MacBook computer with word-processing document

Taming Online Grant Applications

Do online grant applications intimidate—or at least, annoy—you? Are you frustrated when a colleague goes into an online application and changes something without telling you?

Some online grant systems are so poorly designed that nothing I can suggest will prevent you from banging your head on your desk. But here are a few ideas to make the online application process go more smoothly.

Review the application offline

Many online grant application systems offer the option of downloading a PDF or Microsoft Word version of the application. It’s particularly handy to have a single document of the whole application when the online version is separated across several different tabs that you have to click through to see the whole thing. Even if the application is on a single web page, having it available on your own computer lets you refer to it without logging in, and to share it with anyone who needs to know what information the application requires. If there isn’t a built-in ability to make an offline file, you can do it by making PDF files or screenshots of the various tabs.

Do most of the work elsewhere

It’s unlikely that one person will have complete responsibility for a grant proposal. Usually, multiple people in your organization will need to weigh in with information and suggestions. Although online applications do allow a team to use a shared account to log in and edit the application, they provide no record of who changed what. It’s much better to do all of the writing and editing elsewhere, only uploading text to the grant system when it’s final. (Or at least close to final: see the next section for caveats.)

You could simply route a Microsoft Word document around the office, with everyone using the Track Changes feature to highlight the edits they make. But these days, a simpler solution is to upload the first draft to Google Docs and let everyone edit it there. Their changes will be recorded for posterity, and you won’t have to worry that Person A is making more edits to a Word file after you sent his earlier version to Person B for review. Google Docs lets your team collaborate on spreadsheets as well as on text documents.

Outwit length limits

Doing most of the work in Word or Docs lets you get your copy close to the word count demanded by the online form before you upload it, reducing the back and forth of finalizing your proposal. Don’t get overconfident about that, however. You’d think that a word count would be a word count, and the form software would come up with the same number as in Word or Docs. Unfortunately, that often is not the case. Usually any differences will be small—perhaps just a few characters—but in a form field that allows thousands of characters, even small counting variances can add up. So be prepared to trim the copy if the online software doesn’t let you enter all of your text. (Depending on the review process you’ve set up, you can either make these final tweaks directly in the form, or go back to Word or Docs and then paste the revised text from there.)

By the way, I keep a Word document that has copy blocks of exactly 1,000 characters (including spaces). I can quickly paste a few into an online form and see where the text is cut off. That alerts me to any differences between the counting system in the application and the one in Word or Docs.

Make sure you understand how to save your work

Nearly all online proposal sites let you save your work and return to finish it later, but a few don’t, so make sure you understand each site’s procedures before you start entering text. Also, some sites send out an email every time the application is saved, which may annoy the designated contact person if it happens a lot. That’s another good reason to work offline until your text is final.

Don’t wait until the last minute to submit the application

That advice applies to any grant proposal, of course, but it’s easy to get blasé about electronic applications because you assume that you’ll be able to submit them in a matter of moments. But what if it’s almost deadline time and your Internet connection acts up? Or the web server that hosts the application form goes screwy? Or you thought the deadline was 5:00 p.m. Pacific Time when it was actually 5:00 p.m. Eastern Time? Or…?? You can imagine any number of scenarios where an electronic submission doesn’t go as planned. Make sure to read the deadline instructions very carefully, and give yourself some time to overcome Murphy’s Law.

Remember: You’re the human. You can prevail over a computer.  🙂


© 2018 Patricia F. Winter