8 Ways Nonprofits Can Master the Online Grant Application

Avoid Frustration With These Tactics

Woman biting pen looking at laptop
Peter Cade/Photo Disc/Getty Images

Becoming a successful grant writer takes time, continuous professional development, and motivation.

You must be deadline-driven and an effective project manager.

You need to know how to script a compelling story backed by evidence with the right ask, at the right time, to the right funder. 

But online applications are different. 

They require grant writers to develop a unique set of skills—some not used in any other area of grant seeking—to be successful.


While online applications should make things much easier, they might, in fact, make you start wishing for the good old days of packaging up all that paper to be mailed off.

The Trends in Grant Applications

But, like it or not, here are the trends:

  • More grant makers are replacing traditional paper proposals with online applications.
  • A report from the Foundation Center found that in general “the quantity and quality of instructional information and assistance for grant seekers was poor.”
  • The same report found “vast differences and inconsistencies in procedures, questions, and requirements presented challenges that increased the administrative demand placed on nonprofit staff.”

What Can a Grant Writer Do?

So what do smart writers do when faced with an online application? They prepare for it. Here are eight tips that will make your online applications more successful.

  1. Keep Track of Your Username and Password.

    This sounds like a no-brainer, right? But it happens all the time. One person from the organization writes the online application in 2015, but someone else gets the assignment in 2016.

    What if the original writer is not at the organization anymore or cannot find the username/password he or she used last year? You have to start from scratch.

    For some online applications, you have to re-register your organization and create new user access permissions.

    It can be a tedious process. If you had the old username and password, it is more than likely the online application will have a copy of your last proposal available as a reference.

    Make your life easier—keep track of your username and password for every online application you have. 

  1. Start in Word Processing Software.

    It is ineffective (and time-consuming) to write your application directly in the online form.

    Instead, write and edit your application in a word processing document, and then cut and paste the copy into the online form.

    Even better, writing it in Notepad (text-based) or other super-simplistic word processing software will remove all special characters and background formatting from your text, making the cut and paste into the online application cleaner.

  1. Know Your Limits.

    Online applications have character or word limitations for each question you must answer.

    Commonly those limits are 250-, 500-, or 750-words or 1,000-2,500 characters. The standard line of English text is 40-50 characters while the standard four to six sentence paragraph is 250-500 characters.

    Know the limits in advance, and be prepared to cut, cut, cut your copy to fit the character limitations.

    Remember that spaces are characters, and the Microsoft Word character/word count function does not always count characters in the same way as online applications.

  2. Watch Out for Special Characters.

    In many online applications, you cannot use bullets or other special characters or formatting you would otherwise use in a proposal sent by mail.

    Be careful here—some applications will not even allow you to use apostrophes! Replace your bullets with hyphens or asterisks before you paste your copy over to the online application.

    If you depend on a graphic to present data or your methods, you must translate the visual to text. Prepare to do this well in advance of your deadline.

  3. SEO Your Application.

    What does SEO (search engine optimization) have to do with online applications?

    Foundations started using online grant applications to make it easier to make the right funding decisions. That means that a computer program is the first reviewer for many online applications (especially regional and national competitions).

    Grant writers must include SEO keywords in application text so the computer can find your special “tags” that it will compare to its “map” (i.e. the grant maker’s guidelines) for a suitable funding match.

    It may also mean that keywords carry more weight in some sections, such as in the Statement of Need or Project Description. Those components may count for more in the reviewers’ scoring rubric.

    This does not mean you should sprinkle keywords throughout your text. Rather, use them sparingly but in the right sections.

    For example, the computer may look for organizations that provide “hunger programs” but you call your program “food service” instead. For the online application, change your language and use the term “hunger” frequently.

  1. Save Your Work.

    Every time you paste text into the online application, save it.

    Some online applications have a five-minute timeout period. If you do not save your work, it will be lost. This can be especially tedious when you have to remove characters or replace special characters after you paste from word processing software.

    Save your sanity—know your timeout period and save your application frequently.

  2. Plan for Volunteers.

    Many foundations, especially corporate philanthropy programs, want you to have a plan for volunteerism.

    Some funders will not grant you an award if there are no volunteer opportunities for their employees while others will give preference to organizations that agree to provide volunteer opportunities.

    In most applications, you must be able to show how many volunteers you currently have and how many more you'll need and for what tasks for the proposed project.

    Some funders want a detailed volunteer recruitment, retention, and recognition plan.

    Work with your volunteer manager to provide a comprehensive approach to volunteerism.

    Do treat this section lightly. Volunteerism is a key part of many corporate social responsibility plans.

    • Quantify the Benefit to the Grantor.

      Many foundations, corporate foundations especially, want to know how you will promote their support. For instance,
    • How many people subscribe to your newsletter
    • How many people see your ads?
    • How many people are likely to see banners at your events or logos in your brochures?
    • How many people follow you on social media?
    • How large is your TV market if you use TV ads?

    You can set your application apart from the pack by following these common sense tips.

    Of course, having the capacity, credibility, evidence, and sustainability to support your work is essential, as it is in all grant proposals.

    To be more successful with online applications, consider building some new grant seeking skills.