How to turn great ideas into successful grant applications

Government grants are a critical source of funding for organisations and individuals to help turn their ideas into reality.

Universities can source funding to enhance their teaching infrastructure. Researchers can undertake important projects to improve our collective knowledge. Local governments can deliver valuable community infrastructure and programs. Not-for-profits can provide services to those in our community in greatest need.

A government grant can be the difference between a good idea languishing or delivering lasting change and impact.

There are a wide range of government funding programs available every year. These offer significant sums of money for compelling ideas that meet their specific and unique program objectives.

Not surprisingly, competition for these government grants is always fierce. Agencies can often receive hundreds of applications. Program budgets can be oversubscribed by 10-20x by prospective applications.

Government agencies providing funding will be looking for bids that:

  • meet their stated program objectives
  • propose innovative new approaches for solving problems
  • capture their imagination
  • offer the best returns on investment, and
  • effectively manage their risks.

As a result, it is important for your grant application to stand out from the crowd.

How can you give yourself the best chance of success ?

Nine key success factors for preparing successful grant applications are introduced below.

These have been developed from my experience working with organisations to develop successful grant applications and working with governments to assess their viability and merit. My clients have found advice and support in these areas the most valuable in preparing grant applications.

They combine success factors which may appear obvious with others that might be less clear.

These factors apply equally to large bids requiring the rigor of a full business case right through to succinct applications.

1. Tell a compelling story

Successful funding applications capture the imagination of the reader. A compelling story (or narrative) that is easy for the reader to follow throughout the submission will best present your case.

This is essential in almost all application processes. Even when strict word limits and rigid templates constrain grant funding processes it is possible to tell a great story.

Crafting a high-level storyline early in the bid development process can achieved this aim. This helps get your key themes and ideas set before starting to write.

2. Bridge the gap between your vision and what the funding agency wants to achieve

Once you have a great idea and a compelling story, you need to make a clear connection to what the funding agency is seeking. Even the best ideas stand little chance of success if they cannot be clearly linked to the outcomes and objectives of a funding program.

It is important to present your idea in language the funding agency can readily understand. Your application needs to clearly point out how your solution meets their stated requirements.

While your idea or solution may appear obvious to you and your peers, they aren’t the ones that will be making the ultimate decision whether to fund your project.

3. Understand the competitive environment

Often there is incredible value in understanding who else will be competing for the same funding. This includes an awareness of their relative strengths and weaknesses.

This knowledge can help you differentiate the value you offer and ensure your story is unique.

In cases where a single applicant is likely to be funded, collaboration between organisations to form a consortium can make all the difference. This form of collaboration can give a funding agency confidence that they will get the best available skills, expertise and resources.

In some cases, I have seen the creation of a powerful consortium make a proposal a clear favourite to be successful before applications have even opened.

Consider whether sharing funding with others is preferable to being locked out completely.

4. Don’t rest on your laurels

There are notable cases where long-time recipients of government funding, or incumbent service providers, have been unsuccessful when asked to bid for continued funding support.

It is risky to assume that submitting an application to deliver the status quo is all you need to do. Even a strong track record of success cannot guarantee future support.

So, it is important to always be looking to innovate, improve efficiency and deliver fresh ideas through a funding application. Otherwise you run the risk of a competitor replacing you.

5. Understand who will read your application

It is important to understand who will read your application as part of its assessment process (if you can).

Junior officers will usually read and assess applications for large government funding rounds in the first instance. They might check your application for its compliance with funding agency requirements. They may also conduct a first pass assessment. These officers may have no background knowledge of your organisation. They may not be familiar with your local environment, track record or areas of expertise.

This is increasingly possible for Australian Government grants which are now being administered through a centralised Community Grants Hub.

Funding bids must assume the reader knows nothing about you or your idea. At the same time, your bid must resonate with the ultimate decision makers who may be more likely to understand your challenge and unique circumstances.

In my experience, this is particularly important for universities and researchers. While they might be experts in their area of expertise and able to communicate effectively with their peers, this will not necessarily resonate with public officers with vastly different backgrounds and priorities.

