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The Grantmaker's guide to application form design

The process of creating a successful grant application form can be very stressful for a grantmaker. Especially if time is not on your side. There is a fine line between having a comprehensive application form versus not burdening your potential recipients with a form that is a chore to fill out.

In this post we will discuss how a grantmaker can create an application form that is thorough and easy to navigate.

Grantmaker woman filling our application form and taking notes using DevMan Grant making management system.

1. Align your goals with your mission

A grantmaker will usually go through a process of strategic planning and priority setting. This will make sure that the goals and purpose of this application process aligns with the mission and priorities of the organisation.

Several steps are included in this process:

  1. Mission statement: The grantmaker develops a clear and concise mission statement that articulates their overarching purpose and values.

  2. Program areas: The grantmaker identifies specific program areas that align with their mission and priorities, and that they believe have the potential to create meaningful impact.

  3. Priorities: Within each program area, the grantmaker sets priorities that guide their funding decisions, based on the needs of the community or field, available resources, and the grantmaker’s unique strengths and expertise.

  4. Metrics: The grantmaker establishes metrics for measuring progress and impact in each program area, so that they can evaluate the effectiveness of their funding over time.

  5. Evaluation: The grantmaker regularly evaluates their funding priorities and strategies to ensure they remain aligned with their mission and priorities.

Once the grantmaker has established their mission, program areas, priorities, and evaluation metrics, they can design their grant programs and application processes to ensure that they are effectively advancing their operation. 

The goal is to ensure that the grantmaker’s purpose and goals are closely aligned with their mission and priorities, and that their funding is having the intended impact.

2. Specify eligibility from the beginning

Grantmakers can specify the eligibility criteria (compliance) for applicants from the beginning when creating the application form. This prevents unqualified applicants from wasting their time filling in the form. It also reduces the number of applications submitted that your staff would have to sift through and decline.

You may specify compliance in a number of ways in a clear manner. Some methods may be:

  1. Geographic location: The grantmaker can specify the geographic location(s) where applicants must be based, such as a specific country, province/state, or region.

  2. Type of organisation: The grantmaker can specify the type of organisation that is eligible to apply, such as a nonprofit, community-based organisation, or educational institution.

  3. Size of organisation: The grantmaker can specify the size of the organisation, based on factors such as budget, number of employees, or service area.

  4. Focus area: The grantmaker can specify the focus area or issue that the proposal must address, such as health, education, or the environment.

  5. Stage of project: The grantmaker can specify the stage of the project that is eligible for funding, such as start-up, expansion, or replication.

  6. Collaborative projects: The grantmaker can specify whether collaborative projects or partnerships are eligible for funding, and if so, what the criteria are for selecting partners.

  7. Previous funding: The grantmaker can specify whether organisations that have previously received funding are eligible to apply for new grants, and if so, what the requirements are for reapplying.

DID YOU KNOW

DevMan has the option to specify a geographic location from which applicants are allowed to submit from, preventing anyone outside of the specified area to submit by being automatically declined.

Read more here

It’s important for the grantmaker to be clear and specific when defining eligibility criteria. It will help potential applicants understand whether they are eligible to apply or not. 

This ensures that the grantmaker receives proposals from a pool of strong and appropriate applicants who are well-aligned with the grantmaker’s mission and priorities, allowing for a smoother selection process.

3. Show clear guidelines

It’s wise to specify clear guidelines for your applicants to follow from the beginning of the application process. This better equips them to have all relevant information and documentation on hand, reducing the time needed to fill in the forms.

This can be achieved by:

  1. Written instructions: The application form can include written instructions that provide a step-by-step guide for applicants on how to complete the application. This might include guidance on what specific information is required, the format for submitting attachments or supplementary materials, and how to navigate the application portal or submission process.

  2. Video tutorials: Some grantmakers may choose to create video tutorials or webinars that walk applicants through the application process. This can be particularly helpful for complex applications or for applicants who may be less comfortable with written instructions.

  3. FAQs: The application form can include an FAQ section that answers common questions that applicants may have about the application process, eligibility requirements, or other related topics.

  4. Application checklist: The grantmaker can provide an application checklist that outlines all the required elements of the application, to help applicants ensure that they have completed and included all necessary components.

  5. Sample applications: The grantmaker can provide sample applications that demonstrate successful applications from previous cycles or that illustrate what the grantmaker is looking for in a competitive application.

Grantmaker must provide clear and specific guidance to applicants to help them understand what is expected of them to submit a strong and complete proposal. 

This can also help the grantmaker more efficiently review and evaluate applications, as they can ensure that each applicant has provided all required information and materials in a standardised format.

4. Evaluation criteria

Grantmakers can describe the evaluation criteria on the application form from the beginning. 

The importance of remaining transparent about the evaluation criteria used to assess proposals can help the applicant tailor their own proposals to meet the grantmaker’s needs and expectations. 

  1. Written descriptions: The application form can include written descriptions of the evaluation criteria, which may include specific questions or prompts for applicants to address in their proposals. These written descriptions should clearly outline what the grantmaker is looking for in a competitive proposal, and how proposals will be evaluated.

  2. Scoring rubrics: Some grantmakers use scoring rubrics to evaluate proposals, which outline the specific criteria that will be used to assess each proposal, as well as the weighting or point values assigned to each criterion. These rubrics can be included in the application form or provided separately.

