One popular misconception about getting grants is that they are awarded to those who are most in need. You may be familiar with an old television show called “Queen for a Day” that was broadcast in the US in the early 1960s. The premise of the show was that contestants would take turns telling their hard-luck stories, usually involving financial and emotional difficulties. The audience would then cast their votes for the most sympathetic story via something called an applause meter, which measured the loudness of the cheers and clapping. The “winner” with the saddest story would then be awarded a refrigerator or washing machine to help quell their life’s ongoing disappointments.

When you’re submitting a government grant application, try to avoid being “Queen for a Day” when you’re explaining why you are applying for the funding. Grants don’t work that way. They’re not charity, and they’re not sympathy money. The reason that government grants are awarded are that the government has a need that can be fulfilled by a private citizen, a company, or an organization. You then make a case for why you are capable of fulfilling that need, with a combination of your specific abilities or circumstances, along with the grant funding money.

This means that your government grant application should present the problem, demonstrate they you can solve (or lessen) the problem, and how you will do it. This includes an explanation of how you will use the grant money wisely, effectively, and responsibly as part of your plan.

When you’re describing the problem that exists, you can matter-of-factly explain how the unmet need that currently exists causes difficulties. However, you ought to avoid overly-emotional language or attempts to appeal to a sense of guilt. The people who review government grant applications aren’t heartless or unfeeling, but their job is to match funds with those who show they can make the best use of them. Their reaction will likely be that they’ll feel bad for you, but not include your government grant application among those chosen for funding.

Here’s an example. I have some students who received $44,555 for the purpose of purchasing a property in the area that was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina in order to rent it to local residents. Instead of focusing on the sadness of the residents having been displaced from their communities and in many cases, having lost their homes, a more effective approach was to show how they could combine their own funding and property management expertise to help address the ongoing issue of a rental housing shortage in the sections of New Orleans that are still recovering from the natural disaster. The government itself is not adequately able to use its own employees to increase the rental housing stock there, so instead they made funding available to individuals who showed that they had the capability to carry out this function on their behalf.

Their government grant application used the proven formula of stating a need, proposing a solution, showing that they were capable of solving the problem, and showing how they’d use the money. There was no need to dwell on the sadness of the situation. It’s perfectly fine to feel sympathy for an unmet need because that’s what puts the process of fixing it into motion. But what makes a difference is having a solid plan and the capability to carry it out. It won’t get you a new refrigerator via the applause meter, but will likely get you the government funding you’re seeking.