The process of grant writing can be an intimidating one. Whether you are an experienced nonprofit leader or a newly hired staffer, the prospect of sitting down to write a grant proposal may feel at times downright paralyzing. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by application requirements, fear a fast-approaching deadline, or simply get a good, old-fashioned case of writer’s block.

Rest assured, you are not alone! Nonprofits of every size and scope struggle with the same core issues when it comes to creating a winning grant proposal, and often make the same basic mistakes in approach or execution. To help you on your way, we’ve created a list of 5 Common Mistakes to Avoid on Grant Proposals. As with many other realms in life, sometimes it’s easiest to begin by learning what not to do. So let’s save you the pain of trial-and-error and get started!


Mistake #1

Writing Too Much

Attention spans these days are shortening. The foundation trustees who review your grant applications are no exception. More and more, foundations are moving the proposal process online, which often means grant portals with restrictive word, character, or page count limits. Even if you are not restricted in how much you can write, always aim to keep your language concise and to the point. At the end of the day, foundations want to know who you are, why you exist, and why your programs and services matter. So cut the fluff and get down to it!


Mistake #2

Losing Your “Voice”

So often, in an effort to stay within the lines of a proposal’s requirements, we lose our “voice” and the energy we bring to the work is sucked dry. We dread beginning the process of grant writing, we procrastinate, and ultimately we finish with a hollowed-out, soulless shell of a narrative (ok, perhaps I am being a bit dramatic). Even with the need to stay concise, it is critical that any grant proposal you submit has a clear story to tell. Why are you passionate about your organization’s mission and programs? When do you feel most connected to the work you do? This is your chance to inject the narrative with soul. Your honesty, and your own unique voice and perspective, is what will draw the reader in and allow them see the work through your eyes. If you show you care, the reader will care too.


Mistake #3

They Asked for Apples, You Gave Them Oranges

Grant writing is hard, repetitive, and often tedious. Sometimes in our efforts to do everything we need to do to submit a grant proposal, we forget that the foundation we are soliciting has a specific purpose and focus area. It’s important to remember that when we submit a grant application, a group of human beings and/or cyborgs (jk!) will ultimately read what we wrote. Our proposal must resonate clearly with what the foundation trustees care about, not just what we care about. Making a clear connection between your organization’s mission and services and the goals of the foundation you’re applying to is perhaps the most fundamental element of any successful grant request.

That’s why it’s so critical to find foundation “prospects” (potential donors to your organization) who naturally align with your organization’s mission, vision, and goals. Making the case for partnership should be seamless, easy, and reiterated throughout your request. If it feels like a stretch when you’re writing it, then it probably is one and – in that case – you’re probably best served seeking funding elsewhere.


Mistake #4

Cutting the Budget. Literally.

Oh my – the budget. Just writing it gives me sympathetic chills. We all know that budgets are super important aspects of any grant proposal and yet how we fear clicking open that half-finished/outdated worksheet file! Budget neglection (our new phrase of the day) is a common problem because foundations usually have a very specific idea of what they want to see in a proposal budget and only rarely do they share those ideas with prospective nonprofits. Therefore, if you are not provided with a budget template for an application you are working on, you are left to your own devices.

Step one to avoiding this common mistake is to begin to view budgets as an important piece of your organization’s story and a concise complement to your application narrative. If you take the time to: A) Build a budget that is “all inclusive” with expenses and is consistent with the day-to-day realities of your program or organization; B) Demonstrate that you have a solid revenue plan by including all your anticipated sources of funding; and C) Clearly show how you would spend the dollars of the foundation you are approaching, well then – you are officially a golden ray of sunshine and you win at budgets!

(Side note: We have lots more to say on this topic. More to come in future posts!)


Mistake #5

A Change Isn’t Gonna Come

The history of foundations in America has showed time and again that these are organizations that view themselves not simply as donors to nonprofit organizations, but as changemakers. With the right investments in the right organizations at the right time, foundations seek to be the levers that move the world. Sure, I may be drastically oversimplifying this and most certainly I am giving far too many foundations far too much credit, but the perspective is key to avoiding one of our most common mistakes: neglecting to explain what will change if a grant is awarded.

Our proposal narrative and our budget are both telling stories about impact — here is what will be different in the world if you give my organization money (narrative), and here’s exactly how we will spend that money (budget). A single foundation grant may be only one small piece of an overall revenue puzzle for your nonprofit, but your charge is to make the case for the importance of that piece. Phrases like, “your support will ensure…” or “with your grant, we will be able to expand/improve …” are good places to start. Of course there’s a lot more to say here about outputs, outcomes, and evaluation – which all have important roles – but from the 10,000 foot perspective, what we really care about is helping the foundation understand that their support is changing the world (no matter how small the change).

Other tips & Tools

 Stay tuned for our upcoming post on 5 Practical Tips for Grant Writing Success!

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