An online grant submission system needs to function properly if you expect people to be able to use it. I've written many grants over the years and I have had the
misfortune pleasure of using many different online grant application systems; just a few were so horrible they deserve anonymous attention, as cautionary examples:
One on-line grant form informed users that responses would be cut-off if they exceeded the word or character count, but provided no means of checking the character count, until the final submission phase. In practice character limits should be extended somewhat beyond what your form specifies. Truncating carefully written applicant responses doesn't really save you time as a grant-maker.
In most cases applicants who go slightly over your character or word count are probably doing their best to follow the rules. Character counts can be calculated a few ways, depending on whether non-printing characters and whitespace characters are counted. Word counts can be based on an average word length, or an actual count of the words in the paragraph. You really don't want to force grant-writers to make last minute re-writes just to reconcile word or character counts. No matter how careful I was, this was always a problem. For short word-counted sections one and a quarter times the stated limit should allow a reasonable margin of error.
Yet another grant application system I saw had been hacked together by re-purposing a strange and archaic system designed for updating websites and databases. Working with this system was really strange, even when it was working properly. It was always unclear whether the work had been saved. I remember there were serious browser incompatibility issues. It couldn't handle very many users and always crashed a few hours before the grant submission deadline. There was a stern warning about no applications being excepted after the appointed date and time, so the foundation staff had to field calls all day from very stressed out people until, eventually, they updated the website to explain that the deadline had been extended due to the technical problem.
I'll never forget the afternoon I wasted wrestling with an on-line grant form which required me to manually type the entire application into the web form, which had a very small text-entry area 40 characters wide by 10 lines ; I might as well have been writing the lord's prayer on a grain of rice. The tunnel vision problem wasn't the worst part; if I tried to cut-n-paste the text a nasty text-encoding problem transformed whatever I pasted into a symbol-laden jumble which resembled Klingon. Even fancy hacker workarounds failed to tame this beast. I eventually had to re-type my entire application, but my troubles didn't end there. By the time I finished typing it the first time through and I pressed “Submit“ my session had timed-out, and everything I had just typed was lost. This was the worst web-form ever.
Each of these systems contained warnings in the instructions alerting grant-applicants about the challenges they could expect to face during the application submission process. Warnings about the difficulty of your grant submission process may deter smaller charities, and those with limited development resources, from presenting your foundation with highly relevant proposals. Busy people don't have time to spend in the labyrinth.
Welcome to Jareth the Goblin King Foundation's Grant-writer Challenge Site ! There are loaded bear traps laying around, so watch your step; we advise wearing chainmail pants. Also, do try to keep in mind, as you're navigating the labyrinth, that the lights in this windowless arena-of-due-diligence are on a timer to help conserve energy; don't forget to give the timer a good wind-up 2 or 3 times each hour. We would hate for you to be plunged into total darkness, since we have no way of knowing if you've been injured. Looking forward to hearing your answers to our questions, partner.
Issuing a warning is really the least you can do. A warning is not a fix for the problem at hand. If your foundation's online grant-submission system requires a warning about possibly loosing work, and you haven't taken additional steps to prevent this from happening, then it's probably time to invest in a system that works.
The power dynamics between a foundation and it's grantees will keep many applicants from seeking help, and make it difficult to get clear feedback when something is wrong with your website. Nonprofits will conceal any suffering your website may be causing them, unless the situation is so bad that they are forced to say something. In practice your website would have to block the grant-applicant from finishing the application before the value of making a good impression by not complaining is outweighed by the value of no funding decisions can possibly swing our way if our grant application is never received.
It's common for complex web-form systems to assign each user a temporary “session”, which is used to distinguish one user from another when several people use the form at the same time. After a period of inactivity, usually 20 or 30 minutes, the session will expire breaking the connection to the web-form system. Most basic web-forms don't register typing as activity, they only notice if you press a submit or save button. Warning grant-applicants about the time limitation in your grant instructions is really the least you can do. It's easy to loose track of time while stressing out about a grant application. Web-forms of this common variety virtually guarantee frustration, lost work, and wasted effort.
Many on-line grant forms suffer from too short of a session time-out period. Grant submission forms need much longer intervals than are typical for simple contact forms. While casual emails shouldn't take more than 20 minutes to submit, online grant applications can take a long time to proof. 30 minutes is not enough session time, even if you instruct grant applicants to prepare responses in advance. If your form needs to have a timeout, presenting a reminder prompt, with a button which resets the timer several minutes before the timeout happens, is considered polite.
If you're going to suggest that applicants prepare their responses in a word processor, it's a really good idea to provide a separate grant application overview with every question part or prompt, with clearly marked character or word counts for each section. An even better idea would be to provide a Word, plain text, or OpenOffice document for applicants to use as a template for preparing their responses. The application overview is just as important to your applicants as your grant application guidelines; you might consider combining the guidelines and the application overview in the same document.
The best online grant-applications guide applicants through submission steps, have an interactive checklist showing what's finished and what still needs doing, and, most important of all, give grant-writers the ability to preview the entire application.
If your organization is interested in building an applicant-friendly online grant-application system the developers at OpenSourcery are ready to assist you. Contact us to get started on the path to humane online grant-making. Your philanthropic partners will (silently) thank you.