Avoiding common mistakes on grant applications

Written by: HTU | Published:

Filling in grant applications is much harder than many of us think. Expert Jon Ellery offers some advice on avoiding common mistakes on application forms

Schools tend to have a mixed success rate when making applications to grant funds, with some receiving regular funding via grants and others seemingly perennially unsuccessful. A great way to improve your school’s success rate is to learn from the mistakes of others.

Don’t be an easy reject

Funding organisations usually have limited staff resources as they prioritise funds towards their grant programmes rather than administrative costs. This means that they are keen to make decisions as simply and quickly as possible.

A traditional way of working within these constraints is to make simple rejections at an “initial-assessment” or “triage” phase, which means that relatively quickly a large number of applications are removed from the process and resources can then be better targeted on thoroughly assessing the good-quality applications at the next stage.

A number of studies have shown consistently that around half of applications are rejected at this stage, with these falling into two main categories:
• Applications by inappropriate organisations or for inappropriate projects – for example schools applying for grants from funders that solely support registered charities, or for art activities projects from funders that solely support sports initiatives.
• Incomplete or poorly completed applications – for example boxes or sections left incomplete or budgets that do not add up.

As a fundraiser, it is essential to get your grant application through this phase so that it can be fully assessed by the grant-giving organisation, but it still remains the case that a surprisingly large number of applicants fall at this hurdle.

Answer their questions – not your own

Many grant-giving organisations use standardised application forms, often not accepting any further supporting documentation, and those with set forms have these for a number of reasons.

Application forms enable grant-makers to collect information on what they consider to be the most important areas of a project and organisation, while also saving assessment time by restricting those applicants who often send in-depth essay answers (this is also why many forms have word or character limits).

More importantly, application forms help grant-makers to assess with a level of transparency – comparing like with like and regularly quantifying the details of a project. Answering the questions effectively is vitally important as a grant assessor will score your application in a number of sections or key questions.

Applicants that fall down in this process are those that believe they have “essential information” that they want to fit into an application but which does not match a specific question.

Trying to weave this information in can risk giving an inappropriate answer which can have a hugely detrimental effect on your application’s assessment and chance of success. A response that does not answer an essential question will score a zero during assessment or will result in automatic rejection.

Provide a ‘clever’ budget

Inexperienced fundraisers do not realise that the budget section of an application form is an opportunity to further sell their project. They often provide just basic details, rather than using the budget to reiterate project plans and convince the funder that the project is well-thought-through and planned.

With application forms regularly being of limited length, the budget section offers fundraisers with more space to explain the project details. Remember that grant assessors are experienced at reviewing the delivery of a project through this information.

Applicants should therefore avoid general terms such as “staff costs” or “equipment”, rather offering specific names of the positions that exist within the project and a breakdown of their hourly rate and hours worked, or specifying the exact equipment needed with the project.

Further to this, there is a dislike by most funders of the term “management costs”, with this appearing regularly in unsuccessful applications.

Many funders are not averse to supporting the management costs of a project, but by specifying the role that will manage the project, the number of hours worked and the hourly rate, the funder can more easily assess the need for this cost.

An additional error on application forms is the use of round figures within your projected budgets – this is a clear sign to grant assessors that a budget and therefore a project has not been well-researched or planned.

It seems unlikely that the cost of your project staff is, for example, going to equal exactly £5,000, so make sure you provide accurate project costs.

Outputs or outcomes

It is noticeable that many grant fundraisers do not know the difference between “outcomes” and “outputs”.
• Outcomes: the changes that you are hoping to achieve with your service/project – for example, greater understanding of the importance of healthy eating in children.
• Outputs: the specific activity or service delivered by your work, usually quantifiable – for example, 30 pupils aged nine to 11 will attend a two-day healthy eating programme.

Many grant funders consider inappropriate outcomes/outputs as a reason for rejection, and while some will seek clarification prior to assessment, they will still be left with the sense of yours being a poor application.

Unfortunately, an added complication is that the misunderstanding between outputs and outcomes is not restricted purely to fundraisers, with many grant-funding organisations sharing this confusion about the terms.

This causes big problems for applicants and instances of funders who have their applications rejected because their answer to “project outcomes” did not offer specific outputs are surprisingly common.

When completing the outcomes/outputs section it is important to carefully read the question and study any guidance notes or examples that are provided by the funders to gain a clear understanding of what is being requested.

If you are unsure of exactly what is being requested, and consultation directly with the funder is impossible or does not help, a common technique is to offer both outcomes and outputs.

Where space is limited, the format of the following example may help: “Improving school links with the local community – achieved through 50 families attending open days held by the school and better understanding the roles of teachers and school staff.”

Outcomes and outputs are a great way to sell the impact that your project will have on your beneficiaries, and funders will use these to assess whether the impact of your project meets the outcomes that they want to achieve as an organisation.


Remember that the vast majority of funders are using your project to make the difference that they want to achieve to communities, so look carefully into the general aims and objectives of the funder that you are approaching and ensure your project meets their needs and interests.

• John Ellery is a fundraising consultant for Ellery Consulting, which provides support to both grant-making charities and those seeking grants. Visit www.ellery-consulting.co.uk.

• For more primary education best practice and advisory articles from Headteacher Update, click here.

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