Top Tricks for Grant Writing With Character Counts

Grant applications with character counts instead of word counts or page limits now dominate online proposals, particularly for private and corporate foundations. Online applications eliminate white-knuckling trips to the post office, emergency toner runs, and save trees formerly sacrificed to multiple hard copies of 990s and audited financials. (Ask me how I know…)

Proposals measured in character counts may speed the read for grant reviewers, board members, or program officers. Good for them. But for those forced to cut and paste* answers to multiple questions into a single online box that cuts off any space, letter, or punctuation mark, it can feel like the Squid Games of grant seeking.  Pro tip: Don’t ever enter your answers directly into an online portal. Create a Word document and use the Word Count feature to measure “character counts with spaces”. (Ask me how I know and prepare to watch my eye twitch as I spin a tale of squirrels, power lines, and electrical blackouts under deadline.)


Here are three tricks to creating compelling grants that fit those diabolical character counts.

  1. Write to Fit: Check out this recent question and character count: “Describe your program and how it impacts the community need. How will your program lead to self-sufficiency for participants? Is this a new program? (Maximum Character Count: 3,000)” This is a four-part question disguised as a single question with a 3,000-character count maximum for those keeping score at home. According to Microsoft Word’s Word Count feature, that equals about 450 words or the equivalent of one single-spaced page of 11-point font. Unfortunately, no one standard character count or proposal format exists yet—which is another rant for another day. But getting comfortable with translating different limits will help you craft a first draft that won’t require excessive editing, leading to the second trick.


  1. The 20% Rule = Slash and Burn: If you are more than 20% over the character limit, it’s time to slash and burn whole sentences or paragraphs rather than pruning each sentence word by word. In the previous example, 20% over 3,000 characters translates into slicing 600 characters, or almost the entire second paragraph of this blog post. The 20% Rule is all about saving time in what can quickly become a tedious, frustrating editing process.


  1. Beyond Active—Be Direct: Writing in the active voice will always save space. Combining active voice with eliminating common and unnecessary phrases will drop that character count quickly. “The program is designed so that food boxes will be provided to families able to access the school-based food pantry based on eligibility,” totals 137 characters with spaces. “Eligible families will receive food boxes at the school’s food pantry” covers the same ground in 69 characters with spaces.


For more tips on writing tight(ly) no matter what the proposal requires, check out Season 5, Episode 9 of the Fundraising HayDay podcast on Apple Podcast or at this link: Writing Tight for Character Counts ( Caution: there may be a rant or two on the subject. (Ask me how I know.)


DH Leonard Consulting & Grant Writing Services, LLC is so excited to be season 5 sponsors for Fundraising HayDay, a podcast about grants and such. Catch up on seasons 1 – 4 and stay up to date on the new season here.

Don’t let grants stress you out, check out the helpful grant writing services our team has to offer here.


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