Assembling the puzzle pieces of a grant application
Submitting a grant application is a huge lift for a small startup. You need to gather stacks of documents and data from different stakeholders, understand the opaque application questions, and write a convincing proposal - all while juggling the everyday demands of running a business. With such a mammoth task standing between you and the funding that could change the trajectory of your company, where do you start?
Diana Dinerman has over 15 years experience as a grant consultant, and works as a Project Manager for Climate Finance Solutions. We sat down with her to discuss tips for effectively project managing your startup’s grant application, from your first read of the application criteria all the way through to your final polish.
This is the third in a series of pieces we're publishing together with Climate Finance Solutions to provide tactical guidance to climate entrepreneurs around winning and managing grants.
1. Understand what the application is asking you
Your first step should be looking at the grant application’s scoring criteria, which will help you understand how you’ll be evaluated by the awarding agency and what data you need to collect to meet that criteria. A consultant will be particularly valuable here, as they’ll be able to help you interpret the criteria. For example, if you’re being scored on how well you explain your pathway to commercialization, you could demonstrate that in many different ways - using data gleaned from your experience in the market, from forecasting, from trends. It won’t tell you to collect that information specifically, but a consultant will be able to read between the lines and can advise you on how to answer.
How the scoring criteria is weighted will also provide you with vital guidance on where to allocate your time and resources. Some parts of the application might be worth 30 points, and others only worth 10, so it won’t be worth spending weeks pulling together your answer to a question that isn’t heavily weighted.
At this stage, you should also figure out which pieces of the application need to be done first. There are dependencies between application components. For example, your budget is dependent on your workplan or staffing plan, so you’ll want to draft those plans before the budget, and you’ll want to have a draft of the scope and cost before writing the narrative.
2. Figure out who needs to be involved
Once you understand all the components of the grant application, you’ll need to identify the subject matter experts and team members who you’ll be relying on during the application process. This might include your financial analyst, your engineers, or your subcontractors. You’ll also need to gather ancillary documentation as part of your application, such as resumes, vendor quotes, details on other grants you’ve applied for, and letters of support from offtakers or partners, etc. These documents can be finalized towards the end of the process, but you should let those involved know in advance what you need from them, and when, to save you scrambling at the last minute.
Ideally, the onus shouldn’t be on a C-level person to corral all of these people and manage the grant application process, though if you’re a small startup this might be necessary. If you decide to take on this task yourself, be aware that it’s a considerable burden that’ll bump up against your other responsibilities and any internal deadlines you have, which is why it’s so important to start your application as early as possible. 8-10 weeks lead time is advisable, depending on how much of the information you already have and how much of the information you need to create.
3. Organize everything
A grant application involves so many different documents that implementing a structured and methodical process from day one is crucial. Create skeleton documents and folders for everything that needs to be submitted. Have a shared folder for work in progress, and another for the final versions of documents that are completely ready for submission. The grant application process is iterative so you will want a tool or process for version control that is easy to implement across the team. This approach has the added benefit of keeping everything out of your emails, where it’s at risk of getting lost or buried.
Filling out the application
1. Start with the scope
Every grant application will include a scope document - it might be called a scope of work, or a statement of project objectives. This is the linchpin of your project and should be the first thing you do. If you’re going to run into problems with money or resources later on in your project, you want to find out as early as possible, and defining the scope will help you uncover those gaps. It’s OK for your scope to contain errors or unknowns at this stage - you can tweak it as you go along, but you need to get something on the page first.
2. Next, the budget
Once the scope is around 70% done, you can take a first pass at the budget. This will tell you whether you’re within the range offered by the award, and let you know how much match funding you’re going to have to provide, if that’s required by the terms of the grant. For instance, if you’re asking for $500,000 with a 25% match, you need to know where that 25% is going to come from - say, from your operations budget or outside investment. Figuring this out early in the application process is crucial to getting the spending approved on time.
You will need letters of commitment to demonstrate your cost share, and may need to get signatures from key stakeholders within or outside your organization. You want to identify this need in the first two weeks of your process so that you can have the conversations you need to have about financial responsibilities that come with grant awards.
3. Start your narrative at the end
When you’re writing your narrative, don’t go through the prompts or questions in order - start at the back or the middle. If you write your introduction first, you’ll either get stuck or end up changing most of what you write. Writing the narrative will clarify and organize your approach to the project and you will discover things that you’d like to change, so when you go back to the introduction, you’ll know exactly how to introduce your idea to hold the reviewers’ attention..
4. Be clear and concise
Remember that the people who’ll be reviewing your application aren’t subject matter experts, and won’t understand the complexities of the product or project you’re discussing. But they’ll be able to tell when something doesn’t feel convincing, so don’t try to mask a gap in your application with obscure language. Be concise, jargon-free, and write topic sentences for each paragraph to make it as easy as possible for readers to understand.
5. Leave time for an external review
If you put together a realistic timeline that includes some leeway for setbacks, you should have time for an external review. You won’t be able to catch everything on your own, so this acts as your safety net - the reviewer will assess your grant application against the scoring rubric, if one is provided, or against the set of funding priorities in the solicitation, and pinpoint any potential gaps.
Once that’s done, you should ideally still have some time left over to punch up your application with language from the solicitation, make sure it’s in the proper format, check the ancillary documents are signed, and have it copyedited so it’s clean to read - then it’s time to submit.
Dr Diana Dinerman is a writer and consultant. A former government contractor and academic, she has spent 20 years in private, academic, municipal, and for-profit sectors. She has helped clients secure over 100M in non-dilutive funding for innovative projects, focusing on energy and climate solutions for the last three years.