Online grant applications are a piece of cake

There's a lot of grousing about online grant applications.* But I like them!

I like them so much that I've written the following Online Application About Online Applications: They Have Some Disadvantages, But Overall They're A Piece of Cake. 

Question 1: How do online applications reduce your control over proposals? Limit: 100 words

1) The typical online application sharply limits the amount of text that you can write in response to each question. And the questions themselves may not ask you to present what you think is most salient or compelling about your nonprofit/project. You may have to answer byzantine questions about financial details of your organization, while not being able to present much about the need for services. 2) The questions may not be written in the logical sequence of traditional grant applications. 3) You can't control the font size, line breaks, and white space that appear in the final version of your proposal.

Question 2: How do online applications reduce your contact with funders?Limit: 100 words

With online applications, it is now possible to visit a funder's website to both research guidelines and submit a proposal--without first having a phone conversation or email exchange with a program officer to learn how to best target the proposal to the funder's interests. I've noticed that many corporate funders seem to encourage this lack of contact by failing to publish contact information within grant guidelines posted on their websites. (Some include an online form to submit questions, but I've had mixed results getting responses to questions submitted via these forms. Sometimes my questions just disappear into the internet ether.)

Question 3: How do online applications reduce your stress? Limit: 200 words

Typically, you will not be allowed to access an online application without first passing a screening test that asks a series of questions about your organization's basic eligibility for the funding program. So if you've answered the screening questions truthfully, you can be sure that your application is at least eligible for funding. You will know that you're not wasting your time on a proposal that won't make the first cut in the review process.

As you're working through the questions in the application, you can feel confident that you are addressing the issues most important to the specific funder. As long as you tailor your responses to the questions, you'll stay on point. Online applications won't let you meander into providing details that are of no interest to the funder.

Generally, the funder will email you automatic confirmation of receipt of the online proposal almost immediately after you've submitted it. Often they will include a copy of the text exactly as they received it. You don't need to worry that the proposal could be lost or delayed in the mail. You can submit the proposal on the day it is due, and be confident that you met the deadline!

Question 4: How do online applications save resources?Limit: 100 words

Online applications save time and money. In my experience, it takes less time to complete an online application than to write an old-school five-page proposal with a complete set of attachments. Furthermore, online applications save paper and shipping costs. The beauty of online applications is clearest on the proposal due date. Once you've pasted in your final text and any required attachments (and then obsessively proofread the text and attachments), all you need to do is hit the "submit" button. No letterhead to feed into the printer, no labels to format, no rushing to the FedEx office before closing time.

Thank you for reviewing my Online Application About Online Applications! Stay tuned--next week, I will post some of the best tips for writing online applications that stand out and get funded.

Notes:

* "Online applications, while ostensibly reducing the paperwork burden for applicants and streamlining the review process for funders, have both technical and philosophical weaknesses." This is a central point made by Betsy Northrup in her excellent article, "Responding in the Twitter Age: Proposal Writing for Electronic Applications," published in the Journal of the Grant Professionals Association in Fall 2010.

In her article (which is well-researched and very insightful), Ms. Northrup walks us through a number of drawbacks of online grant applications. To boil it down, there are two major problems with online applications. The first is reduced control over your proposal, and the second is reduced personal contact with your donors. These limitations acknowledged, I would argue that there are also two major advantages of online applications. The first is reduced stress, and the second is saved resources.

Comprised of peer-reviewed articles, the Journal of the Grant Professionals Association is among just a few academic resources available to us development writers. The Journal's articles are analytical and data-driven, but jargon-free, relevant and actually fun to read (which is more than I can say for most of the scholarly writing I have to plow through for the master's degree in Community Development that I am pursuing).

Two examples of fun-to-read articles in the Journal of the Grant Professionals Association: 1) "A New Architecture of Grant Writing: Lessons from the 2008 Presidential Campaign Trail" (what the Obama 2008 campaign can teach any nonprofit about fundraising strategy, Fall 2010 issue); and 2) "Missed Opportunities: Taking Care of Donors with Jane Austen" (what Jane Austen novels can teach any nonprofit about how to communicate with donors, Fall 2008 issue).

You can access Journal articles from 2004 through 2009 for free here; access to the current issue comes as a benefit of being a paid member of the Grant Professionals Association.