The Five Most Common Proposal Writing Mistakes

Pat Richter has been affiliated with the Support Center since 2002 in many capacities, including as a volunteer facilitator of workshops, affiliated consultant, C.O.O. interim, and most recently the Interim Director of Consulting. She consults with nonprofits and foundations both large and small. She has worked with a multitude of organizations to complete organizational assessment, including the PSEG Foundation and the Horizon Foundation. 

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Written by Pat Richter

It takes a long time to master proposal writing, especially if you are a program manager newly encouraged to be part of the development team.  Without a mentor or some workshops to understand the art and science of it, streams of rejections are in your future.  But how about some tips about the most common mistakes newly minted ‘grant writers’ make?  At least you can avoid these!

Mistake number one – being a bad fit with the priorities of the funder.  The odds are slim that you can convince, on paper, a foundation to fund something that is not in their DNA to fund.  Maybe with a strong personal connection, it’s possible, but trying to fit a square peg into a round hole will get your proposal deep-sixed fast.

Mistake number two – making a weak case for the project.  Just because your organization wants to provide a service does not automatically infer a community need.  Losing funding (especially from a government source) and needing a band-aid is not a compelling reason for a funder to jump to the rescue.  Another common ‘needs assessment’ misfire is using this section to explain what the organization wants to do rather than share evidence of people suffering, community deficits, or unrealized potential.   Lastly, overly general statistics will not lead to the funder to respect your organization’s deep understanding of an issue and its impact.    

Mistake number three – using the same style, tone, and content across the board with all types of funders.  There are differences in the ‘cultures’ of corporate foundations, family foundations, and private foundations and varying methods of reviewing and choosing the best ideas.  Learn as much as you can about the kinds of projects that excite prospective funders based on their track record and learn to present your case in several different ways depending on the audience.

Mistake number four – rambling and vague goals and objectives.  While many funders misuse these terms, our job is not to educate them but to figure out what they mean and what they want.  Goals and objectives are one sentence each.  Goals show vision (like mission statements) and are not measurable, but inspirational.  Objectives describe the results or impacts of a project or program.

Mistake number five –  budget trip-ups.  Many funders are impatient with math errors in budgets, items included that were clearly listed as not allowable, and surprise items that were not mentioned in the project implementation section.  Make the budget tell a story in numbers, and the methods section tells that same story in words; two formats for telling a similar story in harmony with each other.

These are the big five, but other mistakes include applying for funding even though your type of organization is not eligible, not following directions, using an obvious boiler-plated proposal, or creating a proposal that is exhausting to read.

Here are two real-life examples from program staff tasked with writing proposals:

Early on, I spent almost no time trying to understand the “fit” between the way our organization matched up with the type of organizations and programs the funder wanted to fund.  I wasted so much time writing proposals that weren’t even seriously considered. We are a domestic violence agency providing shelter for battered women but we don’t do “advocacy”.  On one occasion, I wasted time and submitted twice to a foundation that only funded “advocacy” in the domestic violence arena, but not services.  Once I understood this and spent more time on the upfront research to determine our fit, I wasted a lot less time and saw much better results.

On several occasions, my proposals were rejected because the funder didn’t understand why certain expenses were included in my budget.  I realized that I sometimes did not discuss all expense elements in my methods section (e.g. In one proposal I didn’t discuss the outreach component of my project in the proposal, so the funder did not understand why I had expenses in for media advertising and flyers).  Now I make sure to go back to be sure to match all budget elements to the methods and, where possible, I include a budget narrative to further clarify how expenses match project activities.  
To learn more about grant proposal writing mistakes and workshops on mastering proposal writing from the Support Center, contact Carolyn Champ, Associate Executive Director. Or visit our full events calendar for upcoming workshops related to outcome measurement.

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