8 Biggest Grant Proposal Mistakes

January 26, 2010

1.  Have you followed the grant application guidelines?

When I worked for a grant-making foundation, you wouldn’t believe how many times my colleagues and I would look at each other with dropped jaws:  “Did they even BOTHER to read the guidelines?” we would wonder.

It’s truly astonishing how many organizations fail on this basic.  They omit to include their 501c3 letter.  Project budgets are left out.  The audited financial report is missing.

Here’s a tip:  Take note of what is to be included and state it directly within the cover letter:

  • In addition to our grant proposal, enclosed you will find the required:
  • 501c3 tax exemption letter
  • audited financial report
  • etc.

With the checklist directly in the body of the letter, you’ll be less likely to omit key pieces.

2.  Have you contacted the foundation funder?

In the past, I’ve always believed that an organization’s first grant proposal served as an introduction.  However, with current economic conditions, I am more inclined to follow the advice given by Steve Cebalt of Do It Yourself Communications in his recent blog post, Adapting to the ways foundations have changed in the new economy.

I recently took on a new client and discovered a foundation providing an ideal match between my organization and the foundation’s stated funding mission.  Two problems:

  • my organization had applied twice in the past and been declined
  • the deadline was the next day

On the plus side, there was a new executive director at the helm of this foundation (someone another funder had assured me would be more receptive), past experience had taught me that the third time is often “the charm,” and, finally, all that was required was a simple 2-page letter of intent.

It was a no-brainer.  I spent the next hour drafting a scathingly brilliant (if I do say so myself) letter of intent and hand-delivered it that day.

The declination letter arrived the following month.

When I called to speak with the program I learned that the programming area under which I had applied had been added during boom economic times.  I also learned that, until the economic climate improved, only previously funded organizations were being invited to apply.   If I had made that call initially I could have saved some time and gas.

3.  Are you putting the reader to sleep?

Foundation program officers are people too.  Imagine being assigned 15 different grant proposals to review, each one bearing the same tired, standard lingo?

Yes, you need to provide statistics and outcomes, but use creative storytelling to paint a picture in the mind as well.  Try to find actual examples to accompany your stats.  Maintain files of stories and simple quotes and regularly use them.

4.  Have you done your homework?

In addition to regularly researching funders using services such as the Foundation Center Foundation Finder or Grantstation, I recommend an additional review of the foundation’s 990.  In fact, I generally download the past 3 years of a foundation’s IRS form 990 to get the best possible indication of a foundation’s operations.  For more information, see my article Six Critical Things to Look for in a Foundation’s 990 for Successful Grant Funding.

5.  Have you proofread your proposal?

Spelling and grammatical errors are a big no-no in a grant proposal.  While the best proposals are not drafted by committee, it pays to have another set of eyes proofread your work.

6.  Is the proposal sloppy and difficult to read?

Use small blocks of text.  Break up paragraphs.  Match the format of the funder.  Stick to Times New Roman or Ariel font.  Lose the justified paragraphs.  Seriously – just lose them.

7.  Is your proposal filled to the brim with the latest jargon?

You don’t need me to tell you that this went out of style in the 90’s.  Simplicity is key.  Save the vocabulary lesson.

8.  Does your budget match the narrative?

If you’re writing for a specific program, develop the budget for that program first – and then write your proposal.

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