The Key To Winning Grants: Compliant, Competitive Grant Writing

Non-profits and social purpose organisations leaders face a catch-22 that has caused many a headache: there’s so much important work to be done to support your cause or community, but organisations need to be financially sustainable in order to apply your knowledge and experience, and continue to make that difference in the first place.

Grant-seeking plays a key part in the funding strategies of many organisations, and securing funds through grants can be game-changing in delivering impact – but in most cases, for every grant-seeker that wins an opportunity, there are other applicants that have diverted scarce time and resources into a failed application.

Grant-seeking organisations are often relying on well-meaning volunteers to put together these grant applications; however, these volunteers often lack grant writing knowledge and experience. The good news is, there’s some simple considerations that will put organisations in good stead, which you can consistently apply to improve your grant writing skills and win rate.

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Top 5 Grant Writing Tips

Keep an eye on ProposalPro Insights and follow us on LinkedIn for the next four tips in the Top 5 Grant Writing Tips series, and for more great advice on winning grants, tenders and bids.

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Compliance and Competitiveness – The Key To Winning Grant Funding

The absolute most critical tip to consider when writing a grant application is to think compliance and competitiveness.

For a grant application to succeed, it needs to achieve on both counts.1

Let’s start with some definitions:

COMPLIANCE: A compliant bid is one that has addressed and fulfilled all of the compulsory eligibility criteria.

COMPETITIVENESS: A competitive bid is better than the next-best alternative, in terms of engaging the funder; meeting their needs, wants and expectations; and communicating a sense of “we are the right organisation with the right project to utilise your funds to make a difference – in an area that matters to you.”



Rejection due to non-compliance is more common than you might think, but is easily avoidable with the right tools and approaches in place.

Let’s start with compliance, which sounds simple, but in practice is an enormous black hole of time and resources when organisations get it wrong. Far too many grant applications have submitted bids that have fallen through based on misunderstanding or failing to address requirements.

Here’s a story to illustrate. I recently worked with an NFP that was interested in applying for a grant to fund a project that would not have been eligible; their grant writing was managed by their marketing officer, who told me “let’s give it a go – you never really know what funders are looking for!”

A quick eligibility check e-mail to the funder saved the client potentially 30+ hours in developing a robust application that would have ended up straight in the no-pile. Remember, if something is unclear, and you don’t know what a funder is looking for, just ask the funder.

Let’s face it: there’s a common and understandable reason why organisations fail on compliance. Reading through grant guidelines is not a fun job. Many of us have just become so used to skipping right to the end of 10-pages of complex T&Cs written in impenetrable legalese, before installing the latest software update.

Grant guidelines are often lengthy and boring, and if you’re reading the guidelines and find yourself nodding off, just know that you’re not alone.

But it’s a job that has to be done right, because that small factor that makes you ineligible could be buried deep within the small print. So, power through – it’ll be done before you know it!

Not compliant?

If you’re aware that something isn’t compliant, and isn’t going to be compliant by the time of submission, alarm bells should be ringing. You should either:

 • not be going for this opportunity at all (almost always the right call) 

• be talking to the funder about whether there is any room to be an exception. Perhaps you have a solid case for negotiation on this compliance requirement, keeping in mind that any compliance leeway may make your application less competitive.

On the rare occasion, with a compelling reason to do so, some philanthropic funders may reserve the right to proceed with an application that doesn’t quite tick the boxes they’ve set – but please check first, and don’t bet the farm.

I have also seen a client considered for an opportunity they wouldn’t be ready for by the submission date, but would be soon after (for example, before the latest date that the project can start). This comes back to opening a dialogue with the funder and communicating a clear case for impact, but it’s certainly an exception.

Compliance matrix: a simpler way to keep on track

There’s a handy way to get through compliance requirements that’s relatively pain-free, and widely used in the commercial world in the field of bids, tenders and proposal management – a Compliance Matrix.

At its most basic, developing a compliance matrix involves “shredding” the guidelines (tip: print them, and get your highlighter out), noting every single compliance requirement issued by the funder, collating these into a document and selecting compliant/non-compliant/partially compliant.

Looking for a compliance matrix template? The industry standard comes from the globally-recognised proposal management association, Association for Proposal Management Professionals. You’ll find it here >> APMP Compliance Matrix Template.

Further considerations

• Compliance isn’t just about your organisation – it’s also about your project. Even if your organisation ticks all the right boxes, your proposed project must align with the basic requirement criteria as well.

• One non-compliant item can render ALL your work for nought. It’s often hard to get the data you need from subject matter experts/knowledge holders/whoever happens to be sitting on that data, so track progress, send as many requests as you need to, be assertive, and don’t hesitate to escalate if someone is non-responsive.
If you’re the final responsible person for that grant application, you need to make sure you’ve taken all the steps. So chase, chase, chase. (What’s worse than getting that last critical compliance doc 5 minutes before the submission deadline? Getting it 5 minutes after.)


Simply the best.

If grant funding could solve all the problems in the world, they’d be solved already. But funders have limited resources and want to use those resources to maximise their impact in their area of funding interest. You’re unlikely to be the only organisation who approaches them, and as any grantseeker who’s ever received a rejection letter knows, there’s too many great ideas and not enough funding to make them all happen.

So that’s the “competition “– it’s not enough to submit a compliant bid, you have to make a convincing case why your organisation and project is the best use of funds. You don’t know who else has submitted an application for this grant opportunity, but you’re competing with them, and some of the best ways to win are:

only apply for grant applications where your organisation and project is likely to be competitive. There’s always an element of the unknown here – but, for example, if you’re small and new and seeking millions of dollars in funding, you’re probably not quite ready, compared to the organisations that will end up winning. (Tip: have a look at past grant recipients to see if organisations and projects like yours have got funded before. And, of course, when in doubt, just ask the funder.)

think about opportunities to improve your competitiveness. Grants tend to come out in cyclical rounds until funding is exhausted – so if you’re not ready this time, get ready for next time.

put on your marketing hat. How can you demonstrate that your project is compelling, your proposed outcomes is clear, and your organisation and its people have the experience and capabilities to make (and ideally, measure) the impact of that project?

handle objections. Think about what the funder may perceive as risks, and demonstrate that you have considered these and will incorporate minimisation/mitigation strategies.

demonstrate need for your project, and support of beneficiaries and experts. Sure, your idea sounds great, but does it have buy-in from community? Are you collaborating with the right organisations? If you build it, will they come? Think Letters of Support from trusted experts in your field, or people are interested in benefiting from your project; case studies of past successes doing similar (or similar projects from other organisations that have worked well), etc.

With compliance and competitiveness covered, you’ve taken the first fundamental step towards better grant writing.

Keep an eye on our blog for our next top tip – understand your funder!

(1: Technicality: other than the rare unicorn of a non-competitive bid).

Competitive advantages aren't just for the private sector. The philanthropic sector also operates in an environment of limited funds, so you'll need to demonstrate why your organisation and initiative are the best choice. Stand out from the pack by following our Top 5 Grant Writing Tips.

(1Technicality: other than the rare unicorn of a non-competitive grant.).

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