Char Lims

In this Low Hanging Fruit periodic series, we explore small (and smallish) ways that grantmakers can tweak existing practices to make a big difference to nonprofit grantseekers and grantees. Do you have a piece of low hanging fruit you’d like to share? If so, email us at drstreamline@peakgrantmaking.org.



Roses are red
Violets are blue
Your character limits
Make it impossible to

In the dastardly case of the missing articles, adverbs, adjectives, punctuation, every synonym of more than five letters—not to mention full descriptions of just about anything–character limits are the villain.

Well-intended character limits are supposed to let applicants know that they don’t need to write a chapter when a few paragraphs will do. Unfortunately, for all but haiku writers, writing less is usually more (work). One writes, counts, and rewrites. And rewrites. For instance:

Well-intended character Limits are supposed to let applicants know that they don’t need to write a LITTLE chapter when a few paragraphs will do. Unfortunately, for all but Haiku SKILL USEFUL writers, writing less is usually more (work). One writes, counts, and prunes. And prunes. OTHERS, WEEP.

Many of us are indeed getting better at abbreviated messages (thanks, Twitter and text, and, long ago, telegrams). Sometimes, briefer is better. But cutting out words can mystify the reader and sometimes it simply doesn’t communicate the point or it leaves out all nuance. Sphinxlike ambiguity and frustration aren’t what grants managers are going for when they create character limits.

Here are a few alternatives proven not to drive applicants so wild:

  • Dispense with limits and instead let applicants know: We are looking for 1-3 paragraphs in this section.
  • Offer applicants the option of attaching other documents that can flesh out anything they want to elaborate on – but only IF a foundation staff person will truly read them.
  • Supplement the application process with site visits for finalist applicants, where foundation staff can discuss additional details and information.
  • If your foundation is using character limits as a way to decrease the burden on your staff or help them review more applications, stem the tide by applying earlier streamlining fixes – more focused funding guidelines, a screening first step—that will reduce the quantity of full applications.
  • If you MUST impose a limit, make it words, rather than characters. Why? Because while many of can count to 280 characters for our Twitter posts, no one should have any need to count characters beyond that. And is your system one that counts spaces as characters or not? Because both are possible and one allows a lot less text than the other.Words, on the other hand, are words, and their length doesn’t matter.

What better alternatives do your applicants and grantees thank you for? Share your stories of low hanging fruit with us at drstreamline@peakgrantmaking.org.

PS. This blog (minus this postscript) is 461 words, 2,434 characters without spaces counted, and 2,911 characters with spaces counted.

Alice Cottingham

Alice Cottingham is a Chicago consultant to grantmaking foundations and community nonprofits. As someone who believes deeply in Project Streamline, she is honored to be allowed to pose as Dr. Streamline's surgical associate.

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