If you are a nonprofit, you are probably all too familiar with the importance of writing and winning grants. Grants are a critical piece of most nonprofit budgets - and one you can’t afford to miss out on. Whether it’s a large, competitive Federal submission or a short Letter of Inquiry to a private family foundation, you never want to undermine your success with costly - but avoidable - mistakes.
So, here are 10 key mistakes every nonprofit should be sure to avoid on any grant application.
1. Not clearly articulating the need for your program ✍🏼
Every grant should clearly and compellingly define the need or problem that your program addresses. Is it a population with an exceptionally high rate of diabetes? Lack of access to healthy, affordable foods? Kids falling behind in school due to lack of reliable internet? Whether you have 30 pages to lay out a comprehensive needs assessment, or just a paragraph to highlight some key facts, you should be able to articulate a compelling and accurate picture of the need for your program.
2. Not clearly articulating how your program uniquely responds to this need ✔️
Even if you’ve defined the need, does your proposed program address that specific need?
Every grant should have a well-thought-out program description that makes crystal clear the connection between the need and what you are doing about it.
How does the program specifically address the prevalence of diabetes? How does it resolve food needs? How does it get kids internet access or connect them to tutoring? Be clear about exactly what you are doing to solve the problem - don’t force the reviewer to infer the connection.
3. Not clearly articulating how you will use the funds 💵
In addition to being specific about the ways this program uniquely solves the specific problem you’ve identified, don’t forget to be specific about how you will use the funds. Are you hiring someone to provide diabetes self-management classes held in a specific language? Is the grant paying for food or for internet? Even if the grant does not require a detailed, line-item budget justification about how each dollar will be spent, make sure to at least generally describe in the narrative how the money will be used so the funder understands.
And of course, always make sure that the proposed use is permissible for this grant – double-check the funder’s website, grant guidelines, or government agency’s Notice of Funding Opportunity for what they will and will not fund.
4. Not clearly articulating why you are the organization to address this need 🏢
Although you know your organization will be uniquely amazing at implementing the program, have you made that clear to the funder? Make sure your grant clearly states not just why your organization is great in general, but specifically why it is the right organization to implement this program. What is it about your specific history, staff, board, location, target population, services, model, or other features that makes you perfectly suited to meeting the described need? For example, do you have a decades-long track record of working in the education space? Do you have several bilingual certified diabetes educators on staff? Whatever makes your organization uniquely positioned to do this work should be highlighted in your application.
5. Not understanding the funder’s priorities 💡
Maybe your program is extremely well-aligned with the need, and you are phenomenal at articulating this and the way your organization is perfectly suited to meet the need – that’s great!
However, if initiatives like yours do not fit within your funder’s priorities, your grant still will not be funded. Take the time to carefully review everything that is available to you: the funder’s website and 990 if applicable, including its mission statement and any strategic priorities; the grant application instructions; and any webinars, FAQs, or technical assistance for applicants. For state and federal grants that publish a scoring rubric, make sure to study it so you understand how well you are likely to be scored – sometimes it may become clear that you won’t stand a chance.
And of course, ensure that you not only align with the funder’s priorities but also their eligibility requirements. There’s no point in writing a grant for which you aren’t eligible!
6. Not building a relationship with the funder 🤝🏽
Even better than just trying to figure out what the funder wants from their website is actually hearing it directly from them. When possible, have a call with the funder in advance to build rapport and understand whether your program is a fit. You may gain valuable insight into what might strengthen your application and make it really align with the funder’s mission, grantmaking priorities, and portfolio. And in some cases, you may learn that your grant would not be a fit, or you would be better off applying for a different program or a different grant cycle or priority area.
Having a call to build rapport and gain insight is usually not possible for state or federal grants, but even in those cases, do not hesitate to ask questions on webinars or send in questions to their FAQ or technical assistance contact. You may gain additional information to shape your application – or at least avoid any obvious missteps.
7. Not following directions 🔀
This should go without saying, but always read and follow all the instructions! It is far too common for applicants to miss instructions that are buried, whether that is a word count or page limit, the need for two copies of something, or a required attachment. Especially for state and federal grants, treat all instructions as sacred and never deviate from them. If anything in the directions is unclear, reach out to the funder for clarification.
To be sure nothing is missed, try to go through the instructions very carefully more than once– at a minimum at the beginning of writing a grant, when finishing the draft, and again at the very end before submitting. You may catch things in a later review that were not initially noticed!
8. Not giving yourself enough time 🕙
With so many competing priorities and not enough staff capacity for grant writing, it’s all too easy to let proposals fall through the cracks or get put on the back burner. Nonetheless, try to give yourself plenty of time for all aspects of the application process. This includes talking to the program staff about the actual staffing, implementation, and projected outcomes of the program; carving out time to talk to the funder or participate in TA sessions; working with the finance team on budgets and financial documents; building in time for review by any other departments, higher-ups, or external partners as appropriate; carefully proofreading and assembling the final submission; and accounting for mailing time if it is a paper submission.
9. Not keeping track of conversations, deadlines, renewals, and other information 📅
It is much easier to give yourself and your team enough time if you have a system to keep track of when your grants are due. And it’s not just submission deadlines that are worth keeping track of – it’s everything from your grant prospect list to information gleaned from your funder conversations to due dates for reports and renewals. You don’t want to miss those reporting or renewal deadlines!
Find a system that works for you, be it a spreadsheet, productivity software like Asana, or grant-specific tools like GrantHub. Used wisely and consistently, any of these systems can be incredibly useful for tracking all aspects of the grants lifecycle.
10. Straying from your mission, vision, values, or strategy 🌟
All the prior mistakes have been about tactical missteps that can make it less likely that you’ll win your grant. But even if you do win your grant, there’s one big mistake that’s essential to avoid and it’s a strategic one rather than a tactical one: make sure that you are not proposing something in a grant that strays far from your organization’s mission, vision, values, or strategic priorities.
While it may be tempting to chase dollars and propose programs that align with a funder’s priorities, never do so at the expense of your own organization’s mission and vision. Your mission, vision, and strategic priorities are your organization’s “north star” and activities and programs that don’t align with them shouldn’t be pursued, even if they might be fundable, as it won’t serve your organization in the long term.
Instead, try to propose programs that are at the intersection of where the need is, what your organization is suited to doing, and what funders want to fund. This is the area where your organization will be able to shine – in your grant writing and in your impact!
Givebutter made a $100 donation to Rachel's charity of choice, A Safe Place, for her guest blog contribution.
Rachel Sacks, MPH has nearly 15 years of experience writing successful grants for health and human services nonprofits. As President of Leading Healthy Futures, she helps her clients conceptualize, define, and actualize new ideas for grant opportunities and partnerships, and is adept at translating complex information into easily understandable language for lay audiences.