6. Be brutally honest

Preparing a compelling funding bid requires a serious commitment of time and resources.

As a result, organisations should have frank discussions early on about the realistic chances of a bid being successful. An early decision not to bid can save a lot of time and frustration later on.

As a proposal is being developed it is also important to strip any material that doesn’t add to your overall case for funding or the narrative of your bid.

I have seen some cases where applicants include as much material as possible in a bid. This is to demonstrate the merits of their idea or to make everyone on their team feel like they are contributing to the application.

It is important not to sacrifice quality in your bid for quantity, or depth of thinking for breadth.

Make early decisions on the most compelling evidence required to convince funding agencies of the merits of your bid. Identify and remove information that is surplus to this goal. You will need to manage expectations and communicate carefully within your organisation to ensure egos aren’t bruised by this approach.

7. Make it as easy for the reader as possible

Albert Einstein has said that “if you can’t explain something to a six-year-old, you really don’t understand it yourself.” This is well worth remembering as you prepare funding bids.

You should present your idea in a way that is appealing and easy to follow for the reader. There are many tools available to help you assess and improve the readability of your writing. (These include readability tools in Microsoft Word or web-based tools like Hemingway.) The writing in your bid should be at a level all readers can easily comprehend.

Applicants should consider using structure thinking approaches, clear and descriptive headings and other signposts to help the reader understand your idea and its key messages.

Clever use of diagrams and other visuals can help many readers connect with your ideas more effectively than large blocks of text.

Remember to link your ideas back to the requirements of the funding agency and any specific criteria.

To make the reader’s life easy it is also important to ensure all the numbers and calculations in your bid add up.

Avoid any inclination to include large lists of citations and references. Officers are likely to skip these if they have hundreds of bids to assess.

In some cases, the use of unwieldy templates or proformas might constrain your application. While this can make it harder to present your ideas in a compelling way most of these suggestions are still applicable. One tip is to start preparing your response in the funding agency’s template or proforma as early as possible. This will make you more familiar with its requirements and how to address them across your bid.

8. Implement effective project management

Disciplined project management is essential for developing compelling applications for government grants. Applications for large sums should apply project management rigour commensurate with the amount of funding on offer.

As we are all increasingly busy, it is extremely common for organisations to try and fit the development of their applications in between their existing work commitments. This often results in the development of applications during the evening, on weekends and often at the last minute. This often leads to bids that are not well thought through or presented.

As a result, it is important to plan your application process. Start as early as possible to avoid leaving the lion’s share of the work to the last minute. Where possible, it is beneficial to start your thinking in advance of any official request for proposal. When a formal request is made you will be able to hit the ground running.

Important activities to include in your project plan for a funding application include:

  • identifying who will do what and when
  • scheduling regular progress check-ins with key stakeholders – this will ensure everyone is on track and has a consistent understanding of your key messages
  • allow plenty of time for internal decision makers to sign off on proposals (where required) before they are submitted
  • include extra time for bid scoping and negotiations where you are bidding as part of a consortium
  • factor in time for a thorough proof read (preferably from someone who hasn’t been involved with the development of the bid, and who can ask critical questions), and
  • understanding the submission requirements for bids and allocating time to meet them.
9. Get independent help where you need it most

The sums of money available through government grants can be quite significant for organisations. As a result, the resources you invest in making an application great should reflect this.

Seek help where you know you won’t have the skills or capacity available in the time required. Assess this early on as part of your project management and bid planning.

Experts can provide help for any or all aspects of the bid preparation process such as:

  • project management and governance
  • identifying and developing your strategic intent and value proposition
  • supporting consultations and negotiations with prospective partners
  • all elements of bid design and writing
  • costing of proposals, and
  • proof reading and submission.

To sum up, preparing a compelling bid for government funding requires a significant investment of your organisation’s time and intellectual horsepower. Addressing each of these key success factors should have your organisation well placed to submit a compelling application next time you bid for funding.

I would love to hear any other success factors or lessons from your own experience that you would like to share. If you need help with your next grant application, please feel free to get in touch. (You can reach me at


This article was originally published on LinkedIn.