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5 Mistakes Grant Seekers Make

Recently, I was a guest on Lauren Steiner’s “Great Grant Seeking Podcast” to talk about grant seeking. To prepare,  she asked me to come up with 5 mistakes that grant seekers often make with their proposals. I enjoyed the assignment and it reminded me of a blog post we published on this site long ago called 5 Tips for Writing Successful Grant Proposals. I hope you will listen to the full conversation I had with Lauren, but I also wanted to share my list of 5 Mistakes Grant Seekers Make. 


5 mistakes Grant Seekers Make

1. They aren’t necessarily making any. 

picard "it is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. that is not a weakness that is life."

When asked to make this list, I immediately thought of one of my favorite Star Trek quotes. The fundamental challenge with philanthropy is that there are too many proposals and we cannot fund them all. Hard choices are made and great programs are rejected every day for reasons beyond their control.

When we review a proposal, we focus on giving the authors access to a wide range of perspectives about their work so they can focus on their next grant. We usually cannot explain exactly why they did not receive a particular grant, and even if we could they can’t go back in time and apply again. 

2. Funder fit.

This is one of the more common topics during our report discussions. Many of the proposals we have reviewed were clearly not a good fit for the funder.


Some funders issue vague RFPs and it is not always clear what they are looking for. But others are very clear about what, where, why, and how they will fund. You should believe what they tell you and make sure to take your blinders off when assessing whether or not you are a fit for a funding opportunity.

3. The grant seekers did not put themselves in the shoes of their competitors or their funder.

Philanthropy is often conducted by professionals. Passionate founders without grant writing experience CAN be successful, but they should realize that their competitors have professional grant writers and their funders employ professional program officers who read many proposals at a time.

Joining the Unfunded List Evaluation Committee can help you build this perspective. We will assign a few proposals to you and you can review them as a neutral observer. This perspective will strengthen your own proposal writing. 

4. Unanswered questions.

Often, grant proposal writers are too close to the issue and fail to answer questions in a way that is accessible to someone who is new to the issue. Other times, they copy and paste language that is very convincing, but not at all related to what was asked.

When a grantmaker asks specific questions it means they are looking to evaluate you based on your answer to that question. You will be making it easy for them to put you in the no pile if you dodge a question.

Even with proposals that are more general and do not respond to specific questions, our evaluators often note in their feedback that there were things they wished to know but did not learn in the proposal. Our feedback reports can be valuable tools for making sure future drafts do not leave questions (written or unwritten) unanswered. 

5. Pie in the sky requests.

Too much money, odd budgets, no track record, huge salaries, nebulous or ill defined impact, and other unrealistic requests can be red flags to funders. We have seen it all. All of these proposals can be rewritten and funded with help, diligence, and care.

Make sure to listen to the full conversation with Lauren.
Great Grant Seeking Podcast Ep5 071123

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