The Woodcutter, the Axe and the Trees
There is no substantive evidence that Abraham Lincoln who died in 1865 made the following remark or any of its variations: If I had four hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first two hours sharpening the axe.
Nonetheless, it highlights the indisputable fact that rigorous preparation enhances the chance of success for many endeavours.
On Thursday September 29, I spoke at CharityConnect’s Fundraising Connections event, sharing with the community the most common questions that grant applications ask, and how to approach them.
These questions have been adapted from the results of a survey conducted by my good friend Bill Bruty (Fundraising Training Limited), who compared application forms from more than 100 of the largest grantmakers.
Prepare these questions in advance, and you’ll simply need to adapt your answers for each form that you write!
1. “How many service users benefit from your project?”
This helps grantors assess the reach of your project’s impact. You want to conduct both qualitative and quantitive research to determine the potential reach of your project (via surveys, demographic data, historical information etc).
2. “What are their specific needs?”
What’s unique about the challenges of your target service users? This helps grantmakers gauge the relevance of your project and how well it’ll address these specific needs.
3. “What are the aims of your organisation?”
This is about your organisation’s overarching goals and your mission. It helps grantors assess whether your project actually does align with your organisation’s core objectives.
4. “How does your organisation engage and reflect your service users?”
It’s also about how your organisation interacts with the people it serves. They’re trying to assess your organisation’s approach to community engagement, feedback, and collaboration with those who access your services.
5. “How does your project fit in with the work of other organisations?”
Grantmakers have seen thousands of applications—they know if there’s another charity doing a similar thing to you just two doors down! So don’t try to prove that your organisation is better than others. Instead, communicate exactly why your charity’s project is relevant and how you’re thinking about partnerships with other entities that work in the same space, or reach the same service users. Grantmakers want to duplicate their efforts and make their budget stretch, so demonstrate your project’s potential for synergy and complementary partnerships!
6. “How is your organisation relevant to the funding criteria and policies?”
You want the grantors to see exactly how your project aligns with their own objectives. You’re coming on board as a partner, so you should see yourself as someone who’s helping them fulfil their mission. Research their policies thoroughly, explain how your project directly addresses their objectives, highlight your shared values and speak their language.
7. “What are the aims and outcomes of the project?”
Describe the specific goals and intended outcomes of your project. There’s a distinction between outcomes and impact; outcomes are the immediate desired results that you want whereas impact tends to be more long term. Make your outcomes SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound.
8. “What are the key activities of your project?”
These are for the grantmakers to see the feasibility of your approach. Show them your timelines and connect each activity to your project’s aim, to demonstrate the coherence of your work.
9. “When does the project start?” “What is the timeline for completion?”
Most grantmakers don’t want to fund retrospective projects; they want to place their efforts on the future. When you look at the guidelines, look at when they say you’ll hear back by, when they expect the projects to start and when they’re hoping the money will be spent by. Ensure alignment with the grantor’s funding cycle.
10. “How much funding is required and what for?”
You’ll be surprised, but I’ve read so many applications where people forget to tell you exactly what they need and what for! Prepare a budget that includes personnel costs, materials, overhead, and a contingency fund. Justify each expense item with clear explanations and think about what you may be able to contribute.
11. “How will you monitor and evaluate the project?”
Explain the systems, data collections tools and metrics you’ll use to assess the project’s success and impact as well as to track and measure your SMART objectives, plus the frequency of reporting. Don’t forget surveys and interviews for feedback. Start with the end in mind and know how you’ll measure your outcomes so you can be on the front foot with your data. You can put in an ask for monitoring and evaluation – typically I assign about 5% of the overall project costs for this.
12. “What are your continuation plans?”
Here, the funder wants to know about whether it’s a one-off activity or if it’ll continue. The obvious answer for most projects is, “we’re going to keep applying for funds,” which isn’t ideal but it’s important to be honest and if appropriate, share your income generation strategies.
13. “How will you disseminate the results when it ends?”
This is all the reporting back on your monitoring and evaluation. Remember, grantmakers are interested in long-term impact and knowledge sharing so be sure to outline how you will share project results through reports, presentations, and partnerships to ensure sustained impact.
Additionally, here are two additional questions that I’ve seen grantmakers ask more in recent years:
14. “What are your commitments to environmental sustainability?”
Funders want to know how you’re going to minimise your ecological footprint. Think about this in your organisation, discuss it and make sure you have a policy.
15. “What are your commitments to Equality, Diversity and Inclusion?”
This assesses how your project will ensure fairness in all aspects of planning and implementation (equitable access, diversity in hiring, inclusive programming). This should be a commitment that runs through your organisation and again, you need to have a policy for it.
Finally, when writing your answers, maintain a consistent narrative throughout the process. Ensure your responses complement one another. Show clear, comprehensive plans for design, implementation, and long-term impact of your projects — and like the axe, you will make quick work of your trees (grant applications)!
Happy wood cutting 🍀
Did you know: Trees help clean the air we breathe, filter the water we drink, and provide habitat to over 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity. Plant some trees.