How to Increase the Odds that Your Grant Application Will Be Funded

If you work for a nonprofit organization and your work is dependent on grant funds, you may have decided that the best strategy to get more funding is to apply to every possible funding option you find.  After employing this strategy, you may look back at the end of the year only to discover that very few (and possibly none) of your applications were successful. After working diligently and preparing lots of applications, it's hard to get such discouraging results.

If you are wondering what you can do to turn things around, it may be helpful to look at common reasons why applications fail to be funded. 

5 Reasons Why Grant Applications Fail

1. Your Organization Doesn't Meet the Eligibility Requirements

When prospecting for new funding sources, the focus when screening potential funders is often on what a funder funds with less attention to things that speak to eligibility requirements such as geographic limitations. If you only focus on what a funder funds (affordable housing, environmental protection, etc.), you risk overlooking the very basic question of whether you are even eligible to receive funding. If you apply to a grant that has strict eligibility requirements, and your organization doesn't meet them, your application will not be funded.

Sometimes it's tempting to think that the funder might bend their eligibility requirements after they read about the great work of your organization. The reality is that most funders receive so many grant applications, they actively look for reasons to eliminate applications from consideration. If your application does not pass the check for basic eligibility requirements, it won't be read.

2. Your Organization Lacks Core Competencies

When funding is tight, there's a natural inclination to apply to any and all opportunities, regardless of whether there's a good match between the level of experience (type or depth) sought by the funder and what your organization can offer.

If the funder wants to fund work in a certain community/state/country, or for a specific beneficiary group, or in a particular technical area—and your organization has never worked in the target geographic area, lacks experience working with the beneficiary group of interest, and doesn't have staff with expertise in the given technical area—these are all signs that you should not apply.

Is there a chance that the funder will consider experience working in a similar context with a related beneficiary population persuasive? Yes, there is a chance. However, the chance lessens depending on the quality of the competition.  If you know that other organizations with impeccable qualifications in each of the key areas will also be pursuing the opportunity, you need to take a step back and consider as objectively as possible whether your organization will be competitive.  In some cases, perhaps you'll decide it's worth applying despite the low chance of winning. And that's okay, as long as you go into the grant proposal process knowing there's a high risk of not getting a return on your investment. 

3. You Submit a Non-Compliant Proposal

Finally! A funding opportunity comes along that's a perfect match. The funder funds the type of work are proposing to do, your organization works in a region that's a geographic priority for the funder, you have staff qualified to manage the project, and the funder awards grants at the level you are seeking. Unfortunately, again your grant proposal is still not funded. Under these circumstances, the reason your application wasn't successful may be because you failed to submit a compliant proposal. A grant application has two parts, the substantive content and the packaging of the application (which includes formatting). Both parts must adhere to the funder's guidelines to be compliant. 

Required Sections & Content

A funder's application guidelines will usually tell you how to structure the proposal. This includes major headings as well as components to be covered such as how you'll identify your beneficiary population, what your strategy will be, and why you think your project approach will work and lead to the desired outcomes.  The funder may request standard headings (Executive Summary, Programmatic Approach, Monitoring and Evaluation, Sustainability Plan, and Management, and Staffing) or provide a more customized outline. Whatever headings the funder specifies, those are the ones you should use. If the funder asks for an Executive Summary and an Introduction, you'll want to have both headings in your proposal regardless of whether you think it's necessary. Regarding more substantive content, you'll want to read the funding opportunity announcement carefully to identify what the funder explicitly requests to be covered in the application so you can be responsive.

Required Formatting and Submission Guidelines

On the packaging side, did the funder say to submit a 15-page proposal with 12-pt Times New Roman font, single-spaced text, and 1-inch margins, on letter size (8 1/2 x 11 inch) paper? Did you submit a proposal that met all of these requirements? Did the funding opportunity announcement say to include six items on the proposal cover page (e.g., project name, organization name, names of any partners on the proposed project, organization contact name, contact number, and funding opportunity number)....and did you do that?

It may seem like the formatting details are minor things that you can leave undone until the end of the proposal process, but waiting until the last minute to format your proposal can be risky. First, because formatting problems can sometimes take a long time to resolve. Second, if you don't pay attention to the formatting requirements, you run a risk of being over the required page limits when you do go back and adjust the margins and font size.  If you haven't formatted your proposal correctly—maybe you've used 11 pt instead of 12 pt font—it will be obvious to the funder that you have not followed the submission guidelines. If you haven't followed the directions, you should assume the funder will not read your proposal.

