7 deadly sins of grant seekers

For the faith-based nonprofits with which I work – and in fact, for the majority of small to mid-size 501(c) 3s – foundation-funded grants are a tiny fraction of total gift income. Yet invariably, “write more proposals” is the first suggestion from organizational leaders when money is tight. I spend a lot of time talking board members and executive directors down from their high hopes of grants to the rescue.

angel_devil_tug_war_400_clr_6266That said, there’s no denying that a grant or two can be a tremendous boost to an organization’s mission effectiveness. I’ve been there, enjoyed that, and hope to again someday. I’ve sought grants as a development officer, written proposals for others as a consultant, and cheered from the boardroom over grants received.

A grant is lovely money when you get one, and getting a grant is more likely if you avoid the following pratfalls. The list comes from the folks over at Intelmarx via their blog, Non-Profit 2.0.  Here’s my summary of their good advice.


If you’re hearing “no” more often than “yes” in response to your proposals, the reason(s) for the rejections may be:

  1. You don’t write for your audience. A bit of boiler plate is expected, but no two proposals should be exactly alike. It’s important to know the foundation’s mission and then tailor your proposal in that direction.
  2. You aren’t proofreading enough. Poor writing and bad grammar are the kiss of death for your proposal. If possible, have three or more people read your prose before sending it on its way. If anything in your proposal doesn’t make sense to one of your readers, it definitely needs changed.
  3. You aren’t thorough enough. Don’t assume the person doing the reading in the foundation office  knows your organization. Include a concise, compelling introduction to who you are, what you do, and why you matter.
  4. Your proposal contains too much fluff. Thoroughness is great, but don’t over-do it. Unnecessary information will only cause confusion.
  5. You have a goal but no plan. Good ideas are a dime a dozen, and worth about as much. Good ideas backed up by a plan are the ones that get funded. You need to show you know the way from here to there and that you’re ready and able to make the journey.
  6. You aren’t providing enough data. To show you actually know what you are talking about,  include facts and figures from your files, along with stats from similar projects. Let the reader know that you know there are other organizations working on “your” issue and how your approach is different.
  7. Using unreasonable budgets. Program officers know a padded budget when they see one. They also flag requests that are too small to get the proposed job done. When it comes to budgets, detail and honesty matter.

Aside from a few niche charities, foundation grants will remain a tiny fraction of organizational income. However, write your proposals right and next year, that fraction could be a bit bigger for your organization. So go (for it) and sin no more.

Talk back: What has your experience taught you about proposal writing?

What's your take on this topic?

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