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The Loneliness of the Grant Application Writer

Pen and paper

Writing grant applications is probably one of the hardest tasks anyone in the VCSE has to complete.  Without grant funding, most VCSE organisations will not exist, so that arduous task needs to be done well. 

So many times, I have heard the VCSE sector publicly and privately criticise funding bodies for their long grant application forms, ridiculous questions, pedantic word counts, lengthy evaluation and monitoring processes and I could go on. 

The challenge for funding bodies is being confident that their grants go to worthy service providers who are not going to disappear with the cash.  Another challenge is ensuring that grants awarded pay for services that are delivered well.    

How do you make grant applications great?  I could give you an academic response here but I know that getting started is difficult.  So many times I have sat down to write, looked at the grant application form, sighed, made myself a cuppa, sat back down in front of the laptop, sighed again, picked up the phone to speak to someone about something that I have made more important than it really is.  I have wasted so much time just getting started on a grant application. 

It is not a failing on the part of a grant application writer to feel lost and not know where to start.  We all have our own individual writing barriers and we all procrastinate.  I fool myself into thinking that I’m not procrastinating by looking on the internet for endless amounts of evidence to support my application. 

The best advice I have ever been given about starting to write that grant application is to just start somewhere.  You do not have to start at the start of the form.  Even within a question starting somewhere in the middle of your response is ok.  Just start writing.


What cannot be overstated is that you must answer the question that has been asked and not the question you want to answer.  Be respectful to the process and you will increase the likelihood of securing funding.

The VCSE operates well because those that work within it have a strong social conscience, are committed to their communities, develop amazing services which are often delivered on shoestring budgets, are resourceful and great communicators.  When it comes to writing grant applications people tend to underestimate their skills.

Do not be modest about your capabilities and how great your team is.  It is important to demonstrate your competencies and achievements.  For new organisations that might seem difficult to prove.  Draw on your track record just as you might for a job application and think about transferable skills.  Focus on the fact that every funded VCSE organisation started with no money and no track record. 

Writing about how your service users have said you are great and told you how much they loved your valuable service is not enough.  Back up what you are proposing with independent evidence of need from university research studies, public sector strategic plans, public enquiry reports etc.  Organisations such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have produced some well balanced and informative research studies and the Office of National Statistics website is a great resource. 

Understand what is happening locally.  By that I mean understand the priorities of your local councils – parish, district and local authorities.  Understand Government priorities in your field of work.  Make connections with your proposal and public sector priorities to demonstrate the wider benefits of your services.

Be aware of how your body and mind operate.  There are times of the day that you will work better.  For me it is early in the morning.  I saw a documentary that reported that we work best 7 hours after we wake up.  According to that documentary Usain Bolt used that theory for his sleep patterns before races.  We’re all different. 

Usain Bolt

Sometimes I hit that wall when my brain cannot think of anything.  That seems to happen when there’s a deadline that is uncomfortably close and I cannot justify moving away from the application because time is against me. 

I have learned the hard way to stop, do something else, sometimes a break from the grant application form need only be for an hour or two to help boost thought patterns.  Sometimes getting some sleep has helped me even if that has meant going to bed early and setting my alarm for ridiculously early o’clock.  It is actually quite uplifting making an early start in the morning, especially if it’s still dark outside, it’s quiet and then gradually the day gets lighter outside. 

Talking is good through this process.  Find an honest critical friend or two.  Encourage your critical friend(s) to be just that, critical.  Assure them that they can put aside any fears of offending you and how valuable it is for them to find ways to improve your application. 

CAS provides support to VCSE organisations in Suffolk.  Our mission is ‘helping the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector in Suffolk aspire, thrive and grow’.  Support to shape and improve funding applications is available through our Funding Surgeries and places can be booked via our Events and Training Courses webpage.