The Most Overused Words in Grant-Writing

The Most Overused Words in Grantwriting

Every profession has its fair share of mind-numbing jargon. Whether it’s marketing/business development managing to turn the word “expert” into a three-letter acronym (SME, in case you were wondering), or legalese squeezing the phrase “inflicted serious bodily harm” out of “injured,” everybody loves to finesse the english language to create their own form of career-specific inside-baseball.

Grant writers often take the opposite direction, however: instead of inventing their own terminology, they get incredible mileage out of some pretty common words. The legend goes that the Inuit have three-hundred different words for snow (false btw). Well, grant writers have certainly found three-hundred different uses for the word “community,” “impact,” And “solutions.”

It’s hard to blame them for this overuse; in order to secure funding, they have to write page after page of copy explaining how they plan to solve a specific problem. And if we’re being honest, even the largest highest-reach organizations could probably explain their mission and implementation strategy in a couple of pages. What’s left after that is hours and hours deciding whether it’s better to use “programs” instead of “initiatives” and vice versa.

Given our experience writing and evaluating grants, we decided to create a list of the most used words in grant applications with a brief explainer included:

“Benchmarks” – Hey, it’s better than notches.

Challenges” – Oh, you thought were just going to waltz in here and create sustainable rooftop gardens for Title I city schools?

“Commitment” – Yes, you have staff and key partnerships, but how do we know they’re not lazy?

“Completed” – a more official way of saying “finished”

“Community” – the group of people you are trying to serve. Or the group of people whose lives will be improved as a result of you improving a specific subgroup of this overgroup, otherwise known as a “community.” Alternatively; any group of people or persons.

“Ensure” A word that is virtually unused in any other context other than proposal writing. You can laugh but just try using a synonym: “We will clinch the eradication of malaria by taking the following steps.” Not very catchy, isn’t it?

“Evaluation” – Is your program effective? Excuse me; is your initiative effective? Did you meet your benchmarks? Or your milestones? And don’t walk out of here before we hear the phrase “next steps.”

“Gap”  It is rumored that the etymology of the term “nonprofit” traces back to the aramaic word for “gap.”

“Key” – To be used in conjunction with other most-used words, ie “key stakeholders,” “key challenges,” and “key benchmarks.” Really anything except “key ensure,” but if you want to try that as well, go ahead.

“Impact” – I don’t know you, but I know that you’ve never submitted a grant proposal that didn’t have the word impact in it.

Need more advice? Submit to the Unfunded List now!

Unfunded List reviews funding proposals twice annually from small and mid-size nonprofits and social impact startups. The 200+ philanthropy experts on our evaluation committee give helpful and candid feedback about each grant proposal’s weaknesses & strengths. Then we publish the best proposals to our list that we circulate to a rolodex of foundations and philanthropists in the hopes that we can find some funding and partnerships for these amazing unfunded proposals. Unfunded List is always accepting proposals at

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7 thoughts on “The Most Overused Words in Grant-Writing”

  1. Great post! Word choice certainly does matter, and not just for grant writing. Every synonym has a slightly different, nuanced meaning to the rest of its synonyms so relying on a thesaurus without using the dictionary won t always give the most appropriate word choice.

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