Pro Tips on Building Your First Grant Application

by Daniel Aste, Intentional Philanthropy

As funders, we have the fortunate and daunting responsibility of choosing where to direct grant dollars among a sea of worthy causes and organizations. Here are some tips on building effective grant applications, centered around two goals:

  1. Get the information you need
  2. Make it easy for the applicant and yourself

Get the Information you Need

Ultimately, the purpose of a grant application is to get decision-makers – foundation staff and board of directors -- the information they need to make funding recommendations and decisions. Anticipating what information is needed, by whom, and in what format, will help you to design a streamlined tool and process.

General information you will likely want to collect from every grantee includes:

  • Mission & Overview – who is this organization and what is it trying to accomplish?
  • Project Proposal – how does the applicant propose to use the grant funds? General operating support is considered a best practice as it communicates your trust for a grantee to make the best decisions about its fund allocation; nonetheless, you may find it helpful to collect information on where the funds will generally be spent (i.e. staff salaries, direct programming costs, overhead expenses, and so on).
  • Defining Success & Metrics – how are they gauging success?
  • Financials – how is the organization funded? is it stable and well-managed? For financials, foundations often collect organization and program budgets, audited financial statements, and nonprofit tax filings (IRS Form 990s), as relevant. 

The question bank at the end of this article provides some sample questions. From a due diligence standpoint, the most important data point a funder needs to collect is whether or not the grant applicant is a 501(c)(3) public charity or has a  fiscal sponsor that is. If not, there are other permissible mechanisms, such as exercising expenditure responsibility to proceed with a grant.

Other application questions might relate to your foundation’s values or priorities. For instance, many foundations ask questions about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), such as the demographic composition of the leadership of the non-profit and the communities they serve. Others ask about the qualities they believe contribute to strong leadership, such as professional and lived experiences, ability to collaborate, support from the community, and so on.

Lastly, consider including opportunities for the applicant to bring their work to life, such as a space to upload a video or to tell a client story.

Make it Easy for the Applicant and Yourself

Being a responsible grant-maker means balancing your foundation’s needs with respect for the time burden placed on applicants. (See more on this topic here.) The #FixTheForm Report finds that millions of mission-reated hours are lost every year due to application inefficiencies and ranks applicants’ biggest pain points. 

Here are some tips for minimizing this time budden that are possible with Temelio:

Reusing/Auto-populating – For returning grantees, basic information like the organization’s mission and overview can be imported into the application for renewed funding so they do not have to take time to re-enter it. Some grants management systems like Temelio allow for this to be easily automated through auto-population in the system.

Gathering Easy-to-Find Information – Certain items, such as the non-profit’s recent 990s and tax-exempt status, can be pulled into the application from Guidestar. 

Word Count Guidance— Phrase your questions as directly and simply as possible. Consider the amount of text that best aligns with how much detail is helpful for your audience and process.  Shorter word limit isn’t always better: if you ask detailed or compound questions but provide too short a word limit, applicants will take great pains to edit their responses down and try to answer the whole question within the allowable space. 

Translation – If you are making grants in communities where English is not the predominant language, consider having your application translated into the dominant language, a feature available in Temelio.

Recycling Grant Applications – If your foundation plans to collect fairly standard information, consider allowing applicants to upload an application they developed for another foundation.

In Summary

Like all things in philanthropy, building an application is an art and a science. Start by asking yourself what you need to know to be able to invest in an organization. What are the legal requirements that your due diligence questions need to capture and what questions will provide the information you need to assess alignment with your foundation’s mission, values and priorities? Make your application as comprehensive as necessary and as light as possible for the sake of your applicant and yourself.

Sample Questions


Please state the mission of the organization. - 500 character limit

Please provide a concise summary of your organization’s origin and purpose. - 1,000 character limit

Project Proposal

Please explain what needs or opportunities in the community and/or within your organization the funds requested will be used to meet and an overview of your program model(s). - 3,000 character limit

Describe the demographics of the population you serve, including but not limited to gender, age, ethnic composition, indicators of poverty, academic preparedness, and languages spoken at home. - 750 character limit

Defining Success & Metrics

What are the top 1-2 short-term goals for the proposed program or project? Please be as specific as possible with regard to both the goals and the timeframe. - 750 character limit

Latest Posts