Writing grant applications is often a daunting and frustrating experience: application requirements can be complex and typically vary from organization to organization.
But applying for grants is still one of the easiest and most effective ways for entrepreneurs to raise funds and get their startup off the ground or take their business to the next level. There’s also plenty of excellent grants that many entrepreneurs might not be aware of (our fundraising guide for Toronto startups is a good place to start navigating the grant landscape).
Despite the incredible diversity in grants, there are several tried-and-true approaches behind successful grant applications and common bad practices that doom the failed ones.
Here are the experts’ key dos and don’ts of grant-writing:
Do: Start with a pep talk
Before anything else, the entrepreneur has to believe in what they’re doing. “I always tell clients to convince themselves first,” says Paul Vice, founder of GetGrants, a Toronto boutique agency that helps about 40 firms secure between $20-$30 million in government funding each year. “If you go into the process with doubts and hesitations, it’s hard to overcome that negative mindset and it really shows in your application,” says Vice. To boost their confidence, he advises entrepreneurs to showcase their personal connection to the project and how it empowers them to make a positive difference.
For overwhelmed entrepreneurs struggling to get the ball rolling, Vice recommends keeping things simple and breaking down big applications into smaller tasks. “There’s no need to write it all down at once,” he adds. Getting access to an application sample can also prove useful. GTA clients that have successfully raised funds through Vice’s approach include OrderUp.ai, a startup that supports restaurants in converting to mobile ordering and payment, and Myant, an innovative digital textile researcher and manufacturer.
DO: Craft a compelling story
“The most important thing is telling a story that keeps the reader engaged,” says Clinton Ball, director of programs and client experience at the Waterloo-based Accelerator Centre (AC). Ball leads the AC JumpStart program, a grant-funding initiative for tech startups that assesses roughly 400 applications a year and provides $30,000 in seed money as well as mentorship support to successful applicants.
“Entrepreneurs should craft their application story the same way they put together a pitch to an angel investor or venture capital fund,” Ball says. “This story needs a beginning, middle and end.”
Think of the beginning as an assessment of the current state of affairs and description of what changes you want to create. The middle of your story should explain where you’ll start, what you’ll do with the grant funds, and why you’re the best team to achieve your goal. To conclude your story, explain in detail what outcome you expect and how your impact will work towards the grant’s objectives.
Ball highlights Kitchener’s ApplyBoard, an international student recruitment platform, as an example of an AC JumpStart business with a great story. “ApplyBoard noticed a gap in the education industry and crafted a story that explained the challenge and demonstrated how they would solve it, not just on a local level, but globally,” says Ball. “Since completing our program, they’ve grown to become one of the most successful tech companies in Canada.”
DON’T: Be vague
For both Ball and Vice, the best applications are always the ones that are clear and concise in their message and specific in their financials. “They should also provide quantifiable deliverables,” says Vice. For example, many grants ask applicants to demonstrate the potential impact of their project with specifics like the estimated number of new jobs and amount of exports created.
Beyond hard numbers, Ball suggests that applicants be as clear as possible about the leadership and structure of their business. “A lot of the time, we’ll just get a list of people with their education history and maybe a job title,” he says. “But application reviewers want to know exactly who they’re going to be working with and what skill sets they’re bringing to the table.”
Applicants should explain each person’s role in the company and provide examples of how those individuals are uniquely able to deliver on their proposal’s objectives. “We tend to look for a well-balanced team with knowledge on both the business and technical side — bonus points if your team has existing advisors and mentors,” says Ball.
Be careful, however, not to go overboard: “Steer clear of throwing in extra attachments like your white paper or dissertation, because a reviewer isn’t going to read them,” says Vice. “Less is often more.”
DO: Your homework and know your audience
Over the years, Ball has encountered many ineligible applicants who obviously haven’t read his program’s minimum entrance criteria. “It ends up being a waste of time for everyone involved,” he says. “That’s why you should always have a thorough understanding of the grant you’re applying for and reach out if anything’s unclear — it’s surprising how rarely people actually contact us with questions.”
Establishing contact with the organization you’re applying to is beneficial in other ways, says Vice. “Getting someone on the phone gives you an entirely different flavour of exactly what the organization is looking for,” he says. “It also builds awareness of your startup, so even if you get rejected the first time around, they’ll remember you when there’s more funding in the future.”
To further tailor your application to a specific organization that doesn’t have as intimate a familiarity with your business or field as you do, Vice suggests hiring an external advisor to review your application from an objective perspective and provide crucial feedback.
DON’T: Wait until the last minute
Entrepreneurs will sometimes find a grant that perfectly fits their needs, but since the deadline is months away, they’ll put off applying until the week or day before. “They might expect they can just copy and paste their business plan, but programs like ours often have specific requirements,” says Ball.
Earlier this year, Vice got a call in the afternoon from a desperate company whose expression-of-interest for a $1 million grant was due by midnight. “That was not fun,” he says. “You should treat a grant application like anything else with a deadline. It’s always best to start early.”
As soon as the applicant has the chance, Ball recommends creating an outline that maps out the grant’s intent and requirements alongside key points that describe the entrepreneur’s proposal. “In a grant proposal, every word counts and having your outline in place ensures you hit all your key messages,” he says.
Get the latest roundups, business advice, industry updates and success stories from Toronto entrepreneurs on our news page.