We need to have a serious talk about character limits on grant applications

[Image description: Wooden Scrabble tiles arranged to spell out “TIME FOR CHANGE” over a brown corkboard. Image by Alexas_Photos on Pixabay]

Hi everyone, with the collapse of the Afghanistan government, the devastating earthquake in Haiti, and the worsening pandemic, you might be thinking there are more important things to talk about than something as insignificant as character limits on grant proposals. I am writing about it because I need something concrete that I can focus on. But also, because minor things like character limits are symptomatic of some serious issues in philanthropy.

Describe the program for which you are applying and how it helps to fight racial disparities in health care or food insecurity. Share whether this is a new or existing program. Provide specific data-driven information that shows a clear understanding of what the need in your community is. (700 characters).”

I wish I had made that up. But no, a colleague sent that to me just a couple of weeks ago, an excerpt from a grant application. 700 characters is fewer than 3 tweets. Here are some common problems around character limits:

  • Funders ask for a laughable amount of information, and expect it to be presented with an unrealistically small character limit, forcing applicants to spend endless time editing, checking, editing, checking.
  • Funders don’t disclose character limits, but they exist, and only when the proposal writer submits are they told that they exceeded the limits and must go back and edit. Some of these online portals don’t tell you what the limits are, they just tell you it’s over the limit so it’s a matter of trial and error to figure out the limit for every question.  
  • Funders have ridiculously large character limits (10,000 characters), and applicants feel like they will be judged inadequate if they don’t hit those numbers. It reminds many of us of school, when we had to write a 5-page paper but only had 3 pages of content and had to try all sorts of tricks to fill out the rest of the pages.

This is so exhausting. You would think that with the urgency of everything going on, we would get a break from bullshit like this. While the world burns, nonprofits are still forced to deal with the fickle whims of various foundations who each believes they are a special snowflake who deserves a special snowflake proposal. “I want to know how you measure success, but I want it in 2,500 characters.” “I, too, would like to know how you measure success, but my family foundation wants it in 500 characters, preferably in the form of a haiku.” All of this equates to millions of wasted hours across the sector as nonprofits translate the same answers to the same questions into various lengths and formats.

Whenever someone rants about character limits, the counterarguments are often, “well, we should be respectful of grant reviewers’ time. Imagine if you had to read 100 proposals and they’re each long and rambly as hell!” Sometimes colleagues find character limits helpful, as it forces people to hone their skills in being concise. These are valid points, but they are not the conversations we should be having. The real problems that character limits are a symptom of are:

The reinforcement of power dynamics. Because funders have money, and thus power, we will jump through ridiculous hoops to get it. Over time, we’ve come to accept this as the way things are. It becomes a self-reinforcing cycle: the more we normalize crappy funding practices, the more we give in to the whims of those with power, the more we and they believe that that’s the norm, the more we entrench power differentials. And we cannot solve problems effectively, because power differentials mean we can’t be honest with one another, and thus we can’t be effective partners.

The disrespect for nonprofit professionals: Philanthropy accepts that it’s bad and disrespectful to waste funders’/grant-reviewers’ time. Sure, I agree. And yet it’s perfectly OK to waste grantseekers’ time? Writing takes significantly more time than reading. It takes you about ten minutes to read this post; it will probably take me six hours to write it. It may cost a funder an additional 30 seconds to read an answer that’s 2500 characters long vs one that’s 1000 characters long, but it may take a grant applicant 5 to 15 or more minutes to copy and paste it from another application, then spend time editing it to fit character limits. Multiply this by hundreds of applicants, and you are wasting thousands of hours of nonprofit professionals’ time. It is insulting and disrespectful to continue operating like funders’ time is more valuable than nonprofit workers’ time. Especially when the latter are running programs while the former usually do not.

The perpetuation of inequity. Grant applications are incredibly inequitable in that those organizations that write the best ones tend to get the funding. And who are the orgs that tend to write the best grant applications? Well-resourced, mainstream, often white-led ones. Organizations led by Black, Indigenous, AAPI, Latinx, disabled, LGBTQIA communities often cannot compete because they don’t have the same grantwriting/fundraising capacity. Spending time applying to grants, including editing answers to fit arbitrary character limits, may be an annoyance to well-resourced org, but it can be a significant barrier to less-resourced ones led by marginalized communities.

The prevention of better grantmaking: The more we put up with these inequitable, archaic, time-wasting, insulting ways of doing grantmaking, the more we normalize them. But look at MacKenzie Scott. She gave grants that are in the millions each, without any applications, without character limits. We should certainly talk about taxes and how no one should have that much money to give away in the first place. But if money needs to be allocated, let’s do it effectively and efficiently. Scott’s giving should be a wake-up call to every funder. If she can give away 5M grants without the flaming hoops, you have no excuse not to do the same for $5,000 or $20,000 or $100,000 grants. You don’t need to continue engaging in the stingy, suspicion-based philanthropy that has gripped our sector.

The distraction from real issues. Honestly, this is what’s most frustrating to me about grant applications. Like many of you, I am exhausted. The Delta variant freaks me out, as does Lambda, Omega, Sigma, or whatever vaccine-resistant mutations are coming next. Landlords are evicting people. Conservatives and suppressing votes. Climate change. Increasing frequency of fatal heatwaves. Wildfires. The rise of fascism. These and other issues are what all of us should be focused on addressing. Instead, we are pressed, spending time removing commas and turning instances of “and” into “&” so we can meet character limits, wasting hours doing this so a grant reviewer can be saved a few minutes. Is this really what funders want nonprofits to focus our time on?

I am tired. I know colleagues are too. We need a fundamental shift in philanthropy. I appreciate efforts like Grant Advisor’s Fix the Form. But we need to go further. Some awesome funders who follow Trust-Based Philanthropy already accept grant applications that were written for other funders. Why is this not a best practice in the sector? It’s the same information!

Every nonprofit should just have two versions of their application: A succinct two-page letter of interest, and a comprehensive proposal that includes everything funders normally ask for. These proposals are used for every grant application. There is no customizing. There is no recrafting of an answer to 500 characters or 1,000 characters or whatever in dozens of unique hellhole grant portals funders are using. Funders request the short version or the long version, and if they have questions, they can email or call and ask. The onus would also revert back to funders to narrow their parameters, and target funding toward the most urgent causes and communities, so that they don’t get hundreds of proposals.

I know this is not a new idea. For decades, colleagues have proposed a common grant application, like the common apps used in universities. This idea always fails because of funders’ need to be special, as if your questions are so interesting and important that the answers to them must be in a length and format only your foundation has the brilliance to determine. This manifestation of ego is something we put up with only because funders have money.

But we are at a crossroad. The world is on fire. Everyone and everything we care about is in danger. We do not have time trying to conform to character limits or cater to funders’ other whims. For funders who still require unique grant applications, I am asking you on behalf of hundreds of colleagues. Accept a grant proposal we already wrote. Accept it in its entirety, without change. Let go of your ego. Let go of your need to be special. Funders don’t usually run programs; nonprofits do, so we have less time to waste. Return the hours you’ve stolen from nonprofits over the years. Let us do our work.

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