Lists of the 10 most common grant writing mistakes are common (I’ve even written one myself), but just avoiding the mistakes isn’t good enough to make yours a winning proposal. And whereas it is easy to come up more than 10 things not to do, on the positive side there are just four major things to remember to get right.
1. Tie the program to the funder’s interests
Some fundraisers, desperate for program funding, think they can bend their program to fit a funder’s stated interests. For example, a funder wants to support financial literacy for middle school children, and your program is meant to improve math scores. Since financial literacy involves numbers, that’s a fit, right? No. You can be certain that there will be dozens of organizations that specifically provide financial literacy and who will therefore be considered ahead of your proposal. Don’t waste your time or that of the funder by trying to stretch your program to fit their interests. You won’t be successful.
Your program exactly meets their interest? Great. When stating how your program fits their interests, don’t parrot back the language from their guidelines. That proves only that you know how to read. Instead paraphrase their guidelines to show that you understand that they want to support. For example, if you were applying to a foundation interested in middle school financial literacy, you might open with something like: “Our nonprofit works with middle school children to increase their skill and comfort in handling money, including what it means to use credit and barter.”
2. Ask for the right amount of money
Your request to the funder should fall within the range of grants the funder typically makes. Look carefully at the list of grants awarded for the last three years. You’ll discover that most funders make most of their grants within a relatively narrow range. Don’t be misled by outliers, such as a multi-million-dollar grant to a university’s capital campaign or small grants that might have been part of a museum membership for a trustee.
Also take into consideration grants made to nonprofits similar to yours. If you’re a new charity with a $50,000 budget, you probably will not get funded at the same level as a major research hospital, even if you’re both working to provide health services.
The amount you request should also be in line with your total budget and what you will spend on the project for which you seek funding. Few funders will want to be asked to cover your total budget, whether operating or project. They want you to have a “diverse portfolio” of funding sources. Why? To provide you with stability. Should one funding source fall through, there will be others on which you can depend. So the right amount of money means placing your request in proportion to all grants the funder makes, the ones made to nonprofits similar to yours, and to your budget.
3. Present a logical, structured argument for support
There are a number of ways you can structure your proposal narrative so that each important aspect of your program and qualifications are included and flow naturally from one to the other. The simplest of these is to begin with a statement of the problem you seek to address, describe your nonprofit’s qualification to address that question, and end with the specifics about what you will do with the funding requested.
If the funder provides a list of questions it wants answered in the proposal, however, seriously consider making those questions your organizing principal. I once served on a peer panel that was charged with reviewing 40 proposals for a funder. A dozen very specific questions had been provided for the applicants to answer. The narratives we received took about as many approaches to organizing the narrative as there were proposals. In evaluating them, we had to go back and forth between the application and the instructions to make sure all the answers were there and then compare each application to the others. Around application number 22, we breathed a collective sigh of relief when we saw that that applicant had not only used the funder’s questions to structure the proposal, but had even used the questions as section headings! Applicant 22 received a very nice-sized grant.
4. Write in a clear, concise style
The number of nonprofits seeking funding has grown enormously in the last two decades, and funders are hard-pressed to review all of the applications they receive. It has therefore never been more important that you write and format a proposal well. As noted in the point above, an application that is easy to comprehend stands a better chance of being funded.
I always strive for a conversational tone, as if I was talking to a respected colleague. That means avoiding run-on sentences, making your paragraphs short to medium in length, and avoiding jargon that is specific to your nonprofit. Always read your proposal aloud, preferably to a friend, before submitting it. If you keep running out of breath before the end of sentences, they are too long. Your friend looks puzzled or sleepy? You’re not being clear. Always seek to elucidate; don’t obfuscate! (And don’t use a proposal to show off your vocabulary or overly rely on semicolons.)
Waddy Thompson is the author of The Quick Wise Guide to Writing Grant Proposals, taught grant writing at New York University’s Heyman Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising, and enjoyed a 35-year career in fundraising before his recent retirement.