  3. Narrative descriptions: The grantmaker can provide a narrative description of the evaluation criteria, which might describe the goals or outcomes that the grantmaker is seeking to achieve, and how each criterion relates to those goals. This can be particularly helpful in situations where the evaluation criteria may be more subjective or difficult to quantify.

  4. Example proposals: The grantmaker can provide example proposals that demonstrate successful proposals from previous cycles, or that illustrate the types of proposals that are most likely to receive funding.

A clear evaluation criteria ensures that the grantmakers are selecting the most competitive and appropriate proposals for funding.

5. Budget and reporting

Providing clear and specific instructions to grantees, the grantmakers can express their expectations from the applicant as to how budgeting and reporting will take place. 

This can be achieved by:

  1. Detailing reporting deadlines: The grantmaker should clearly specify when budget reporting is due, and how often grantees are expected to submit reports (e.g. quarterly, annually). This information can be included in the application form or provided separately.

  2. Describing required formats: The grantmaker should describe the required format for budget reporting, including what specific financial information should be included in the report and how it should be presented.

  3. Providing templates: To help grantees report accurately and efficiently, the grantmaker can provide templates or forms for budget reporting. This can also help ensure consistency across all grantees and make it easier for the grantmaker to review reports.

  4. Detailing allowable expenses: The grantmaker should clearly specify what expenses are allowable under the grant, and provide guidance on how those expenses should be allocated in the budget report.

  5. Outlining consequences of noncompliance: The grantmaker should provide information on the consequences of noncompliance with reporting requirements, including any penalties or sanctions that may be imposed.

  6. Providing contact information: The grantmaker should provide contact information for grantees to reach out to in case they have questions or need help with the reporting process.

These instructions can ensure that grantmakers receive accurate and timely budget reports, and that grantees are able to meet reporting requirements with minimal confusion or errors. 

The grantmaker is more effective in monitoring grant progress and make decisions about future funding opportunities. It also allows you to be more tax compliant, avoiding misinformation.

6. Keep it simple

While there may be plenty of information to convey to the applicant from the beginning, it is always wise to keep the application process as simple as possible. It may also be beneficial to you (the grantmaker) to design a form that can reduce the number of errors made by the applicant.

There are number of best practices one can follow when it comes to form design. A few of them are:

  1. Use plain language: Avoid using technical jargon or complex language that might be confusing or intimidating to grantees. Use clear and concise language that is easy to understand.

  2. Limit the number of questions: Only ask questions that are essential to the application and reporting process. Don’t ask for information that is not relevant or that can be easily obtained elsewhere.

  3. Organise questions logically: Group related questions together and organise them in a logical order. This can help grantees understand what information is being requested and how it relates to other questions.

  4. Use simple formatting: Use a clear and easy-to-read font, with consistent font sizes and styles throughout the form. Use bullet points, headings, and subheadings to break up text and make it easier to read.

  5. Provide clear instructions: Include clear instructions for each question or section, as well as any formatting or submission requirements. This can help grantees understand what is being asked of them and how to provide the required information.

  6. Provide examples: Provide examples of successful applications or reports or provide guidance on what types of information should be included in each section. 

  7. Test the form: Test the form with a sample of potential grantees to identify any issues or confusion. This can help identify areas of the form that may need to be revised or clarified.

Make the application process as streamlined and easy as possible – for both you and the grantees. This reduces the burden on both parties and improves the quality of the information provided.

7. Make it accessible

What use is a form that cannot be accessed? 

Make sure that your application for is accessible to all who would need to see it. The form will need to be responsive. This means that it would need to display properly, not only on a desktop, but on a mobile device too. This allows all who do not have access to a computer or laptop to have the opportunity to submit a proposal.

Grantmakers can also make their application forms accessible in the following ways:

  1. Consider the needs of people with disabilities: Make sure the application form is designed to be accessible to people with visual, auditory, or motor disabilities. This might include providing alternative text for images, providing closed captioning for videos, or using larger font sizes.

  2. Use a simple and consistent format: Use a consistent layout and format throughout the form to make it easy to read and navigate. Use headings and subheadings to organize information.

  3. Provide instructions and guidance: Provide clear instructions for completing the form, as well as guidance on any formatting or submission requirements.

  4. Provide multiple ways to access the form: Provide the application form in multiple formats, such as an online form, a printable PDF, and a plain-text version.

  5. Test the form: Test the form with individuals from diverse backgrounds and abilities to identify any issues with accessibility or usability. 

  6. Provide assistance and support: Provide assistance and support to individuals who may have difficulty completing the form on their own, such as providing a phone number or email address for questions or assistance.

By making the application form accessible to all who need it, grantmakers can ensure that their application process is equitable and inclusive. This can help to attract a diverse range of applicants and ensure that all qualified individuals have an opportunity to apply.

Overall, the application form should be designed to make it easy for potential grantees to understand the requirements and submit a complete and compelling proposal. This is all while providing the grantmaker with the information they need to make informed and strategic funding decisions. 

While most of these points are merely suggestions, it’s up to the grantmakers to make sure that application processes is not daunting for either themselves or the grantees. 

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