those questions is "no" and "yes," your work is almost done.

12. Submit! Before you hit the submit button, highlight the entire application and cut and paste it into a Word document for your records. Try not to wait until the day of the deadline to submit it. Online systems bog down to a crawl on deadline day, and it's quite possible you’ll experience delays. Experienced grantwriters do their best to submit applications a week or two ahead of time.

And that's it. Your latest application has been submitted and now the really hard part -- waiting for the funder to approve or say no to your application -- begins. Of course, there are plenty of things you should be doing while you wait, and I'll be covering those in future posts.

Until then, feel free to share any tips you have for filling out and submitting online applications in the comments section below. We'd love to hear them!

-- Allison Shirk

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Posted by Peter Hoppe  |   March 12, 2019 at 10:20 AM

Great resource! With so many foundations migrating to online applications, it's wonderful to have these practical tips as a guideline. Thank you.

Posted by Iwan Notowidigdo  |   January 30, 2020 at 09:23 AM

Thank you for all of these essential elements. #2 strikes a particular chord with me. I have lots of potential boilerplate both in content and style so it often is a process of clipping and refining...and seeing improvement as one goes along.

One thing I'd add is to look at what's called for in the entire application portal. Recently, I worked my way through an application with 500 and 1500 character limits only to find that I could upload an additional narrative with graphs, tables, and photos as an attachment at the end. When you talk about #3 create a working document, I think it helps to set aside everything you cut in case you want to pull from it later.

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