3 Common Grant Writing Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

Foundations can be a great source of funds for your organization’s key programs. After all, foundations are in the business of philanthropy.

Here are 3 common mistakes nonprofits make when applying for grants, and how you can avoid them.

Mistake #1 – The Case for Support is weak

Grant writing is story telling. In a grant proposal you are telling the story of your organization’s founding, growth, impact, results, constituents and future direction. This is almost impossible to do well if your organization doesn’t have a strong Case for Support – for the organization as a whole, and/or the specific program for which you’re trying to raise money.

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  • Take time to get your story straight. Do this BEFORE you begin writing a grant proposal – doing both at the same time can be a brain buster! If your organization doesn’t have a standard case statement, don’t worry – you can create one.
  • Start out by thinking big about your organization’s impact and WHY your work is important. I like Simon Sinek’s TED Talk on this subject.
  • Analyze successful past grant proposals, brochures, website copy or other communication materials and note the sections of your organization’s story that are most powerful and compelling.
  • Participate in conversations and strategy sessions around your office or with your Board of Directors about your organization’s vision for the future, the big-picture problems you are trying to solve, and how you fit into the local landscape. Do more listening than talking in these sessions. Take notes.

Mistake #2 – Proposals are submitted without research or a human connection

“People give to people,” or “It’s all about relationships.” Have you heard these sayings in philanthropy? Both are true in the world of grants.

  • Do your research to make sure your foundation prospect is a good fit for your organization or program. Many foundations have websites that outline in detail their areas of focus and the grant proposal process.
  • Then, pick up the phone and try to connect with a human being. This is super important, and it’s one place where the worlds of major gifts and grant fundraising converge. Connections between people are important. The good news is that connecting with a foundation program officer can be relatively easy because talking to potential grantees is their job.
  • If possible, invite the program officer for a site visit, since showing beats telling hands-down. (Read my earlier post on showing vs. telling).
  • If a site visit isn’t in the cards, ask the program officer some key advice questions. Make sure the answers are not already listed on the foundation’s website. Here are two of my favorite questions to ask and get the conversation started:
  1. We’re trying to decide whether to apply for program A or B. Do you have any advice on which would be more compelling for your foundation at this time?
  2. What parts of our story should we emphasize in our proposal?

Mistake #3 – There is limited capacity to report back

Grant fundraising requires that your organization have the ability to track program results and how grant funds are spent, and to report back to the foundation on both. A foundation’s reporting requirements can be labor intensive. Lay the groundwork for grant reporting during the application process so you don’t come up short when it’s time to report.

  • Work with your program staff to propose outcomes in your grant that make sense and are trackable. Don’t set yourself up for failure by promising glamorous outcomes you really can’t deliver.
  • During the application process, make sure that your program and finance colleagues know UP FRONT that they will need to help you with grant reporting when the time comes. Educate them on the process of winning and stewarding grant funds. It takes a village!
  • Stay in communication with your colleagues throughout the grant period, giving them plenty of notice about upcoming reporting deadlines when you’ll need them to produce information.

To summarize, you can improve your odds for foundation grant funding by taking time to:

  1. Build a strong Case for Support
  2. Do research and connect with a program officer to understand the foundation’s interest areas
  3. Understand the requirements for post-grant reporting and share expectations with your colleagues

How will you tweak your approach to foundation fundraising going forward?

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