Advice for CSOs submitting grant applications

Five things to do before completing a grant application




How to improve your chances of securing grants and derive some benefit from the application process even if you are eventually unsuccessful.


Grants are one way of helping CSOs implement important large-scale projects which give them some financial stability in the current economic climate. At the same time, funds from private and corporate grant-giving organisations can be used to support core activities.


For potential partners and important donors, winning major grant competitions demonstrates that an organisation is run effectively, undertakes thorough document checks and is able to provide excellent feedback on the results. It also means they can be trusted to carry out joint projects.


We asked experts who have been involved in a number of grant competitions what actions CSOs need to take in advance in order to submit high-quality applications and compiled the following action plan.


Task 1: Study the competition information carefully


This will give you a clear insight into what criteria an organisation needs to meet, what kind of activity is involved and if there are any special legal requirements to be met. Looking at websites and publications on social networks and television might not be enough – it is best to study the rules. There you will find details on how to apply and the reporting that will be required if you are successful.


All this is important to understand at the outset in order to optimise team resources. An application will be “filtered out” by the judges if a CSO does not meet the criteria, resulting in a lot of time and effort being wasted. Reputational damage may also be suffered if a CSO fails to fulfil its reporting requirements.


“It is important to study the rules and criteria carefully and, most importantly, ask yourself honestly: Does your CSO meet these criteria? If not, and the application is filled out “on the fly”, the CSO risks damaging its reputation and effectiveness”, said Elvira Aleinichenko, Head of the GrantRafting Social Innovation Management Centre.


Task 2: Provide a convincing reason as to why you need a grant


It is important for the judges to see how the award of a grant will help a CSO bring about social change. “I have looked at applications that satisfied the criteria and asked myself why this organisation is asking for a grant if it is already performing so well”, said Alena Bykova, Head of Special Projects at the Agency for Social Information.


An application should include specific details on how a CSO intends to use a grant and the areas that will be covered. For example, if your organisation offers help to mothers living in vulnerable conditions, you should explain the extent of the problem and which families will be supported (how many and in which region). If you don’t have an answer to these questions, you should seriously consider whether it is worth applying.


Olga Vokhmyanina, Head of Public Relations and Research at the Donors’ Forum


Good applications that stand out are those which demonstrate the positive benefits a grant-funded project will bring to its target audience: not 100 workshop attendees but 100 specialists who will have mastered new skills and are ready to apply them to their work.


According to Olga, it is important for a CSO to share the results with its team as this provides inspiration to their staff. In addition, the application’s content can be partially adjusted for different communication tools which could prove useful moving forward.


“In order to be successful, a CSO team needs non-material motivation: The funds received must help in achieving the organisation’s social vision and tackle issues affecting those in their care. Applications often demonstrate whether their authors are passionate about their cause. Of course, these are the first ones we want to support”, said Kirill Olginsky, Communications Director of the “Istoki” Endowment Fund and organiser of the “Become Visible” grant competition.


Task 3: Provide a clear profile of your target audience


CSO teams do not always clearly define their beneficiaries which can often make it difficult to convince the judges of the merits of a grant-funded project if generic wording is used in an application. It is better to describe in detail who you intend to help, including gender, age, geography and the types of assistance being offered.


Task 4: Focus on providing specific figures and identifying key outcomes


CSOs often use generic wording in their applications when completing the sections on cooperation with partners, teamwork and levels of fundraising. However, each competition has its own set of criteria and emphasis so one should read the contest’s rules and background information carefully and look at successful entries from previous years if available. Try to highlight the most important criteria and reflect them in your application.


“Instead of including figures that speak for themselves, entrants tend to tell you all the things they have done over time in their applications. Even if you don’t have the exact numbers to hand, it is better to say, for example, that you don’t yet know how to calculate social media coverage or hit rates on websites. This would show the judges that, yes, there are problems now but that you are aware of them and ready to come up with solutions”.


