Stop guessing: Five ways to know exactly what the funder wants

A lot of people I work with, whether they're applying for research grants or non-profit funding, have the same question: How do I know what the funder wants?

It's not smart to guess at this. But it happens, a lot. Applicants focus on what they’re willing and able to write about. But —and I've said this many times before—if you pay attention to who's reading your proposal, your chances of success will skyrocket. Just take a hot minute to figure out what the funder is actually looking for. There are plenty of clues…and I’ll show you how to find them.


1. Read the instructions

Okay: obvious, right? But you’d be surprised how many times the instructions are overlooked. There are a few things you can learn from the instructions: first, what the funder wants in terms of format. How long should it be? How large should the font be? What sort of topics do they want you to cover? Don’t underestimate the importance of the basic instructions. Don’t piss off your reviewer right out of the gate by ignoring basic instructions. It’s simple.

The second piece of information you can usually get from the instructions is the objective of the grant competition. What is the funder trying to achieve? This can tell you a lot about the types of projects that are likely to get funded, how much funding is available, and who is most likely to have access to that funding. These are all critical pieces of information, so make sure you take the time to investigate.

The third thing you can learn from the instructions is who is eligible for the grant. This one is really important. Don’t waste your time and energy (or anyone else’s) writing a grant you’re not eligible for. Make sure you read that FIRST and decide whether you fit the eligibility criteria.


2. Look for ‘funding criteria’ or ‘guidelines for evaluation’

This one is probably the most important when it comes to figuring out what your funder wants. Spend a lot of time here. You’ll learn EXACTLY how the reviewers are going to assess your proposal. This is basically the funder giving you a cheat sheet on how to succeed. They’re telling you how to win and what they’re looking for. It’s up to you to make sure your project and your proposal spells it out in ways that they can easily understand and assess against the criteria they’ve established.

If this section doesn’t exist, it’s worth doing some extra investigation. I'll tell you what to do in Tip #5.


3. Look for past grant recipients

A lot of funding agencies will list past grant recipients. Sometimes they'll include the title of the grant, the amount awarded, and if you're really lucky they'll provide the actual proposal (this is extremely rare). Finding a list of previous grant recipients will help you to see the types of proposals that the funder usually supports. Unless their latest competition is a huge departure from previous competitions, or they’ve established a new group of reviewers, you can probably expect that things will stay the same. HOWEVER, keep in mind that funders might not want to support a project that’s too similar to something they’ve already funded, especially if it’s recent.

With this information you can assess whether your project is likely to be something that the funder will support, and if you think it is, you can tweak or align your proposal to make it more compelling to the funders. And if you really know how to finesse a proposal, you can even allude to previously funded projects as a reason why yours should be funded, too.

If you happen to be friendly with any prior grant recipients, ask if you can see a copy of their successful proposal. This can really help to get a sense of what works and what doesn’t. It’s NEVER okay to copy or plagiarize , but it's perfectly fine to use someone's successful proposal as an example of what success looks like.


4. Read the mission, vision, values of the organization

All funding organizations have a mission. Whether they're in the research or non-profit sector, they have goals they want to achieve through their grant programs. So one of the best things you can do is figure out what their goals are, and make sure your project proposal is aligned with the funder’s goals. And if they’re not? Move on. Don’t try to make it work.


5. Talk to them (really.)

Most funders are happy to take questions from prospective applicants. That’s part of the job of the program manager. So give them a call and ask away. Depending on your relationship with the funding agency and how much time the person has, you might even be able to float your idea and see if it would be a good fit for the competition. This will save both of you a ton of time, so it’s worth asking if that’s a possibility.

Pro tip: if you’re going to ask a lot of questions, or if you think your questions will take a long time to answer, ask them WELL BEFORE the grant deadline. Program managers get super busy as deadlines approach fielding really basic questions that people get stuck on as they’re filling out applications. You probably won’t get the time or attention you’re hoping for if you’re asking a week before the deadline (and WHOA, why would you be asking big questions about your application a week before the deadline?! You’re making things more stressful than they need to be.)


Get your 90-day grant writing blueprint:

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    Which one of these tips will you use in your next grant application? Tell me in the comments!