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How to design great application forms

Time spent filling out grant application forms is time that applicants could have spent making the world a better place. Therefore, grantmakers who want to maximise the community return should ensure their application forms are designed to a gold standard. The best-designed application forms are easy for applicants to complete and provide grantmakers with all the detail they need (but no more). The key is making the whole process as efficient as possible.

The process: one stage or two stages?

The first consideration for the grantmaker is whether a two-stage process is necessary. A two-stage process typically consists of: 

  1. An initial expression of interest, after which applicants who are ineligible, or have with little chance of success are advised not to proceed with a more detailed application; and 
  1. More detailed forms to help the grantmaker choose between the genuinely competitive applicants.

A two-stage process is appropriate where: 

  • the grant criteria are clear;
  • the applicant numbers are large; and 
  • the grant money is significant. 

Traditional forms versus other formats

The second consideration is whether traditional, standardised forms will be useful, or whether a list of open-ended questions is preferable. Alternately, you could create a hybrid form with both standardised and open-ended questions. Consider the following characteristics of forms and other formats to help you decide:

Traditional forms Other formats
Can be fairly easily compared because their style and size are fixed Are more difficult to compare because their style and size are flexible
May suit situations where you expect large numbers of similar applications May suit situations where you expect small numbers of highly variable applications
Attract and enable statistics-based reporting Attract and enable qualitative analysis
Require fixed criteria Allow for looser, "fuzzier" criteria
May suit situations where change mechanisms are well understood May suit situations where there is uncertainty as to what works

Gold-standard application forms

Application forms can be a powerful filtering mechanism, enabling grantmakers to decide relatively easily where to direct resources. Whichever kind of forms you use:

  • Don't ask for material you already have.
  • Don't ask for material you're not going to use.
  • Don't ask for the same information more than once.
  • Don't ask for material that the applicant can't see the point of. If it's not self-evident, explain why you're asking for the material.
  • Don't use jargon or ambiguous language. Provide definitions of technical terms, if you must use them.
  • Don't ask for more material than your grant money deserves - small grants, short forms.
  • Separate the due diligence components (information about the organisation) from the evaluation components (information about the project).
  • Don't ask the applicant to do work that you could do in your own office.
  • If you accept applications online, check that your application form functions perfectly on multiple browsers and operating systems, not just the ones you use in your own office.
  • Provide a sample application form with sample responses to give grantseekers a clear idea of what you're looking for. (If you feel it's necessary, note that you won't accept applications that copy the sample text word for word.)
  • Consider providing insights into (or examples of) past successful applications - what gave them the edge over their competitors? Similarly, what has led to past applicants being knocked out of the race prematurely?
  • Include a checklist, particularly if you accept hard-copy applications.

Other formats

You might decide to keep your grant application process looser, asking applicants some open-ended questions. For example, you might say to applicants:

  • Describe the problem you are addressing
  • Describe the overall goal(s) of the project
  • Describe the risks that could inhibit the success of the project.

If you take this approach, do give grantseekers some guidance on the amount of detail you expect in their answers by providing a page limit or word limit, or a range (eg 200-500 words).

SmartyGrants offers easy development of online forms. SmartyGrants standard fields and templates helps you to ask the right questions and gives system users capabilities for program analysis, reporting and evaluation.

The Grantmaker Tookit also provides step-by-step guidance on how to design your application process (including the application form).

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