Some formatting requirements, such as using the right-sized font to label diagrams and tables, may sneak past you, unless you, or someone else on the proposal team, takes the time to do a close read and compare the grant application guidelines with your proposal prior to submission. Formatting checklists come in handy for this kind of cross-check. 

Another area where applications can fail is with the submission guidelines. If the proposal guidelines say to email the proposal only, or to send a copy via email as well as a hard copy version, you need to do exactly what is asked or risk having your proposal thrown out for not complying to the guidelines.

4. You Submit a Poorly Written Proposal

Even if you have met all of the application guidelines and prepared a compliant proposal, your application has one more hurdle to overcome. This is readability. If your application includes all the required pieces, your organization meets the eligibility requirements, and you've followed all of the directions to the letter, it will only get you into the pool for consideration. When the funder reviews eligible applications, they evaluate the proposals on a number of factors including technical merit and the reasonableness of the budget. However, if on initial review the reviewers cannot follow your proposal because it is so poorly written, or because its persistent grammatical errors are distracting, they'll be unlikely to short list your proposal for further review. 

A poorly written proposal is probably the hardest problem to remedy because you cannot fix the problems with a checklist. A checklist can help you keep track of key points to cover and the formatting guidelines, but it is one thing to submit a complete and compliant proposal, it is another to submit a proposal that is compelling and clear. If you do not have strong writing skills, or if you need to prepare a proposal in English and it is not your native language, it is essential to find an editor who can work with you to polish the text.

If you submit a poorly written proposal, your application will be unlikely to be funded for two reasons. First, the funder may not be able to figure out what you are proposing to do or how you intend to do it; and second, a poorly written proposal can suggest that the thinking behind the proposal may not be clear, something that may make the funder question whether your proposal would be a good investment.

5. You Submit a Generic Proposal

Related to submitting a poorly written proposal, submitting a proposal made up of text copied and pasted from other proposals is unlikely to be successful.

While some text can be reused from one proposal to the next, proposals have different requirements and funders have different interests. If you do not tailor each proposal, your proposals can sound generic and flat. Foundations that fund the same general area, such as early childhood education, may prioritize different things in their evaluation of potential grantees. While it's fine to start drafting your proposal by plugging in text used in previous proposals, it is imperative to go through the text, line-by-line, to make sure it is appropriate for the current proposal. 

How to Improve Your Odds of Winning a Grant

There are several things you can do to improve the odds of winning a grant:

  • Evaluate Funding Opportunities Carefully: If your organization is small (budget under $1 million), new (in existence for less than five years), or has never received a grant larger than $45,000, the funders that will be the best fit for you are going to be smaller foundations. If you think the only grant opportunities worth pursuing are ones with award amounts of $100,000 or more, and the only funders worth applying to are the big 10 including The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation, etc., you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Most nonprofits in the U.S. receive funding from community foundations, not from the large private foundations.

  • Know Your Organization's Strengths: If your organization has a narrow mission, works with a specific beneficiary group in a limited geographic location, and your staff has expertise in a focused technical area, these are all strengths that can help you to attract funding. The downside of having a focused mission is that you'll need to work harder to find funders whose interests line up with yours. However, once you find a set of funders, you stand a good chance of having them become long-term supporters if you do good work. Being able to articulate your organization's core competencies and strengths is essential when it comes to attracting funding. It takes discipline, but it pays off to be selective with your funder list. It is better to submit applications to 20 funders that are a great fit with your mission than to submit applications to 50 funders that fund work only marginally related to what you do.

  • Dedicate Adequate Resources: A grant proposal is not something one person can or should prepare on her own. To submit a quality proposal, you need people who can describe the project's structure and goals, prepare the budget, review and edit the proposal, etc. As a general rule of thumb, you should budget about 10% of the potential award amount for the proposal's preparation. In other words, if you are writing a grant proposal in the hopes of receiving a grant for $100,000, you should plan on spending at least $10,000 on the proposal preparation process. This amount covers staff time to research, write, review, and prepare the proposal for submission. Proposal preparation costs are paid out of unrestricted (or "core") funds; they cannot be charged to project budgets. If you involve project staff in your proposal process, you need to be sure you can cover their time. Money is one required resource. Time is another. Preparing a quality proposal requires an intense effort on the part of several people. Before deciding to pursue an opportunity, you'll want to confirm that everyone who needs to be involved is able and willing to participate.