“Highlighting strategic planning in applications greatly increases your chances of success. For example, if you know that by using your existing social networks you have been able to help ten mothers and that with new tools you can support 100, this, of course, will be a significant advantage. You can make assumptions based on research or the successes achieved by colleagues”.


“For example, before applying for a grant to create a new website, you will need to analyse your metrics. If you have the data, look at the amount of hits, the number of clicks on the donation page and how much time is being spent by the user on the site. If you don’t yet have the information, read some specialist media so that you know exactly which metrics to use. This will give added weight to your application”.


“It is also important to state your aims and objectives as clearly as possible, supported by figures and data. For example, if as well as a new website, you want a new tool that will bring a thousand rather than 500 clicks on the donation page, there is data available on which you can base your decisions”, said Evgeny Fontalin of the Philin Philgood Group.


Already implemented projects and current partners are just as relevant as future plans in any application. It will carry extra weight with the judges if you can describe the most important projects and partners. However, try not to list each one as it will not prove you were successful in them but only make it more difficult for the judges to fully appreciate the nature of your work.


It is better to highlight key projects and activities as a grant application is very much like a CV. If lots of small projects are listed, the judges may think that a CSO is only working on minor, small-scale initiatives.


“Partner letters are often attached to applications which CSOs also enclose for other grant competitions. However, these are often poorly drafted (stylistically or grammatically) and their content might not be relevant to the theme of a particular competition”, said Alena Bykova.


Task 5: Be clear about the resources and budget required to implement a project


In applying for a grant, a CSO always includes its aims, objectives, activities and budget so it is very important to highlight how all these elements mesh together.


Anna Skorobogatova, Executive Director at the Absolute Aid Foundation


One of the most common problems with grant applications relates to project budgeting. CSOs that do not submit applications very often sometimes forget to provide an estimate of all the resources required to implement a project, e.g. salaries for a lawyer or financial advisor who will spend part of their time working on the new initiative.


“And don’t forget to include taxes and pension fund contributions! We do not aim to support the cheapest projects but sometimes we see the desire of CSOs to underestimate project costs”.


“Perhaps this wish to keep costs to a minimum is driven by a willingness to show a project’s viability and so increase its chances of winning. But in reality, this often leads to budget recalculation and difficulties in implementing an excellent project.”


“The grant-giver always sees attempts to package an organisation’s current activities into a new project. In trying to secure funding for routine costs using subsidies, charities often lose sight of the fact that grants are a great way of raising money to launch a truly new idea. It offers an opportunity for introducing pilot schemes, to compile an evidence base and highlight initial results which can be then become an excellent fundraising product”, said Anna Skorobogatova.


Checklist: How to prepare when applying for a grant application


  1. Check the competition rules carefully to see if your CSO meets all the criteria. It is also important to read all the contest’s background material: Webinars, a checklist of frequently asked questions and anything that is publicly available;


  1. Take a close look at previous years’ winning projects. Try to get in touch with their CSO teams and ask their advice – you might learn something you’ve never thought of before;


  1. Once you have agreed the general content of the grant application, ask staff to complete those sections of the form for which they are responsible. Then, review everything, draw up a list of questions that are likely to come up and have a short strategy session. This will help keep the relevant departments involved in the process to improve and agree the submission. Don’t forget to consult your chief financial advisor (if available) as their expertise will help with budget planning. By working as a team, you will be able to develop clear answers to strategically important questions such as: How will this grant help in getting closer to achieving your CSO’s vision? Who are your beneficiaries (audience profile)? It is important that the whole process should have an experienced officer responsible for the application. For example, this could be a CSO’s CEO or the grant author;


  1. Ensure someone looks at the application with a fresh pair of eyes, which will help in identifying any mistakes (e.g. stylistic or grammatical) and suggesting ways in which the submission can be improved. The quality and neatness of an application reflect the team’s overall approach to problem-solving and the CSO’s determination to take the competition seriously.



Translated by Neil Hailey


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