We all want to scream when we don't get what we want. As a grant writer and reviewer, I am afforded the opportunity to write and critique "winning" and "losing" proposals. These losses are actually not losses at all. They are opportunities to further develop as a writer or for an organization to further develop itself. As a consultant, I am frequently providing education on the chances of award. In some cases, I am informing potential clients that they are not yet ready to submit a viable proposal for that grant they have their eye on. Although this can be a letdown, it is my job to write grants that have greatest chance of getting funded; from the prospective of the organization's capacity. That is what is best for my reputation and for my clients. However, what happens to those organizations that have the capacity and are still not awarded that grant? What happened?
I am always educating current and potential clients on grant readiness or capacity. Capacity is referring to the organization's ability to carry out the proposed activities (ample staff, space, equipment, etc.), or whether they have the appropriate documentation or registrations (IRS letter of 501(c)3 determination, proof of legal business registration, registrations on relevant websites and/or memberships, and financial documents, etc.). Capacity may also be demonstrated in the experiences and expertise of your staff or volunteers. Capacity for grant readiness is multi-pronged. If you want to know more about capacity, check out our recorded webinar.
Even when an organization's capacity is top-notch and they are fully suited to implement the activities proposed in their application or proposal, there are still more factors to be considered. Here are a few things I've noticed that make the difference between being funded and being unfunded.
You Lack Capacity: Contrary to popular belief (and I mean very popular), having a nonprofit structure (e.g. 501(c)3 status) WILL NOT automatically make you eligible for grants and other funding. I want to repeat that but, I'll spare you. You must demonstrate that you are ready for funding. In my world, we call that grant ready or we say you have good grant capacity. Capacity is referring to the organization's ability to carry out the proposed activities (ample staff, space, equipment, etc.), and appropriate documentation or registrations (IRS letter of 501(c)3 determination, a business plan--yes, nonprofits need them too, proof of legal business registration, registrations on relevant websites and/or memberships, and financial documents, etc.). What it means is you have at least one actual program or service, you have infrastructure (admin, space, accounting systems, etc.) and you have numbers. Numbers aren't just how many people you gave your message to. Numbers tell a potential funder that you have been busy and that you have invested in the cause even if you didn't have a grant yet. It means you have found the funds or resources somewhere and you have put your money, time, and resources where your mouth is! We have a video recording on grant capacity. Do yourself a huge favor and watch it if this term is new to you.
Chance: For many grants, the funder has no idea who will be applying. The decision for any given organization to submit a proposal for the same one you choose to submit, is really up to chance. Sometimes the competition is slim, giving you a fighting chance (or a winning chance). Sometimes the competition is fierce, reducing your chances of getting funded. In this case, your very best may just not be enough. Often the best writing and the best ideas just so happen to get knocked out of the competition by competitors with even more capacity (more staff, funding, more partners, etc.) than your organization. This does not negate your ability to carry out your proposed activities but it could keep you from being awarded. Sometimes the difference between an award and non-award is less than one point. However, in this case, you still have to put that proposal together and give it a shot.
Your budget is not adding up: I've seen it time and time again. Grant writers (or just staff in some cases) present a budget that is just not up to par. First, you should always triple check your budget; the math and the justification. Every single budget item should be represented in your narrative (the written part of your proposal). For example, if you will be purchasing program handbooks, you need to say that in your narrative, in your budget, and in your budget justification. Something as simple as a sentence saying, "handbooks will be purchased for each participant" goes a very long way. Make it match. Other problems I have seen with budgets, is they are just too complicated to read. Put everything that is asked of you in your budget but make it as simple as possible. Smart people will review your grant proposal but that does not mean they are experts in finance. Another big one is in the area of staff/personnel. Almost every reviewer I have worked with looks for the time an employee will spend on a program or project, to match the numbers in your budget and the activities in your plan. For example, if you are proposing a large, never done before, project, don't say your Project Director will oversee the project, have a list of duties, and will work 0.05 FTE's (2 hours per week). Reviewers will jump all over that. Make sure the duties, tasks, hours and salaries are reasonable. Again, make sure every budget line item is mentioned in the narrative.
You said you were doing too much or you embellished: Everyone wants to convey their passion to work hard to solve a problem. However, you may shoot yourself in the foot by overstating your proposed activities. If a reviewer feels you have not been realistic about the scope of your proposed work, this will be a nagging thought in their heads throughout the whole review process. Although reviewers follow strict guidelines and are highly discouraged from making any assumptions (this is often built into the review process), human nature may take over once something about the application stands out. When I read that someone is proposing to work miracles, it makes me question whether they are seeing other parts of their proposal realistically. Keep it simple. Don't say you are going to do something you can't or probably can't carry out. Propose what you can realistically do and make the best case for your organization based on that.
Never overstate your abilities. A good grant reviewer (like myself) can see right through it. It may sound good and make since in one paragraph but somewhere else it will be tested. That may be somewhere else in the document (narrative), in your supporting documents, or in your data. We can sniff it out. Don't understate or overstate your accomplishments or abilities. You are much better off just being plain ole honest.
Your proposed activities are old news: It is extremely important for your organization to stay up to date with new practices, science, evidence, or program strategies. If not, it will show in your proposal. For example, if you are proposing to conduct evaluation activities on a large project and you are still using paper questionnaires, you don't mention data entry into a database, or you are using an outdated tool, that may stand out. This is dependent on the field of work, geography, or organizational structure but it will never be a bad idea to do your homework to find out what others are doing or to update your options. I recognize not everyone is as fond of technology as I am but if technology will mean your staff spend less time doing data entry, your data is cleaner, and your quality improvement practices are enhanced, it may be worth considering (and make sure you say all that in your proposal. You're welcome!). One more point worth mentioning in this section; make sure you use up-to-date references. Up-to-date may depend on your field of expertise or your target group. Ask a few colleagues, ask a librarian to conduct a literature search for you. Do what you have to to provide the best and most current information possible.
You didn't support your claims: This is one area reviewers can sniff out inconsistencies or a deem you ineligible. If you propose partnering with another organization, it would behoove you to obtain some documentation of that proposed relationship. This may be in the form of a Letter of Support, Letter of Commitment, or a Memorandum of Agreement/Understanding (MOA/U). Rent our video on agreements for some help. Don't propose working with someone and not letting them in on the plan. That is a recipe for failure. Other items in this area may include 1) proposing to hire someone with experience or expertise and not reflecting that in their resume or job description, 2) stating a number of years in operation but your business registration does not support that, and 3) stating an array of programs and offerings without substantiating that information through your organizational chart or annual budget/financial documents.
You don't play on the sandbox: Long gone are the days when nonprofits and other grant funded agencies could apply for funding and provide every activity in a silo. Granters want to see collaboration. They see this as a way to increase your capacity and increasing your capacity most often means an increase in their return on investment (ROI). Think about how partnerships can strengthen your programs, services, and your bottom line, whether you are applying for a grant or not.
You didn't follow instructions: Don't skip on reading those grant instructions in their entirety. Yes, I know they are not exactly fun. When you do, follow them to a tee! Do not get creative with the requirements. It's that simple.
You didn't apply: This one is self-explanatory. You will never get a grant you don't apply for. If you are new at grant writing, dive in. Give it a try. Take the feedback from the grants you didn't get and use it to become better, stronger, sharper. You have to start somewhere!
If you are looking for a grant writer, need some help preparing or editing your proposal, or need consultation on how you can build your capacity contact Volcano Consulting, LLC.