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Proposal Writing - What Not to Do


Grants and Research Office

Proposal Writing - What Not to Do

How to...Ensure your Grant Application Gets Denied

By Susannah Mayhall, Grants Development and Administration Coordinator, Grants Office, LLC, smayhall@grantsoffice.com

In today's competitive grants market, there are a variety of sure-fire ways to get your grant proposal tossed into the rejection pile.

1.     Don't follow the instructions.

This is the easiest way to ensure that your grant proposal won't get funded.  By leaving out required attachments, going over the page limit, using margins or fonts that aren't allowed, incorrectly identifying narrative portions, or ignoring any other requirements from the guidance, your application is sure to get rejected.  In these lean times, grant competition levels are at an all-time high.  Reviewers faced with thousands of applications that request millions (or even billions) over the funding that is available will be quick to toss out applications that clearly failed to follow the instructions.  In order to stand a chance of getting your grant, be sure to take extra caution that you follow every detail laid out in the guidance, whether related to spacing, heading titles, or content.

2.     Wait until the last minute to develop project details.

You might think reviewers won't notice that your objectives, goals, and outcomes were thrown together in a few hours the day of the submission, but you're probably wrong.  When compared with proposals that were developed over a long period of time and are obviously not only well-thought out, but well-aligned with the grant program, a hastily drawn proposal will lose its competitive edge.  Two ways to give yourself as much project development time as possible: 1) Study annual federal programs' guidance documents from previous years and begin mapping your project well in advance and 2) Begin brainstorming project details as soon as the official guidance is released, rather than waiting until a few days (or hours!) before you must submit.

3.     Use as little detail as possible in your budget.

Just as quickly-written narratives will be unlikely to demonstrate well-planned projects, budgets with non-specific, rounded numbers and categories simply do not convey to reviewers that the project is shovel-ready and likely to be successful.  Instead of requesting $200,000 for technology equipment, be as specific as possible by getting actual quotes and describing the equipment you need to buy and, if a budget narrative is required, that item's relevance to your project.

4.      Include vague and elusive supporting materials.

You may receive supporting materials such as letters of support or commitment from a variety of people or groups.  Frequently, applicants will receive and include letters from politicians, vendors, or other entities that only show very general support of the project.  Unfortunately, these letters rarely hold water with reviewers because of their vague language and lack of information concerning how the writer will support the project.  Find partners and supporters who will provide specific contributions to the project, particularly those with whom you have a track record of successful collaboration.

5.     Confuse reviewers with flowery language and illogical flow.

If you have to pull out a thesaurus or dictionary to word your narrative, it's likely that the reviewer will too.  Don't confuse your audience by using circular logic, jumping from thought to thought with no connection, or using unfamiliar or decorative language.  While such writing surely has its place, grant narratives are persuasive in nature and should serve to convince the reader that your project makes sense, will be a good investment, and will accomplish the grant program's goals.  If the reviewer has to read part of an application more than once for it to make sense, that application will be an easy one to toss away in favor of a clearly laid-out project.

6.     Miss the deadline.

Even easier than not following instructions - if proposals are due at 4:30 p.m. and you click submit at 4:31, your application will go straight to the rejected heap without ever touching a reviewer's hands.  In today's increasingly electronic submission formats, the difference of a few seconds can keep your application from being on time or late.  Don't wait until the last minute to submit - if at all possible, shoot for a day or two in advance so that you won't get sidetracked by technical difficulties or other last-minute distractions that could cause you to miss the deadline.

7.     Make promises you can't keep.

When trying to increase the competitiveness of your application, you might be tempted to go overboard on details such as how much you will contribute in matching funds or the degree to which your project is anticipated to impact your target population.  However, if you do get selected for funding and can't meet the promises set forth in your application, you could very well lose your funding and your chances of applying to future rounds.  Be aggressive but realistic so those promises don't come back to haunt you when you're implementing the project.

8.     Write a "shopping cart" proposal.

We all have "wish lists" of items that we either need or want, be it technology equipment, materials, or personnel.  However, grants are different from loans or lines of credit in that they are provided in order to accomplish certain aims.  If your proposal lacks concrete details concerning how your project aligns to the grant program, or provides a laundry list of equipment in the budget that lacks a clear function in relation to the program goals, reviewers are not likely to view your project as a good choice for accomplishing the goals of the grant.  Start with the programmatic aspects and choose budget items that will help you implement the project, instead of starting with a product and failing to develop a well-planned project.

9.      Use a template proposal.

Similar to failing to follow directions, using the same template narrative for every program to which you apply will usually not result in a responsive proposal.  Grant applications are hard work - each one will take time and effort to complete.  Make sure that effort is utilized to the greatest extent by crafting responsive, individual proposals for each unique grant program.

10.    Apply to programs without researching them first.

Likewise, because of the time it should take to prepare a solid proposal, ensure that you are spending your valuable time on programs that really align with your project and are more likely to fund it.  Although there are never guarantees of funding, you are more likely to be successful by putting a good amount of effort into a smaller number of well-aligned grant programs than you are quickly shooting out applications to every program you come across without taking the time to research the program's goals, typical award amount, and past funded projects, if available.

When applying to federal grant programs in today's ultra-competitive landscape, the odds are rarely in your favor.  Avoid the easy, common mistakes above to put yourself on the track to getting funded.

From the May 2012 issue of FUNDED, a Grants Office, LLC, publication available at http://www.grantsoffice.com/efunded.


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