Mistake #1 - Don’t Follow Instructions

One of the top two reasons funders give for denying proposals is because applicants fail to follow instructions.

Now, before you disregard this one as being “too simple,” take a look at one federal government agency’s instructions. Their guidelines include:

• When sending the application packet, do not use staples, paper clips or fasteners. Nothing should be attached, stapled, folded or pasted.
• All type should be printed in Times New Roman, 12-point font.
• All margins must be at least one inch and only one column per page.
• Page limits for the narrative and any appendices will be explained in the notice of funding availability and must be strictly followed.
• Do not use heavy or lightweight paper, or any material that cannot be copied using automatic copying machines.

These guidelines come from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). SAMHSA prefaces their list of instructions with the statement, "If you do not adhere to these requirements, your application will be screened out and returned to you without review." Ouch!

Mistake #2 – No Match

One of the top complaints from grant funders is the huge percentage of proposals they receive that do not even match their funding priorities.

As many as eight out of ten proposals don't fit. That's 80%!

If you want to set yourself up for failure in grant writing, be amongst this 80%.

Here are two top reasons funders give for poor matches:

1. Stopping short. Grant seekers like you and I often do keyword searches on the Internet. Everyone does it, right? The Web is easy and fast. Let's look at an example. Say that a particular foundation shows up in your results. Instead of delving deeper into the funder's description to see exactly what their priorities mean, novice grant writers stop too soon. They submit a proposal without further research. Big mistake.

2. Failure to look at prior grantees. Another reason for the high percentage of off target proposals is that grant seekers often fail to contact prior grantees. It's not your fault, though. No one taught you to first seek out agencies and groups who have received grants from your target funder in the past. Contact one past grantee. Quickly, you will discover if your project is on target or not.

Mistake #3 – Too Late

According to the Catalog for Domestic Assistance’s guidelines for grant writers, “deadlines for submitting applications are often not negotiable. They are usually associated with strict timetables for agency review.” This means that if your application is late, you can expect that it will be returned without being reviewed.

Here are some of the top reasons for being late:

• The dog ate my proposal. (Just kidding! It would be fun, though, to find out the top excuses funders get for being late.)

• Not enough time set aside to develop letters of support with related public and private agency partners. It usually takes several months to secure these, since items of value (i.e., buildings, staff, services) have to be negotiated and approved by boards and committees. TIP: Successful grant writers develop strategies to generate proposal support from a large number of community groups before they get started.

• Spending too much time on less significant parts of the proposal. For example, if the final selection criteria for your grant allocates 5 points to the “Summary” section of the proposal and 35 points to the “Problem” section, which one would you give more time and attention? The one with the most importance in the eyes of the funder, right? In this case, the answer is … the Problem section.

• Not enough time available in your job. A colleague complained that it took her 40 hours to write a proposal and took her away from her usual job responsibilities as a librarian. “How much money did you get?” I asked. “$40,000,” she replied. “A return of $1,000 an hour is a pretty good hourly rate don’t you think?” She smiled.

• Poor maximization of funder clocks. Remember: “Watch multiple funders’ clocks for the best time to submit proposals.”

For example, the federal government’s fiscal year begins October 1 and ends September 30. That means money has to be spent during that period. So any government grant funds received, even if received late in the year, must be spent before September 30.
The federal clock also tells us:

• A few months before publicizing guidelines, federal agencies often request input in any current programs and their rules, as well as work with applicants by phone or in technical assistance workshops.

• After going public, fed’s typically give you 4-8 weeks to write and turn in your proposal.

• Federal agencies often take approximately 4-6 weeks to review proposals before notices of approval or rejection are sent out.

Mistake #4 – Reinvent the Wheel

In my first grant 22 years ago, our relatively small college (10,000 students) did not have a system in place to pre-test and post-test the English language skills of immigrants. I intuitively knew that someone, somewhere had a solution to my problem. I just didn’t know who or where.

With a little research, I discovered that our neighboring state, California, had developed Comprehensive Adult Student Assessment Systems (CASAS) to provide valid competency and standards-based assessment for adult students who speak English as a second language. After speaking with the CASAS people, I was convinced that their system would work for our students, as well.

There was no need for us to develop our own assessments, since CASAS had already done all the work. All I had to do was justify using CASAS in the Evaluation Section of the proposal and include the cost in the Budget. The justification was that it was more cost-effective. This one strategy added credibility to our grant and saved us time and money.

No sense in reinventing the wheel, if you don’t have to, right? In every case that I know of, it has been much faster, easier and even cheaper to research what has been done in a given area of interest and build on the successes of others rather than start from scratch.

Mistake #5 – 1st Draft with 1st Draft Errors

OK, this is one of my biggest gripes. After reading tens of thousands of proposals, this is the one thing just rubs me the wrong way. Here it is …

When I read a proposal that has basic spelling and grammar errors that could have been caught by at least one person going over the proposal before submitting it, I cringe. There, I said it!

Now, other than using the spell-checker on your computer, here are 12 key components that any reviewer can look for in your 1st draft that you can fix before you submit your proposal (I’ll be forever grateful, too!):

1. Does the outline (format) of the proposal match the format required by the funding source? Yes or No
2. Does it have few, if any, unsupported assumptions? Yes or No
3. Does it include quotes from authority figures or clients, and/or statistical evidence like Census data to support assumptions and statements? Yes or No
4. Is it neat, clean and easy to read? Yes or No
5. Is it brief, clear and concise? Yes or No
6. Is it “positive” in its focus? Yes or No
7. Does it have a professional look and layout, with plenty of space? Yes or No
8. Does it establish the credibility of the applicant and include a proven track record of successful projects? Yes or No
9. Are the program objectives measurable? Yes or No
10. Does it include a timeline for completing program activities? Yes or No
11. Does the budget include a brief narrative that can be aligned with the objectives? Yes or No
12. What is your overall evaluation of the proposal?


Download A Generic Evaluation Form – Click Here

To view Part 2 of 2 of 10 Biggest Grant Writing Mistakes to Avoid, click here .

Author's Bio: 

With a 93% grant success rate and $1.2 Billion in grant funding for over 3,000 students, the Grant Professor Phil Johncock is the “world’s greatest grant writer” according to Mark Victor Hansen, co-creator of the Chicken Soup for the Soul. Check out the Grant Professor’s 3-day Grants Conference and How to Create a Grant Readiness 3-Ring Binder for U.S. Nonprofits, as well as Grant Professional Certification (GPC) Exam Prep course for experienced grant writers.