The proposal story is a simple one: Find a funding opportunity. Write the proposal. Submit the proposal. However, inevitably something goes wrong in one or all of these stages and the process quickly derails, making the story much more complicated.
Both inexperienced and seasoned grant writers can find themselves in crisis mode during the proposal process. Sometimes the unanticipated calamities relate to people, sometimes to technology, and often to both. While the problems can take various forms, they are often tied to one of three things:
- Failing to review application instructions carefully;
- Assuming everyone on the proposal team (writers, reviewers) will follow directions; and
- Counting on all systems working as expected (technology, mail delivery, etc.)
Murphy’s law always seems in full force during the proposal process. The more important the proposal, the more likely something will go wrong.
The good news is that you can take steps to eliminate or reduce most of the problems.
Below is a list of 10 common mistakes during the proposal process. Create a process to avoid these 10, and you will be in a good position to deal successfully with other problems that develop.
10 Common Mistakes in Grant Writing
(and how to avoid them)
- Failing to confirm eligibility and due dates: An obvious one, but still something that trips people up. Especially if an opportunity looks like a perfect fit, there is a tendency to miss some of the finer details contained in an announcement like eligibility requirements and due dates. To avoid missing critical details, it helps to summarize key deadlines and requirements as you review the funding opportunity announcement.
- Copying the RFA’s/Opportunity Announcement’s Language: While it is appropriate to “mirror” the language of the request for applications (RFA), you don’t want to copy the funder’s phrases wholesale. Instead, incorporate keywords. Avoid parroting back the funder’s description of the problem or solution, which can come across as uncreative and lazy at best and as plagiarism at its most extreme.
- Recycling language: It's good practice to have standard proposal sections ready as part of your boilerplate "kit" such as your organization’s capacity statement and history. What you don’t want to do is to paste the boilerplate text verbatim into a proposal application without first making sure that it is current and relevant. If you use the same language over and over again—and apply for funding from the same set of funders on a regular basis—your proposals will come across as stale and outdated to the program officers. To avoid this, review your boilerplate text on a regular basis and update it as needed, particularly the list of your organization's recent accomplishments and activities. You will also want to avoid taking a past proposal and resubmitting it “as-is" in response to a new funding opportunity. Reusing a proposal will be unlikely to result in success for two reasons. First, it is important to tailor each proposal to the funding opportunity in question. Second, when you rely on boilerplate or other existing text, you can be lulled into a false sense of security. Because the text has been around a while, you may trust that it has been vetted and copyedited and may fail to review it carefully enough to catch any errors.
- Not saving the proposal drafts consistently: When you are working on a proposal, version control is essential. If you don't mark versions clearly, or if you fail to save the drafts frequently enough, you can lose track of which draft is most current. To help keep things straight, store the proposal drafts in a central place and label each draft so the version is clear. To prevent a major loss of text in the event of computer problems, save your work roughly every 15 minutes. Additionally, when you are ready to save a draft, consider adding the time as well as the date in the file name. Having the time listed will help you to identify the most recent version if several copies of the proposal were saved throughout the day.
- Not using Cloud storage: Save your drafts to the Cloud to protect against losing everything if your computer crashes or is lost or stolen.
- Forgetting to check for track changes: Before you submit your proposal, take a moment to make sure that you have removed all track changes and comments from the final draft. It is not uncommon to see track changes in final versions of documents, including in RFAs themselves. The mistake is easy to make because markups can be hidden from view but not removed. Once hidden, they are forgotten about until the next reader (which could be the funder) opens the document up again. To avoid the markup problem, in your final review of the proposal check "show all" under track changes to confirm that all comments and markups have been accepted or deleted. If you are submitting your proposal as a hard copy or as a PDF lingering markups will be less of an issue but could still come up. If there are only a few edits in track changes it is easy to miss them, which could lead to your printing and submitting the version with the visible markups as your final draft.
- Formatting as the last step: To move things along, sometimes formatting is done at the end of the proposal process. Delaying the formatting does make the draft process easier. The downside of formatting at the end of the process is that you may end up learning a few days before the proposal's due date that you are over the page limits. To avoid a nasty surprise, before you circulate each draft for review, format the document with the correct margins, font, and spacing. As part of their review, reviewers can then propose places to make cuts if the document turns out to be too long. Handling the formatting along the way will also reduce the time needed for final edits.
- Looking for key staff after the RFA comes out: If you find a funding opportunity of interest but are not sure you can fill a key position, you face a difficult choice. You could dedicate days and weeks to the proposal’s preparation while recruiting for a key position in the hope that you’ll find someone in time; you could put forward a current staff member who may be an okay choice, but not ideal; or you do a combination of these two things (advertise, hoping for the best, and plugging in a Plan B candidate if you can’t find anyone). You could also decide not to pursue the opportunity. Or, you could try inserting “currently recruiting” for the position in question and see if that works. This final option would be a risk and possibly not acceptable under the application's guidelines. If you decide to go ahead and prepare a proposal without having all key positions filled, you could face some challenges. Potential partners may not want to join your team because they won't be able to evaluate the strength of your bid. You may only have six weeks to post a position and complete the hiring process, which isn’t a lot of time to go through an HR process. If you believe your proposal’s success hinges on who fills a key position, and if you don't have someone at least identified within a week of the RFA coming out, you may want to see if your organization can join another bid rather than leading your own.
- Submitting the proposal on the due date: Obviously the proposal should reach the funder by the due date. The mistake is submitting the proposal ON the due date. Even if the proposal is to be submitted electronically, do not submit the proposal on the due date itself because if something goes wrong and you lose your Internet connection, you do not have any margin. To give yourself room for last-minute issues, plan on submitting the proposal at least two days before the deadline if submitting electronically and three days or more if submitting a hard copy.
- Assuming the proposal has been successfully received: Once you click “submit” or hand over your proposal package to the postal carrier or courier, you may feel like you are done and can relax. You are not done. Before you rest easy, double-check with the funder that the proposal has actually been received. Unless you have written confirmation that your package or electronic submission has been received by the intended recipient, follow-up with the person by email or phone to make sure that she has your proposal in her possession. If you discover your proposal has not been received, and if you submitted your proposal a few days in advance (as you should, see #9) you can resubmit it and still make the deadline.
If you plan ahead, monitor your processes, and follow-up after submission, you stand a good chance of avoiding some of the biggest nail-biting moments during the proposal process. You may encounter problems that you could not have anticipated, but if you prepare for these 10 you’ll have reduced your risks considerably.