Making the most of your grant applications

We spoke to Emma Chaplin, Chair of ICON and Margaret Harrison, AIM’s Head of Programmes to get their expert take on making a solid grant application.

Applying for grants is a fact of life for a wide range of work in the heritage sector. Core funding rarely supports all the activity that we would like or need to carry out, but there are many sources of additional funding that a successful grant application can secure.

Funding and funders cover a wide range in scope and scale, from less than a hundred pounds to attend a training course or seminar, through to tens of millions of pounds for major capital development at a heritage site.

The Icon Writing Effective Grant Applications course highlights the essential steps in putting together an excellent grant application. Success can never be guaranteed and heritage funding sources are almost always heavily oversubscribed, but following some key tips can ensure that you maximise your chances of securing funding and do not waste time on applications where you have little chance of success.

Preparation and research

The most important work on a grant application is at the research stage and there are questions that you need to be able to answer before you even start the application process.

Why are you applying for funding? If you aren’t clear on your reasons for applying, the funder won’t be either. This will weaken your application. Why this work? Why now? You need to be able to articulate answers to these questions. This will help you strengthen your application.

Does the funded work match the strategic aims of your organisation (or your own plans, if you are an individual)? It is easy to see a funding opportunity and run towards it without thinking if it is the right opportunity to help you achieve your overarching goals. A funding opportunity should not be a distraction from the priorities that have been agreed.

What are the resources required to complete a funding application? All applications, done well, require resources and you need to check if you have the time available, if you need the support of colleagues (for example, to provide additional reports, financial information, photographs) and if this is worth the investment. The time you take on an application should be proportionate to the size of the grant you are applying for.

If you are successful, what is the exit strategy for your organisation? How will you ensure there is a legacy? Funders want to know that their investment will have a lasting impact, so you need to think about what this will be. For example, if you are applying for funding to conserve an object, what is the plan to care for it in the long term and how will it be used?

Finding the right funder

The Icon course explores the next vital step, which is how to research potential funders, ranging from the largest bodies, such as the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF), through to a range of heritage sector funders and small charitable trusts. The right funder for you is the one whose goals match your own. All funders will tell you (somewhere in their guidance documentation) what they want to achieve with their grants. They want to fund projects that match their goals and can show impact. If they are interested in conserving textiles and that is the goal of your project too, that is a good match.

It’s important to note that many funders, particularly around conservation, want to know what the impact of the work will be beyond improving/stabilising the condition of an object, so read any documentation carefully. Funders also have eligibility criteria. They may or may not fund, for example, individuals or local authorities or charities. They usually stipulate funding deadlines, the size of grants they offer and what their application process looks like. Check if you need to submit an expression of interest and what information they expect an application to include.

If a funder offers case studies and information on previous work they have funded on their website, take the time to explore and read these. You will get a much better idea of the type of work they are interested in funding and maybe get some inspiration and ideas for your own work, too.

If you reach a point where you think that:

  • Your project/funding goals fit with those of the funder;
  • You are eligible for the funding;
  • The funder’s timescales fit with yours (note it is unlikely that you can apply for funding retrospectively or once work is underway);

then it is time to move onto the next step.

Writing the application

You may be surprised that writing the application comes so far down the checklist of a good grant application. All your thorough research will ensure that you are applying to the right fund at the right time for your project.

In your application make sure that you:

  • Demonstrate how you meet the funding criteria;
  • Answer the questions that are being asked;
  • Supply all the supporting information that has been requested;
  • Stick to the word limits;
  • Tell a compelling story about why your organisation is credible and represents a great investment for the funder.

From the funder’s perspective

As an applicant, it is helpful to put yourself into the funder’s shoes. Margaret Harrison, Head of Programmes at AIM offers top tips for writing effective grant applications from the perspective of the funder . . .

AIM grant programmes are a core part of our benefits for our members and there is plenty of information on our website about the grants that we offer, most of which is generously provided by external funders. We are therefore in the interesting position of not only being a funder but also being experienced at applying for grants.

Most of our grant streams are only open to AIM’s smaller members and are designed to be accessible to organisations that aren’t experienced in fundraising. So, we aim to support applicants and make the process as easy and straightforward as possible, ensuring they meet our basic eligibility criteria and are as strong as possible.

We’ve published our top ten tips for grant applications on our website, which can be accessed by everyone (visit Some of these echo Emma’s guidance, for example, be precise and clear in your applications, make a strong case for why you need the funding now, answer the questions, provide evidence, and stay focused on your strategic goals.

There are also some basics you need to get right – like reading the grant guidance and making sure your organisation and project meet the eligibility criteria, and that you proofread your application before it is submitted.

But what is also really important to AIM as a funder is that applicants show that we can trust them to deliver their project. It’s the relationship that you develop with the funder that matters and will stand you in good stead for future funding, too.

This starts before you submit your application. At AIM, we offer online support workshops for each of our grant streams and we encourage all applicants to speak to us before putting in an application. Some applicants, particularly those who are reapplying, are given feedback and individual support in developing new applications. This matters to us and we do notice who has been in touch, prior to putting in an application.

AIM publishes the Guide to Successful Fundraising at Museums, written for us by Judy Niner, a very experienced fundraiser. Judy emphasises the importance of stewardship of your funders. She says: “Don’t be tempted to think [. . .] a grant is the end result. It’s very much the start of the next stage of the relationship with a grant maker. You have convinced them to support you – now you need to show them that they have made the right decision.”

We expect grant recipients to understand their responsibilities to AIM. We expect them to deliver projects on time and meet reporting and claim deadlines. We understand that projects don’t always go to plan and we encourage grant recipients to communicate with us about any changes. It’s important for us to know who has delivered a grant project well and who hasn’t. Judy says: “Your best donor is your last donor.”

It’s important to build a relationship with grant givers. We are more likely to support further applications if we know that you will deliver a project well.

Some things to consider as part of this include:

  • Talking to us before you put in an application.
  • Keeping in touch throughout your project.
  • Reporting on time.
  • Making your claim on time.
  • Telling us if anything needs to change.
  • Sending us all the information we ask for.
  • Getting the funding acknowledgements right.
  • And finally, say thank you. We really do appreciate it!

This article first appeared in ICON’s magazine, ‘Iconnect.’