Top 10 Mistakes to Avoid When Writing A Grant

grant writing mistakes

Coastal Business Strategies has worked on several hundred grant applications over the years and today we wanted to go through and point out the top 10 grant writing mistakes that we have come across when assisting our clients.  Writing a grant can be a time consuming and frustrating if you spend time doing the “wrong things” so we wanted to share some insight on how to write a successful grant application.  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 financial forecast, include it.  It is important to go through the instructions several times in a grant application to ensure that you have everything intact and to their specifications.

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. You need to find out if the grant that you are applying for is in fact, applicable to your business.  It is important that you read over the foundation’s guidelines to make sure that you are not wasting time with a foundation that has no interest in the type of product or service that you are offering. 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.  We find this to be a great way to identify which grants our clients will have success with and is a great way to narrow down your search. 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 $5,000 to prevent your food bank from having a deficit; you ask for $5,000 to feed 3000 people.  They love numbers and being able to reiterate how you need the money to keep your organization going through quantifiable numbers will help your chances of getting the award. 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. Imagine reading through over 600 applications from businesses all over the country that all have the same type of business or service.  With this large number of applicants, it is very easy for the judges to throw your application away simply due to poor editing. 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.  Also make sure that there is a uniform font and layout for your application to give it not only a professional appearance but makes it easy to 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.  State what you plan on doing and how you need the funds to do it.  Be confident and assertive with how you can provide a product or service that the foundation will “buy” into.

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, we usually add the amount in the first sentence so the reader can clearly see the amount requested and can go about reading the rest of the plan knowing why the funding is needed.

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.  You don’t want to ask a grant whose entire budget is $50,000 for $75,000.  It will be a sure fire way to get your application in the reject pile because you failed to read the guidelines and description.

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.  This is why its important to have a professional either help create these budgets for you or at least have several reviews to make sure that you have everything accounted for and in the right format.  This is a huge part of the application and one of the main ways the officer will determine the legitimacy of your product or service.

9. Submitting a proposal late. This is absolutely the most amateurish and easily avoided mistake, yet it happens all the time.  Don’t even bother sending it in.

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? Contact Coastal Business Strategies today to see how we can assist you with all of your grant writing needs.

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At Coastal Business Strategies, we take you “From Idea to Implementation!”

-Don Pleger

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