The Secret Sauce of Successful Applications

Golden insights from winners and reviewers

To follow up on my list of Grants, Awards and Opportunties for Artists and Entrepreneurs, I sought insight on the most successful application strategies from people with an inside scoop. Here's what I learned:

1. Find the right grant

Every granting organization has a very specific mission, and reviewers' jobs are to find the people and projects that will allow them to fulfill that mission. In most cases, established grants have been fine-tuned over the course of many giving cycles, and reviewers know exactly what they’re looking for—so it's improbable that a winning project would only loosely fit the bill. Maryn Boess of GrantsMagic, views 'mission-matching' as one of your first and most important task as a grant seeker. The more money at stake, the more well defined a program will be, so finding an opportunity that truly aligns with your work and then taking the time to nail the proposal will be far more successful than applying to everything—hoping a random dart will hit the target. If your project doesn't address the organization's mission, it's likely an easy “no.”

2. Follow ALL of the directions

This is advice I hear most often—which speaks to how common it is for people not to follow it. Giving away money attracts interest, translating into a mountain of proposals for reviewers to read, organize, and deliberate on. What's the easiest way to cut down on the workload? Eliminate the applicants who didn't bother to follow instructions.

When Nadia Eghbal decided to give away three $5000 Helium grants this year with no strings attached, she was shocked to received upwards of 2000 applications. Faced with weeks of processing, she made the job instantly more manageable by eliminating the last 400 submissions—all of which missed the deadline.

3. Provide an “Aha!” moment

Granters want their support to help create something worthwhile. Joel Pomerantz, from the Awesome Foundation's San Francisco Chapter, described the process of reviewing applications as the search for an “Aha!” moment. He looks for proposal descriptions so perfectly crafted that they put the pieces of a project together with clarity; they intrigue and deliver a picture of something you never would have imagined otherwise. It delights him as a reviewer, and it's ultimately what he wants grant recipients to be able to share with the wider world.

Indeed, Pomerantz explained that the real work for reviewers starts once there's only a handful of great proposals remaining, and the chapter is tasked with deliberating the merits of a few awesome ideas. It can be painful to split hairs and choose one project over the others. To cull the applicant pool, however, is a straightforward process of setting aside the majority who don't fit the chapter's mission, didn't follow the instructions, or didn't offer any inspiration.

4. Grab attention with a good title

Marketers have long known the power of a compelling headline, so why not use that insight for your proposal? Monika Burczyk, Founder / Director of fieldgenerator arts knows her way around a grant application and recommends nailing the title to stand out in the crowd: “Grantors see lots of proposals—and to be distinct, you'll need to pique their interest. Most applicants are focused on crafting the right budget, or using the right language within in their proposal, but by weaving narrative directly into your title, you'll appear compelling from the outset.”

5. Read some winners

A couple of years ago I wrote about the #2BillionTogether essay contest sponsored by SoFi for their loan holders, the winner of which would have their student loans paid in full. (I know—what a dream!) They received 2400 applications, went through a lengthy process to weed them down to 20 finalists, and the public voted on their favorite to determine the winner... Fascinating, right? What do you need to write to have someone pay off your student loans? Well, I just checked, and the winner and finalists, with their essays and corresponding vote counts, are all still online an available to read and analyze—providing a perfect example for us to learn from.

You might think the top 0.84% of essays would be more similar than different, but it's really the opposite. The winning essay, written by Joseph Tillman, got 44% more votes than the second-place essay, and 173 times the number of votes cast for the 20th-place essay. All of the finalist were hardworking people, doing incredible things, and in great need of financial assistance—but the winning essay had just the right secret sauce. What was it? A perfect balance of story, empathy, transformation, and generosity with just the right sprinkling of reference to the question asked: “How refinancing with SoFi has impacted your life and how a student loan payoff would impact your plans moving forward.”

To keep all those balls in the air, I've often used the strategy of jotting down a list of objectives while I'm editing and iterating. That way I don't accidentally leave something out, and I can make sure I've touch all the bases by the time I press send.

The Takeaways

A well-written story that grabs attention, allows your reviewer to get involved, provides them with a spark of understanding and appreciation for what you're doing, AND demonstrates how your work serves their mission appears to be the winning recipe.

Yes, it's a tall order, but winning grant support is a big deal and can spark all kinds of other interest and attention—so roll up your sleeves, take your time, and put in the effort to hit it out of the park.