When you’re focused on writing grant proposals and trying to secure awards for your nonprofit, it can be really easy to zero in solely on your proposal. You worry about how well it’s written, whether or not your budget is easy to read and understand, if you forgot any typos, or if you’ve crafted solid arguments to make your case to the funder.
And don’t get me wrong. All of that is important.
But in your effort to really nail the proposal it is oh so easy to overlook some sneaky issues which can totally derail your efforts to get a grant. And sadly, most of them have little to do with the actual grant proposal document. Ignore them, though, and it won’t matter how well-written your grant proposal is. Grant makers will still see the underlying weakness and may pass over your organization for funding.
Here are the top 5 problems I see underlying most unsuccessful grant programs/strategies:
Never looking at the programs themselves
Listen, if you haven’t taken a hard look at how your programs are structured and how they actually operate then you may be dead in the water before you ever get started. Before you spend time writing a proposal or even a letter of intent, make sure that your programs are going to look like good investments to potential grant makers. You can do this by evaluating them on the same criteria that the funders themselves will look at:
- Is there a need for the program? Can you prove it?
- Is the program itself efficient in how it is delivered to the community?
- What are the goals, objectives, and outcomes of the program? Are they measurable?
- How will you collect data that clearly demonstrates these outcomes?
- Do you have a strategy for ongoing evaluation and iteration of the program?
- Is the program design and evaluation method based on best practices or on successful models which you’ve replicated?
I primarily work with arts and culture organizations. I do that because I genuinely love the arts and I believe in what they do. But many arts organizations are spectacularly bad at strategically approaching the items I outlined above.
And I get it. For many, many years it worked just fine to include ticket sales or attendance data and some warm, fuzzy stories about kids in your grant proposals and you would probably get that award. But things have evolved and if arts orgs want grant funding, they are going to have to evolve, too.
Today, you can still include great anecdotal stories and low-level data about attendance and ticket sales. But you better also include some more sophisticated data that deals with some of the items above as well. And this doesn’t just apply to program or project grants. Funders will still be looking at how sound your programs are even if you’re going after operating funds.
Never changing your programs
If you’ve been operating the same programs in the same exact way since dinosaurs walked the earth, then it’s safe to say that those programs are probably not nearly as effective as you think they are. Please understand, I’m not saying this to be rude or insensitive.
Things change. Cultures, communities, technologies, and people change. Your programs should be changing with them to ensure they are still efficient, cost-effective, and relevant to the needs and desires of your audience. Most importantly, if they never evolve then it’s very doubtful that they will continue to deliver maximum impact. And to grant makers, impact is king.
Take a strategic approach to this issue by creating data collection methods and sets of data that will help you analyze your programs’ effectiveness. Then set up a schedule on which you will routinely look at this data, think about what it means, and take appropriate action based on your conclusions.
This will help you with grant narratives by allowing you to speak truthfully about your ongoing process of only delivering quality programs to your community.
Letting the grant talk you into mission creep
First, a definition. “Mission Creep” is when you step outside of your organization’s mission and start doing things that aren’t relevant to it. Some nonprofits find themselves engaging in mission creep because it’s something a donor wanted, it’s a pet project of the ED or a board member, or they just saw a need and decided to fill it.
But sometimes nonprofits see a grant that isn’t quite a fit for them, but it’s close. So close that they talk themselves into altering a program or creating a whole new one just to have a shot at that grant money.
And it’s almost always a bad idea.
Here are just some of the ways doing this can backfire:
- You create a program you have no intention of continuing after the grant award runs out
- You agree to things that you don’t have the expertise, supplies, equipment, or staff to carry out
- Your community and audience are not interested in this type of offering and you get the grant, but the program is a dud
Just don’t do it. Stick to your mission and when a grant opportunity arises, ask yourself if the organization would need to really stretch to make this grant fit. Focusing on awards that would truly further your mission ensures that staff aren’t wasting precious time on foolhardy proposals and your organization as a whole has the required capacity to carry out the grants that are a good fit.
Serving as your own proofreader
This is a tough one because if you have a small staff or you’re on a particularly tight deadline then sometimes serving as your only proofreader can seem like your best or only choice. But I would ask you to resist it as much as possible.
After you’ve spent days and weeks staring at various drafts of letters, memorandums of understanding, proposals, and supporting documents your eyes will start to cross. You will inevitably get tired and you’re so close to the work that it will become increasingly easy to skip over obvious mistakes that are right in front of you.
And by the time you’re done with a full draft you probably know that program inside and out. You understand why it’s needed, how it will be implemented, and who it will serve. But that doesn’t always mean that a reviewer reading your proposal sees that as clearly as you do.
Do yourself a favor and enlist the help of someone else to proofread. If you don’t have any colleagues who can assist you, see if a friend or family member will read it. This can actually be better than asking someone who works with you for the precise reason that they won’t know much about your organization or its work (and the grant reviewer might not, either). If they don’t think your writing and data clearly makes the case for funding, then the grant maker probably won’t either.
Assuming you already know everything about a particular grant application
Let me use an example here. Where I live, there is a large grant maker which is one of the primary arts funders in the city. They have several grant opportunities which nonprofits can apply for each year. And if you’re an arts org in this area you probably apply every single year without fail.
But allowing familiarity with their grant application process to make you complacent would be a mistake.
See, this particular funder is constantly evolving their process. They look at which questions and data actually lead to better outcomes for the organizations they fund. They look at which questions are routinely misunderstood or what parts of their process are tedious for their applicants with little payoff. This means that almost every year the questions and requirements for proposals are different.
And they aren’t alone. Even if a grant maker doesn’t change their proposal process every year, it doesn’t mean they never will. So read that RFP or guideline packet carefully! Go over the questions and requirements with a fine-tooth comb every single time you apply.
I talk with staff at grant making organizations all the time and regularly attend funders panels at my local chapter of the Grant Professionals Association and one thing I hear every single time is that there are too many applicants who are not answering the questions that were asked and not fulfilling the stated requirements of the application.
Reading carefully through documentation on a grant you’ve applied for many times in the past can seem like a waste of time, but please trust me when I tell you that it’s not. And with so many grant makers citing it as a reason for denials, it will certainly set you apart from other organizations competing for the same grant dollars.
If you’ve read through this article and need a little help getting your programs and processes in order, check out these great resources: