Mistake #6 – No Pre-Proposal Contact

In a study of 10,000 federal grant proposals, the only variable that was statistically significant in separating the funded and rejected proposals was whether or not the grant writer made a pre-proposal contact with the funder.

Once you have determined some potential funders for your project, the importance of contacting them before you submit your proposal is paramount.

Consider these facts:

• According to one expert, your chances for success increase an estimated threefold when you contact a funding source prior to writing your proposal.
• Most government agencies welcome pre-proposal contacts. It saves them – and you – time.
• Private sponsors – like foundations and corporations – vary in their receptivity to a pre-proposal contact. Their preference often appears in the grant guidelines.

Pre-proposal contacts serve three primary purposes:

1. To verify the information you gathered during your search for a funder.
2. To gather more information that will help you customize your proposal to the preferences of the funder.
3. To make a positive first impression.

Here’s a bonus pre-proposal contact tip I got recently from the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance …

“Sometimes, it is useful to send the proposal summary to a specific agency official in a separate cover letter, and ask for review and comment at the earliest possible convenience. Always check with the Federal agency to determine its preference if this approach is under consideration.”

Mistake #7 – No Measurable Objectives

The hardest thing for most beginning grant writers to do is write clear, concise program objectives that are measurable. Writing “help our students be successful, sounds good on the surface, but doesn’t go deep enough. By contrast, stating “70% of students will complete the program and pass the GED exam” is better.

I hate to say it, but it’s like taking statistics in graduate school. No one likes it (well, except that one guy). But, it’s necessary to understand enough statistics to conduct your research and complete your master’s or doctoral thesis. Without it, you won’t graduate!

“Help our family members read and write” is admirable, but it will not get you funded. This is better … “Within one year, parents who participate in our adult literacy project will make one grade level improvement in their literacy skills, as measured by the Test of Adult Basic Education (TABE).”

This particular section of the proposal is “not” creative writing, folks. It’s “not” exciting or even glamorous. Learn the tricks of the trade here, though, and you’ll make it through this section of your proposal with the least amount of emotional and physical pain.

Mistake #8 – No Client or Funder Focus

Funders frequently ask, “Is this proposed project concerned more with the needs of the applicant or the needs of the client?”

Prospective donors seldom fund proposals written from the perspective of the needs of the applying agency. This doesn’t mean that you should ignore your agency’s needs – or your own.

The key is to present your project from your clients’ perspective rather than from the point of view of what your agency needs. Instead of requesting computers because your school has old ones or “needs them,” be creative.

Yes, you can be creative, here! Show how new computers will lead to increased student engagement, faster research time and improved test scores.

An experienced grant writer was much more emphatic when he admitted to one of my classes, “My mother once taught me that no one really cares about what you want or need. So, move beyond yourself and view the world through the funder’s ‘value glasses’ and what needs they want to see addressed. Write your proposal to address the funders’ interests, needs and values.”

Mistake #9 – No Track Record

What I’m about to say is a hard pill to swallow for newly formed nonprofits. It’s a Catch 22 … you can’t get money, unless you have a track record. You can’t get a track record until you get money.

Well, that’s not entirely true. There is a trick you can use. Here it is …

One of my favorite sayings is “The quickest way to success is to have success quickly.” This means two things: 1) the quickest way to get money is to demonstrate that you have been successful already, and 2) the quickest successes you’ll ever have are the small ones (do these first).

Let’s look at the first one … demonstrate your success. Success at what? Success at being a good steward of money can by proven by good accounting records. Success at serving your clients can by indicated by testimonials and self-evaluations. Success at fulfilling your mission can be demonstrated by updated strategic plans.

You’re not going to be successful at managing money right away, so forget that one. Instead, focus on the other measurements of success. Also, focus on #2 … delivering small successes that your agency can create quickly, with or without money. Do something, anything. Serve your clients. Document what works and what you are doing well.

In other words, if you don’t have a track record, be ready to get one quickly. Don’t forget to document your success, too.

Another proven strategy when you don’t have a track record is to “borrow another agency’s track record.” But, I’ll leave that for another conversation.

Mistake #10 – Unsupported Assumptions

An assumption is defined by the Encarta Dictionary as “something taken for granted” or a “belief without proof.” It is something we believe or presume to be true without having evidence or proof.

For example, when defining a societal problem – like poverty, hunger, racial tensions, educationally disadvantaged youth, seniors – many new grant writers assume that statements like “many seniors lack the necessary transportation to get their medical needs met” is good enough. But it is too general. “4,502 seniors surveyed in Clark County (82%) lack the necessary transportation to get their medical needs met” is much better. It is more accurate and specific.

Funders agree that for problem statements, a statistically supported one is far superior to an unsupported one.

When you’re looking for support for your ideas, use statistics whenever possible (at least one federal or state statistic, as well as one local statistic) from a credible source, like the Census Bureau, research study or professional journal. You can also use statements and quotes from authority figures and experts in your industry.

Get good at spotting “unsupported assumptions.” Use strategies to bolster them with evidence and proof. Then, add additional strong arguments (even emotional ones) to prove that your project is “worth funding.” In other words, when you’ve laid a foundation of agreed-upon facts and figures, it’s easier to construct a solid, fundable structure that will withstand opposition.

BONUS Mistake #11 – Stop After the 1st Try

Pay attention because this is the closest thing to a guarantee in grant writing that you'll ever hear ...

Imagine being a fly on the wall to this conversation ...

"Why do you think that the majority of people who are denied in their first try for a grant seldom, if ever, apply a second time?" asked one funder, an Arts Council selection committee member.

"Well, that's a good question," I replied. "My best guess is that the applicants never realize that re-applying is even an option. They take rejection personally and never find out why they are denied or how to improve their proposals."

“Good question,” I repled. “The applicants probably never realized that reapplying….)

"Yes, you're right." She added, "The interesting thing is that if applicants ask for feedback, we would give it to them. Then, if they revise their grants and submit them a second time, the chance we would fund them actually doubles."

Here's the truly amazing part ...

She continued, "If an applicant is denied that second time, but asks for feedback, improves her proposal, and re-submits the revised grant a third time, I can pretty much guarantee you that the proposal will be funded."

Wow! Did you hear that?

It's not "1-2-3 strikes, and you're OUT" like in baseball. It's actually "1-2 strikes, and you're IN!" Guaranteed!

Now, that's a whole new ball game.

No teacher, book, expert or mentor ever taught me that.

To view Part 1 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.