Nonprofit Network Blog

Grant Proposals: Avoid These Common Mistakes

Thursday, May 05, 2022 2:53 PM | Tracey Wilson (Administrator)


Chris Smith
Capacity Builder

A large portion of my career in the nonprofit and public sector has been working for funding organizations, both private and public. These roles have afforded me the opportunity to acquire experience and insight as both a reviewer of grant proposals as well as one who prepares proposals for submission to other funders. I’ve also taught grant proposal development courses at the university level and based on my experience, here are a few observations that may serve to improve your grant proposal development skills.

  • Follow Basic Instructions

 This may seem obvious, but most funders provide detailed instructions regarding submission timelines, grant award announcements, and most importantly, the format of the proposal itself. Review these carefully. Many funding organizations will screen out proposals that don’t follow basic RFP guidelines. This means that your proposal may not be reviewed simply because the proposal did not include a cover page, contact information, or because it exceeded the stated page limit. 

  • Budget

 As I gained experience as a proposal reviewer, I learned to first read the abstract or executive summary and then flip to the budget. This often saved me from spending precious time reading the full narrative of a proposal that was not supported by a budget that reasonably reflects the activities outlined in the proposal. If the funder expressly requires a specific financial range for the proposal, make sure that your request does not exceed the stated capacity of the funder. Second, check your math. Just like spelling and grammatical errors, numbers that don’t add up make a poor impression on the reviewer. Finally, unless otherwise suggested by the funder, make sure that your total request is in line with the operating budget of your organization. A grant request that is double, triple, or quadruple the current operating budget of your organization is more likely to be turned down. Funders often want to see some previous capacity of successfully managing sizeable program budgets.

  • Poor Writing

 Again, this may seem obvious, but nothing raises doubts in the mind of a proposal reviewer like poorly edited prose. Grant proposals are often the first impression of your organization to a potential source of funding. It is imperative that the proposal writer prepares a document that is well-structured, and that is free of spelling and grammatical errors. 

Funding proposals should be easy to read. The reader should not have to wade through overly dense text to understand the ideas presented in your proposal. My other job is teaching at a university. When I grade assignments, well-written papers that flow well and are free of structural, grammatical, and spelling errors overwhelmingly tend to get higher grades. Likewise, well-written proposals have a higher likelihood of getting funded.

Include citations and references. A grant proposal resembles a research paper in that much of the information that supports the problem statement should come from external sources. Citing peer-reviewed research from credible sources serves to strengthen the case that you are making.  A simple rule of thumb is that if it didn’t come from your own personal experience or opinion, you must cite the source and include it in your references.

If you don’t have a strong writer on staff, consider keeping a grant writer on retainer. In either case, it may be wise to contact the English or journalism department at your local community college or university. Faculty members are often available to serve as an external editor of funding proposals as well as other documents that will be seen outside of your organization. And if you are a Nonprofit Network member, you can take advantage of your member benefits.

  • Logic Model

 Include a logic model. Most funders require a logic model. And if the guidelines don’t mention a logic model, I’d include one anyway. A logic model is a graphic depiction of the flow and structure of your proposed program, project, or service. It’s essentially a conceptual road map of your project and should display inputs, activities, outputs, outcomes, and the overall impact of the project. A well-constructed logic model should align with and even further illustrate the narrative of your project description section. There are many ways to prepare a logic model. When I teach grant writing classes, I often refer students to the Logic Model Development Guide published by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation

  • Evaluation and Sustainability

 From years of reviewing and preparing grant proposals, it has been my experience that the evaluation section and the sustainability sections are often the weakest components of the proposal. Many grant seekers typically write these sections last, which means that they may be an afterthought. This is usually evident to the proposal reviewer. In the case of the evaluation section, start thinking of how the program or project should be evaluated as the program design takes form. As you develop the activities and outputs, you should determine how program data will be collected, how it will be analyzed, and how outcomes will be presented. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation has published the W.K. Kellogg Foundation Evaluation Handbook, which can provide a clear framework for designing an evaluation plan that impresses grant proposal reviewers. 

Finally, the sustainability plan is often the hardest section to prepare. The funder is essentially asking you to project into a not-too-distant future when their funding is no longer available to support program operations. This question can seem frustrating and even unfair to those who are seeking initial funding. However, from the perspective of a funder it makes sense. Why fund a great project that will cease operations in a year or two?

The key to writing an honest sustainability plan is to vividly enumerate the ways in which the program or project can reasonably obtain resources to continue services beyond the grant period.

This may include:
(1) absorbing some of the program costs into the operational budget
  (2) individual donors
(3) fee-for-service
(4) social entrepreneurship
(5) annual fund
(6) major gifts
(7) corporate sponsorships
(8) seeking other grant funding

In most cases, a successful sustainability plan will include more than one tactic. If you want to learn more, please plan to join us on Wednesday May 18th at 10 AM for our new workshop, 
Grant Writing Basics: Tips to be Successful 


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