8 tell-tale signs of a grantwriting rookie

Posted on December 21, 2011


So, you’re new at writing grants? Welcome aboard.

Through books and blogs, you can get lots of great advice. Things like, ‘follow the guidelines’ and ‘find the right prospect.’ All good and important stuff.

Then there are the more trivial points of grantwriting. What I’ve listed below aren’t deal-breakers, but these are common rookie mistakes:

1. Overdressed for the occasion. The fancy binder with matching tabs is gorgeous, but skip it. Funders have to take it apart to make copies, and the board will likely never see it.

2. TMI (Too Much Information). Whoa, that intro paragraph is long. Unnecessary detail takes many forms. Sometimes it’s vaguely relevant — things like staff bios or a lengthy agency history – but it’s not particularly helpful. I’ve also received proposals with political rants and bizarre probate sagas. Avoid the temptation to tell all.

(Tip: If all of your paragraphs are long, see my post: How readable is your grant proposal?)

3. Wrong tax letter. Most foundations don’t ask for a state tax-exempt letter (the letter you present to the cashier so you don’t have to pay sales tax). What funders usually request is a federal U.S. IRS tax determination letter or other proof that your organization is a 501c3 in good standing.

4. Hidden ask. Summarize your request in the first sentence. Don’t save it for last or sneak it into the middle of the letter. The funder knows the ask is coming, so why not make it easy to find?

5. Calling for advice too soon. Funders often cover the basics in their guidelines. Before calling to ask for advice on your request, read the information they have already offered. A caller should never say, “I haven’t had a chance to look at your website yet.” And consider which projects might be a good fit for that funder before you phone.

6. Calling for advice too late. I received a call from a new grantwriter asking whether or not her project was a fit. Unfortunately, it did not match our mission or geographic priorities, and I suggested that other prospects might be more likely. Her next question: “Well, it’s already done, so should I address the letter to you?” Had she phoned sooner, she could have saved time and effort. For everyone.

Take heart! There are also advantages to being a new grantwriter. Much more important than the minutiae listed above, newbies offer:

7. New point of view. Some agencies send the same request, year after year, without success. By taking a fresh look at your programs and foundation guidelines, you might see new possibilities where missions overlap.

8. Authentic voice. Your requests may have a few rough edges, but they are often honest and passionate. Keep that enthusiasm as you develop your fundraising skills.

Other observations about new grantwriters? Encouraging words? Please share them in the comments below.

If you liked this post, check out other topics on the Grantwriting Tips page.