Throughout my career, I have witnessed hundreds of thousands of dollars being awarded by funders as a result of effectively developed relationships and well written grant applications. I have made it a mission to foster stronger grants writers as I have edited and reviewed an estimated one thousand of their applications, prepared for both private and government funders. Nothing is more frustrating than reading a proposal in which the grant writer pushes pet peeve buttons that can so easily be avoided. So if you want to ensure that you don’t push the pet peeve buttons of grant reviewers around the world, you may find my top ten list quite helpful. May I have a drum roll please….
10. Format your grant in 8 point type with ½ inch margins. Put it in a pretty plastic cover that is clamped shut and covers your left margin. Send one copy when we asked for ten. Please pay attention to format instructions. Eleven or twelve point type, one inch margins, and a single staple with the appropriate number of copies and attachments are usually the standard. If we asked that it be on three-hole punched paper and paper clipped, it probably means we are putting it in a notebook. NO covers and special clasps. When reviewers are looking at a hundred grants, they need to be able to work fast. A grant that is difficult to read or even to copy for other reviewers will not be favorably remembered.
9. Include unrelated attachments with your grant. As a reviewer, sometimes the attachments can help reviewers to more effectively understand your organization, but make sure they are relevant. It may be nice to see your annual report or newsletter. But if it wasn’t asked for, then it is a waste to include it (unless you have noted how it is connected to your grant funding request). Sending a picture is lovely, but make sure it is captioned or explained. Letters of support are often great. But please don’t attach the letter you used for six other grants saying you are good organization. We are looking for letters that demonstrate collaboration on this project and how it will leverage our funding. Rarely do we need brochures on your organization because explaining who you are should be a part of the grant.
8. NOT including requested attachments. These attachments were requested to help support your case for the funding. Impress us by labeling them. Sometimes an annual report can look like a newsletter. You can use an index sheet to show what is included. Then mark each item or put a label on each one to help identify what was sent. Put them in the order asked for (front to back as well) so we can see that you have included everything on the grant check list. And if you don’t have something that is asked for, tell us. Because if it is missing with no explanation, then we usually assume you forgot it. This does not leave a good impression.
7. Budget doesn’t match the proposal or doesn’t balance. Have someone look at your budget to see that it adds up. Revenue should total to the TOTAL REVENUE. Expenses should total to the TOTAL EXPENSES. Math errors make your organization look sloppy and it is not how you want to be perceived.
Then have someone read your grant and connect it to the budget. Did you mention expenses in the grant that don’t appear in the budget. Are all the expenses clearly identified? Sometimes when you are developing the proposal, things will change in the budget. Make sure your budget is clearly linked to the narrative and to the project. Be sure that all your numbers match.
6. Budget includes things that are not eligible for funding. If you ask for money that a funder clearly states are not fundable expenses, guess what? They won’t be funded. Make sure you understand funding restrictions and follow them. Some funders don’t fund salaries. Some don’t fund overhead or capital. Read the budget restrictions to make sure you are not asking for funding that is not available. By the way, if you mention in your grant that you need money in order to complete the project for areas that we do not fund, it would help if you would tell us how you are planning to fund that portion. Otherwise, we may have to assume your organization will not be able to fulfill the project even if we give you the requested money.
5. Use lots of jargon and abbreviations. The BFF project in MA will not get an OMG and funding from most funders. Follow good writing form. Use the full name of the project and then put the abbreviation in parenthesis after, e.g. Best Friends Forever (BFF). Remember also that if your grant has multiple sections, it may be divided for review by different reviewers. Put the project name or whatever you are abbreviating in full text in EACH section followed by the abbreviation (ABR).
Most organizations use LOTS of jargon. Have someone read your grant who does not work there. DOJ may know what the OJJDP is and the Girl Scouts may know what a promise circle is, but as a grant reviewer I don’t. While it is important to use the trade language of your industry, you should make sure that anyone reading your grant can understand what you are doing, for whom, and how.
4. Send a grant that you sent to someone else. Most reviewers love to read the grants you blasted to fifty funders. It shows initiative? Not really. Every grant should be personalized to the funder. Your mission, purpose, or even the project doesn’t need to change. But just because the local community foundation is funding something that I also list on my web site as an area of interest, it doesn’t mean that I want the same information for your project. I may have a different approach to reviewing funding. Typically, a funder likes to have a relationship and expects that you introduce yourself and your organization to them. Don’t just send out blast proposals. Besides, if you get funding from forty different funders, you don’t need mine.
3. Send a blanket request for funds which has no relation to the funding available. The first role of a grant writer is to research and match foundations to appropriate projects in the organization. Contact the funding organization the way they ask to be contacted. Does the funder require a letter of inquiry first? Would they like a phone call or in person meeting before you submit your proposal? I expect that you will understand my foundation and our procedures before you ask us for funding. Your proposal should demonstrate that you are a good match to our priorities and that you know the range of funding we provide. Asking for a million dollars (when our typical grant size is $10,000) shows you have not done your research.
2. Don’t follow instructions and don’t answer the questions. If the question asks for your organization’s mission, you should give a fairly straight forward answer. If we ask for a project description and a timeline, include a paragraph describing the project and segmented timeline. Give the detail requested even if it seems like we are asking for it more than once. And if it seems that way, you should make sure by re-reading the question. Oftentimes, people will describe their overall organization but never say what the funding request will cover. Or, they will describe all the projects that they do, but not provide the details of the project for which they need funding. If asked for a ‘need statement,’ you will have to show why the money is needed, and not just that your organization needs money. Look for community statistics or research information that supports your proposal. Childhood obesity, violence, graduation rates, crime statistics, and prevalence of homelessness can all document need. Show what the rates are in your region and why that is critical. There is lots of data on the internet that can help you make your case. The more you demonstrate the critical need, the more likely I will consider your idea to solve the problem.
And follow instructions. Beyond following the formatting required, if the application said 1000 words, stick to a thousand words. If you must have letters of support, start early and get them. If it requires signatures or certification plans for these, you should make appointments before you start the application to ensure that they are ready when the grant is completed. Read the instructions and make a list of what is needed to be successful in completing the application or proposal.
1. Don’t return my phone call. If we called, we probably had a question. This means we are interested in your grant. Call us back. Be knowledgeable about the grant. Make sure you know what we have funded in the past as sometimes my call may be to check the status of a prior grant (especially if you forgot to turn in a required report). If you don’t call back, you will never know how we could have partnered to change the world.