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Five Common Grant Mistakes

Updated: Oct 6, 2023

Full disclosure: I have made every single one of these mistakes. I can guarantee that every person who has ever written a grant has made these mistakes. Without further ado, here are five common mistakes made while writing and submitting grants.

1. Submitting a Proposal Late

In a previous post, I talked about the chaotic nature of grant seeking, and funders changing deadlines is definitely part of it. I can think of multiple occasions when I was gearing up to write a grant for a client that we have sought for year after year, and I didn't check the funders deadline 60 days in advance. When I sat down to get started, I realized that the deadline was moved up a month, and I had less than 24 hours to write, edit and review with my client. Unfortunately, we missed the mark - by 6 minutes. The client reached out to the foundation as they had a long-standing relationship, and they were funded - $25,000 less than they have been before. We considered that to be one of the luckiest outcomes. I strongly urge you to check the deadlines 60 days out to avoid making this entirely preventable mistake.

2. Poor Editing and Writing

I once spoke to a grants program manager at a foundation who told me that 90% of the applications that cross her desk are poorly written, and those poorly written applications go straight into the no pile. We've all been rushing to meet the deadline, and I know I certainly have worked past midnight more times than I am willing to admit. What happens when you rush or write while sleep/food/water deprived is that simple grammatical errors fall through the cracks, and you're not submitting the best application for your organization. Take the time, check the deadline and be fully alert.

3. Not Following Instructions

I have read my fair share of RFPs in my 30 year career, and I can tell you that a sizable chunk of them have been poorly written, cut and pasted together from previous RFPs and even outright contradictory. In times like those, I have attended the webinar and asked questions, emailed the contact person and picked up the phone to get clarity. But there have been times where I was on deadline (sense a theme here?), and I figured that I could decipher the instructions and submit on time. Oh have I been wrong. I have uploaded attachments the instructions clearly said did not apply to the organization I was writing for. I have included pictures in narratives that explicitly said no pictures. I have gone one (two and three) pages over the limit. Again, all of this could have been avoided by taking the time to carefully read the instructions and do as asked.

4. Submitting a Cold Proposal

I have preached about stewardship on this blog. It is so important to warm up a funder before sending in a proposal. If they don't know you and you don't know them, there is a statistically smaller chance of you being funded. Now, this is something that the Executive Director and/or Development Director needs to do, so how does this mistake apply to ghost grant writers? A major part of our job is grant management. That includes managing the deadlines, reports, requirements and checking in with our client. I have written and submitted grants for clients assuming they reached out to the funder like they said they would months before. (What is that saying about assuming?) It slipped their mind. It slipped my mind to check in. And they didn't get funded. Stewardship is really that important.

5. Not Doing Research

Imagine this, you've found a wonderful new funder who seems like they are a perfect fit. They are interested in funding organizations who feed hungry babies AND puppies AND who also work with youth with disabilities. Your organization does all three! You eagerly write and submit a grant - only to be told that your organization doesn't meet their requirements (clearly written on their website). This is a very similar mistake to not following instructions, however this differs in that checking the funder's requirements happens at the research phase - 90+ days from the deadline. I have had situations where in the fine print there was a small phrase that eliminated a client, such as they don't fund schools or in addition to having an operating budget of X, you must also have an endowment of X. It's something that can be easily missed if you're not taking the time and consideration to carefully read everything on a funder's website.

All of these mistakes are entirely preventable. All of these mistakes can be avoided if you manage your time well. At Sharpshooter, we employ a 90-60-30 system. 90 days out from the deadline, we are completing the preliminary, which entails checking the funder's requirements and notating all the necessary attachments. At 60 days, we double check the deadline and touch base with our client to ensure that they have reached out or are planning to and to nail down the ask amount and the program. At 30 days we begin writing the grant with plenty of time for editing and reviewing with the client with the goal to submit 14 days before the deadline.

Have we done our 90-60-30 process for every single grant every single time? No. Things happen! Staff go on maternity leave, someone's husband gets sick or we get caught up the chaotic grant seeking process that we miss a step.

Mistakes do (and will) happen. Even if you have a system in place. The best piece of advice I can give other than creating and sticking to a time management system is be flexible and be honest and transparent with your client.



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