online application form

Trusts, foundations and online application forms

The increased competition in recent years has seen funders take steps to manage their workloads and the expectations of applicants.

Application forms submitted through online portals are becoming more familiar, as are eligibility quizzes, informative websites and the presence of funders on social media platforms, enabling more direct engagement between them and those who apply to them.

I can understand why.

In an increasingly competitive environment, an application form is a good way of standardising the approach and enabling assessors to make comparisons more easily.


My personal issues with online application forms


Personally speaking, online application forms are not my favourite thing.


Prescriptive questions and word counts feel like an assault on creativity and can make a previously fun job into something more arduous and time consuming.


Then there are deeper concerns around accessibility of technology and skills, which mean that some charities are unfairly excluded from applying to some trusts.

The social media campaign #FixTheForm serves to highlight these disparities and the harm being caused by the proliferation of online forms (as well as seeking solutions for fairer funding application processes).

Until the form is fixed (more on this next week), us trust fundraisers need to work within the expectations of funders and do our best to meet their requirements to the best of our ability.

Here are some of my tips to help you fill in an application form for a charitable trust:


First come first served?


During the height of the 2020 pandemic, there were new grant funds being released left, right and centre.

We decided to apply for £2,000 for LarkOwl through our County Council towards some of the costs of creating and improving our online training offers.

It was such a mess.


  • The application portal opened (with much fanfare) later than expected
  • It closed after a few hours due to ‘unprecedented demand’
  • Grants were offered on a first come, first served basis


I heard of a colleague who got their application in at 1pm who was successful.  Because I’d submitted ours at 3pm, I’d missed the boat.


Had I known that this was the way in which grants would be distributed, I would have sought to submit any old crap at the earliest possible opportunity, rather than working hard to make sure I met their criteria and properly costed my budget.

What a waste of time.

This is incredibly rare and certainly not how most charitable trusts I know operate (let’s be honest, County Councils aren’t necessarily experts in grant dissemination are they?  Especially those announced at short notice and where demand is likely to be very high.  I felt a bit bad for them tbh).

However, some trusts are opening their online portals for a short, defined period only.  Of these, some are capping the number of applications they are willing to receive and are closing these portals when they hit this number.

My advice?


  • Make sure you do you research into a trust’s application process thoroughly. It’s more important than ever.  No random letter writing to those who don’t accept letters please!
  • Be aware of the date the online portal opens and seek to submit your application as soon as possible after this open date.


Answer the question


It sounds obvious that when writing for charitable trusts, this is the first rule of submitting a great application, but in my experience far too many trust fundraisers are not direct enough in addressing exactly what it is that funders tell us they want to know.

Maybe we fill in so many application forms that we become complacent and tend to second guess what a funder is asking of us?

Perhaps we’re bored or having an off day and need to inject a little creativity into our fundraising so as not to become stuck in a rut?


More likely, we are emboldened to tell a trust or foundation what it is we believe is important, rather than what it is they want to know.


This comes from a place of passion and enthusiasm but can so easily translate into a mixture of fluff, waffle and very little substance.

My advice is to use the language in the question to begin your answer.

Trawl through your work once you feel its complete.  Ask yourself of EVERY word:


  • Does this word need to be here?
  • What does it add?
  • Is it the best choice of word for this sentence?
  • If I were to remove it, would the sentence still make sense?


Be clear on key definitions


Trust Fundraising requires some knowledge of technical jargon.

To help you answer funders’ questions, be sure you have a basic understanding of what is meant by the following terms:


  • aims
  • objectives
  • outputs
  • outcomes
  • impact
  • evaluation
  • dissemination
  • qualitative / quantitative / anecdotal evidence


It can also be easy to mix up the following:


  • your day to day work
  • the project you’d like funding for (if different from your day to day work)
  • the need for the project / or the problem you’re trying to solve


Be very clear on the definitions of terms and the different information you’re being asked for in each section.


Reflect their language back at them


Referencing a trust or foundation’s language throughout your proposal is extremely powerful.

It demonstrates that you’re read their criteria and that you are completely clear about how your project or service will help them to achieve their objectives.


  • Use the language in each question on an application form as the first sentence in your answer.
  • Read the first few paragraphs of a trust’s annual report or the ‘About us’ section of their website.
  • Pick out key phrases / words which connect your cause to their mission.
  • Pepper the language throughout your application where possible but keep it authentic.


Where is your heart?


The online application form is a creativity suck but don’t let it be an excuse for your writing to become stale and formulaic.

Alongside outputs, outcomes and impact, it’s important to let the funder know that you are genuinely and passionately committed to tackling injustice / the climate crisis / the heartbreak caused by poor health or premature death.

Funders still need to understand:


  • What makes you angry and what you’re doing about it
  • The change you want to see in the world
  • The story behind your mission


Be sure to prioritise your heart, your soul, your reason for being and your hopes for the future.


Want to see real life examples of these techniques?

Need a glossary of technical terms?

Craving a community of like-minded fundraisers looking to do better?

Trust the Process is our online course and community which includes all of this and more.

It will be available to buy between 17 and 31 May 2021.

Read more and sign up here.

Posted in Trust fundraising.