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How Not to Get a Grant: Top 10 Grantwriting Mistakes


Matt Carpenter and Brian Brown

Seeking foundation funding can be challenging. Everybody’s standard is a little different, and meeting the standards gets time-consuming. Here’s an inside look at one expert’s top 10 grantwriting mistakes… courtesy of El Pomar Senior Vice President Matt Carpenter.

10.) Lack of preparation for funders’ questions.

If you’re the point of contact for a grant proposal, keep a copy handy; it helps when you’re looking at the same document. And you need to make sure you are able to answer questions about the organization beyond the grant request—funders want to know you can use their grant dollars wisely.

9.) Failure to follow grant guidelines.

Here’s a great way to tell a funder you aren’t serious about your request: fail to include a requested piece of information. Fifty percent of El Pomar’s grant proposals are missing required information. Check the funder’s website, read the materials provided, and if you don’t understand why the funder is asking for something, call and ask.

8.) Asking one funder for 100% funding.

Let’s say you want to raise $1,500 to refurbish part of a senior center. You ask a single funder for the whole amount. To you, this may be a small request that is worth getting from one place. But to a funder, this often means the local community doesn’t support the request. So do your homework on how much a funder typically gives—and ask for a reasonable percentage of what you really need.

7.) No recognition of organizational sustainability.

Why should somebody give you money if you won’t be around to use it? Make sure you explain how your organization will be around in five years, and show how the local community supports your organization and wants it to succeed.

6.) Absence of evaluation.

Funders vary in their demands for evaluation, but no funder likes to make grants to organizations that have no idea if they’re succeeding or not. Many foundations have specific criteria; others want your take on how well you are achieving your goals based on your own measurements. There are different levels of evaluation; figure out which one makes the most sense for your organization, based on time and cost, and take the time to follow through. And don’t forget to make sure your evaluation meets the individual funder’s requirements.

5.) Baffling capital request.

For a foundation grants officer, reading an unexplained capital grant request is a great way not to start a morning. If you need a new building, van, etc., make sure you explain how it helps you achieve your mission. Let the funder know how much money you’ve raised to date, who is supporting your campaign, and how you plan to reach your financial goal. Funders like to jump on a good bandwagon.

4.) Confusing financials.

Got a budget? The numbers should add up. If you are careless with your numbers, what else is your organization careless about? If there’s something in your financials that you think will hurt your request, don’t hope nobody notices—explain it. Better to talk through it than have your request denied.

3.) Sending a “blind” grant request.

Most funders have a website, and everyone has a phone. Find out if your interests and the funder’s interests align. When doing research, collect information on prospective funders, evaluate the information, and determine grant strategy and implementation. If somebody on the other end can tell you didn’t take the time to get to know his organization, he probably won’t take the time to get to know yours.

2.) Failing to show community support.

Local support from local businesses, donations, fundraisers, in-kind gifts, and volunteers tells a funder a lot about whether your organization is doing good work. So does your board’s 100 percent financial involvement. If the people closest to your organization don’t care about you then foundations, which are at the periphery of what you do and don’t know you as well, take that pretty seriously.

1.) Lack of clarity.

A good grant proposal isn’t about being long—it’s about being clear. Often two good pages are worth a lot more than 50 disorganized ones. Someone reading your proposal needs to know right away who you are, what you do, what you need, and why you need it. So think about what points you need to communicate and how much space you will require for each point. Be clear, be concise, and be consistent. And be sure someone who is not an expert on what you do will be able to understand you.

Proposals that aren’t funded sometimes languish because they are competing for limited funds or don’t meet a funder’s guidelines. But often, they do so because the organizations didn’t provide a compelling reason for funding. A good grant proposal is really a request for an investment, and it needs to tell the funder why it is a good investment. Give your next request a boost by submitting a complete, high-quality, tailored proposal before the deadline.