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The 10 Most Common Grant Writing Mistakes

The 10 Most Common Grant Writing Mistakes

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Writing grants requires a certain level of technical knowledge and finesse, but many proposals never get fair consideration because of amateurish mistakes that are easily avoided. Here are a few of the most common ones that are guaranteed to sink your proposal on contact with the funder.

1. Not following instructions. This has got to be the biggest mistake, even though it’s the easiest one to avoid. Foundations, corporations, and government agencies receive thousands of grant proposals, and one way they sort the amateurs from the professionals is to see who followed directions. If the funder requires a three-year budget, create one. If they want you to use paper clips instead of staples, use them.

2. Failing to thoroughly research the funders’ interests. Each funder has an interest in making grants for a particular purpose—sometimes a very specific purpose. Many grant proposals never have a chance of success because of superficial research. It’s not enough to know that the foundation makes grants for education. Do they support K-12? Higher education? Adult education? Do they specialize in funding organizations working with high poverty schools? The answers to all those questions can be yours by simply reading all of the foundation’s guidelines. You should also look closely at what grants they have made in the last two years to see if their stated guidelines are being followed. You can find this information in pay-for-service online databases or by looking at the funder’s website and its IRS 990 form, the latter available for free at

3. Focusing the proposal on the needs of your organization. Keep in mind that a funder’s goals are achieved not when you make payroll, but when you deliver the service your nonprofit provides to the people who need it. So you don’t ask for $10,000 to prevent your food bank from having a deficit; you ask for $10,000 to feed 7,000 people. Even if you’re asking for operating support, be sure to include how your nonprofit will do more for more people by receiving the grant you’re requesting.

4. Careless editing. Pity the poor program officer who has to read 600 grant proposals on the same topic. How do you think she’ll feel when she has to re-read your sentences because of typos and grammatical errors? Keep her on your side. Spell check and have a friend proof read.

5. Preaching to the choir. Never assume the funder knows anything about your organization, especially when it comes to describing your capacity to carry out the project for which you seek funding. And while you’re at it, avoid catch phrases and jargon. Clear, simple language wins the day.

6. Not asking for the money. You wouldn’t believe how many people forget to include the amount of the grant they seek in the proposal. The people at the foundation aren’t mind readers! Be explicit, usually in the first sentence or two about how much you would like for them to give you.

7. Asking for the wrong amount. This mistake is closely related to number 2. In your research, you should determine what size grants the funder has made to similar organizations. When you look at their grants list, you’ll see that most funders have a number they seem fond of. Asking for substantially less or more than their typical grant will end in failure.

8. Submitting sloppy budgets. You may be familiar with three or four budgets for programs like the one for which you’re seeking funding, but the program officer at the funder has seen hundreds if not thousands of similar budgets. She will know immediately if your budget is reasonable for your project. If you’ve left out a major item, she’ll know. If you’ve padded the salaries, she’ll know. The budget that accompanies a grant proposal should be prepared with the same care as the narrative description and match it point for point.

9. Submitting a proposal late. This is absolutely the most amateurish and easily avoided mistake, yet it happens all the time.

10. Not asking for a grant. There never is a perfect time to ask for a grant. The economy is down. You’re too busy to finish the proposal by the deadline. You worry the funder has never heard of you. Excuses are easy to come by, but you’ll never get a grant if you don’t try. So what are you waiting for? Start researching and writing now!

Avoiding these ten mistakes will put your grant right at the top of the list for lenders. Good luck!

by Waddy Thomson, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Grant Writing, Third Edition