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Grant Application Basics

Updated on April 12, 2016

You know your goals, and you’ve identified an organization that wants to support the objectives of your project. Whether you are applying to a federal agency, a non-profit or private organization; grant applications are a lot of work and you are going to need some help! Grant applications take many hours to complete; from as little as 10 to 100+ hours from start to finish.

1. Compile the Application Materials and Contact the Sponsor with Administrative Questions

The first step to beginning your application involves gathering your application materials from the granting organization, or sponsor, as referenced throughout the rest of this document. These can range from simple paper or online forms, along with a detailed set of instructions and guidelines, or a set of obscure instructions and guidelines in which instance it is up to you to decide how to piece your product together. With the former, detailed instructions make for a much easier process, but with the latter, there is always room for interpretation (sometimes even with detailed instructions there can be room for interpretation). In this case, it is best to contact the sponsor with your list of specific questions. Administrative questions usually pertain to such things as format, budget-related questions, and areas that you feel need additional clarity with regards to piecing together your materials. It’s important to thoroughly read through the instructions before contacting the sponsor with questions, as it is easy to miss a phrase that answers your question, but is buried deep within the document.

2. Make a Timeline for Each Section

Once you have the clarity you need to complete your application materials, the work begins. At this point you should have a very good idea of all the sections you need to complete, and the level of time involved to complete each piece. If you don’t have a timeline, you will need to calculate the amount of hours required; it’s better to overestimate the number of hours you will need rather than an exact number. This is key. Planning for and devoting adequate time for project completion is necessary for meeting the sponsor deadline, but also for accuracy. It’s hard to compile a good application when in a hurry, so taking time to examine each completed section, and the application in its entirety is important.

3. Assign Sections of the Application and Determine Version Control

If multiple people are involved in the process, you can assign various sections to those who are capable and qualified to complete them. Keep in mind that final versions should be sent to one person, and any changes made after that point, need to be sent to that one person. Not having a designated final person-destination can result in confusion if multiple “final” versions are floating around.

4. Formatting Your Application

It is Imperative that you thoroughly read the sponsor guidelines and instructions. These contain many details, from formatting requirements, to specific allowances in your budget. Often times, the sponsor will request that you use a specific font type, font size, and page margins. Please do not disregard these requirements, as many times the sponsor will disqualify your application if you do not follow their instruction. A general rule: If you can’t follow a simple set of instructions, how can a sponsor expect you to adhere to the terms and conditions of accepting an award should one be offered?

Follow the instructions EXACTLY!

5. Common Budget Requirements

Direct Costs (DC) are easily identified and are specific to a project; if you need to include salary, fringe benefits, special equipment and laboratory supplies in your budget to complete the objectives of your proposed project, they are considered a direct cost. Organizations need to include an amount to cover costs that are not easily identified and broken down for completion of a specific project. Things such as office staff, utilities, and general office supplies are needed for the day-to-day running of your organization; these are referred to as Facilities and Administrative costs (F&A). A percentage is most often used to determine a calculation to cover such costs. Sponsors will sometimes set a maximum percentage allowed in the application budget; for example the sponsor may state in their guidelines that the applicant may request a maximum of $100,000 in DC plus 8% for F&A. Sometimes the sponsor will indicate certain DC that cannot be included in the F&A calculation. In this instance you remove those costs from your total DC, then calculate your F&A, then add the costs back to your grand total.

In addition to Direct Costs and Facilities and Administrative costs, a sponsor may limit the ability to escalate your costs in an attempt to meed cost-of-living demands. If they do so, the Sponsor will be very specific in the guidelines with regards to this issue. If the Sponsor does not discourage budget escalation, 4-5% increases across all categories is typical, and considered reasonable.

Sponsors will often times indicate a maximum percentage of salaries that can be charged to the grant. It’s important to keep this in mind as you are completing your budget. You will most often times be required to include a budget justification. The budget justification is your narrative; this is where you can include full detail of, and reasons for the items included in the budget. It is better to err on the side of caution and include as much explanation as possible in this section, unless otherwise indicated in the guidelines.

6. Common Sections in a Grant Application

Although Sponsors vary in what they request from applicants, there are a few items or sections that are commonly requested across the board:

  • Lay Statement or Public Relevance Statement (statement in easy to understand terms stating a problem and then explaining how the project will address a solution/s to the problem)
  • Abstract (general overview)
  • Introduction to the Application
  • Specific Aims/Objectives/Goals (what do you intend to do?)
  • Methods (detailed procedures; how are you going to work on this project?)
  • Timeline
  • Budget
  • Budget Justification
  • Biographical Sketches of Key Personnel (basically a shortened version of an academic resume)
  • References
  • Appendices

7. Completion and Submission of Your Application Materials

You have followed your timelines, and the application is complete and ready for submission. Sponsors vary on submission methods, and will indicate preferences for submission in their instructions and guidelines. Sometimes they will request that all documents be sent via email to the Administrative Official in a specific format (i.e. a combined PDF document). Some Sponsors have an in-house application submission system that you will be required to use and others contract with outside organizations that specialize in application submissions (American Cancer Society uses Altum Proposal Central). Either way, be sure you submit your application in the manner requested by the Sponsor. Also, be sure to submit by the time they list in their instructions! Good luck!

8. Great Resources for Guidance


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