Avoiding the Perils of Overstating Project Outcomes

Sometimes no matter how prepared you are for a funding opportunity, when the RFA finally comes out and proposal writing begins, all that careful planning goes out the window and it becomes a frenzied rush to get the proposal completed on time. Under these circumstances, it is not uncommon for the quality of the proposal writing to be less than optimal. One problem that might creep in is an overly ambitious, unrealistic representation of what could be accomplished if the grant application results in an award.

Imagine that you are sitting down to write a proposal and see in the application instructions that you can complete the proposal one of two ways. The first option allows you to submit what you think your project will look like and potentially accomplish. Under this option, there is no expectation that the proposal will reflect research into the scope of the problem to be solved, the demographics of the population to be served, or include documentation of how successful your organization has been with similar projects. For the budget piece, all you need to provide is a single number representing your ideal award amount, and that number does not have to be justified.

The second option is more structured and requires you to cover things such as your organization’s mission and history, the problem to be addressed, the proposed activities, your organization’s experience with the activities being proposed, and the expected outcomes to be achieved. The second option requires a detailed budget covering each year of the proposed project, broken down by line item, and a written justification.

Which option would you choose? Most likely everyone would choose the first option because it is much faster and easier to pull together a proposal that focuses on the project vision over one that requires documentation and evidence of knowledge and experience. Although grant application are rarely as open-ended as presented under the first option, when the proposal work begins, and deadlines are looming, even the most experienced proposal writers can be tempted to write proposal language that is more visionary than grounded.

3 Signs That A Proposal May Be At Risk

of Over-Promising Results

  • Using language that tells, but does not show: If you use language that tells the reader what your strengths are instead of demonstrating those strengths, it becomes easier to overstate organizational capabilities and the potential impact of a proposed project. “Telling” in this context means stating something—as in, “We have had numerous successful projects" or  "years of relevant experience." Instead of telling the reader how great your organization is, or how success is assured if funding is received, show the reader evidence of your organization’s strengths and capabilities and demonstrate your knowledge of the issues.
  • Stating that Your Project Will Increase Services by a Certain Percentage: Another sign that a proposal may be venturing into difficult territory is when it comes to the section on expected project outcomes. While it is hard to predict what will happen over the course of a project, throwing together outcomes measures can be risky. For example, stating that the project will result in 50% more clients served within 2 years may sound compelling when you are writing the proposal, but if you have not done the research to know how many clients are presently being served, or how much it costs to serve a single client, telling the funder you’ll achieve a 50% increase may be setting yourself up for an outcome you have no chance of meeting. The funder will be evaluating your work in part based on what you have said you will accomplish, so set yourself up for success by putting forward expected project outcomes that are ambitious, but that you believe (based on your research) you can come close to achieving.
  • Building A Budget without Researching True Costs:  Many grantees, particularly those receiving government grants, believe award decisions are primarily made based on budgets with the quality of the technical proposal being an important, but secondary factor. With this in mind, submitting a high-quality budget that is based on realistic figures is essential. However, in the rush to complete a proposal, it can be tempting to brainstorm the budget rather than research actual costs. Office costs? How about $1500? Equipment? $1000 sounds right. Travel? Let’s say $3000. And while this approach can build a budget quickly to the target amount you feel is competitive, it can lead to problems if you find, post-award, that you significantly under-budgeted certain line items. Funders usually allow funds to be moved between line items (commonly 10% budgeted in one line can be moved to another without prior approval), but if several line items are under-funded, it may not be possible to fix the budget through internal transfers. Another problem with building a budget based on guesses rather than on actual costs is that it is much harder to make later adjustments. If the funder looks at your budget and tells you to reduce it by a certain dollar amount, without knowing unit costs, you will not have an easy way of adjusting the line items  or even evaluating the reasonableness of the new budget figure proposed by the funder. To make sure you have a budget that can cover your costs and be scaled up or down based on feedback from the funder, spend time researching the true costs of your budget's components.

If you write your proposal without understanding the context of the problem you are proposing to solve or knowing the true costs of the implementing the proposed project, you run the risk of winning the award but failing the project. If a project does not meet its stated outcomes, at best it will lead to an awkward conversation with the funder and a possible recalibration of expected outcomes. At worst, it could mean never receiving funding from that funder again.

Proposals should be your best pitch. They are about showcasing your organization’s strengths, capabilities, and experience and convincing the funder that you’ll deliver great results if the project is funded. However, don’t lose yourself in your own pitch. Make sure that what you are putting forward is ambitious, but still realistic, and has the potential to be achieved.