Five Mistakes to Avoid in Grant Writing

By Kelsey Maloney, The Write Team Junior Partner

Grant writing is a funny world. Some might say, “It’s easy– just follow the directions!” But the directions aren’t always clear, and it’s easy to miss something. Over my five years of grant writing, I’ve made many mistakes that have helped me learn what NOT to do. Below I’ve highlighted five of these mistakes to help you avoid making the same ones:

Mistake 1: Not answering the questions

Questions often have several parts. Be sure you read the whole question and answer each part of the question directly. Here’s an example of a two-part question (from the Santa Barbara common grant application) and how I would answer it:


Your organization’s relationships – both formal and informal – with other organizations working to meet the same need. In what way does your work differ from that of other organizations?


Paragraph 1: We have strong relationships with other organizations working to meet the same need; these include…

Paragraph 2: Our work is unique among the organizations we partner with because…

Mistake 2: The budget doesn’t match the narrative

When possible, start your application with your budget and build your narrative around the costs in the budget. Be sure that the request amount (dollar amount you’re asking for) matches on your cover sheet, narrative, and budget, and anywhere else it might be mentioned (email to funder, or anywhere else). The request amount and budget can often change throughout the process of putting together an application, so it’s important to give the numbers a final review before submitting your application. Also, make sure the information (like year, number of beneficiaries, statistics, etc.) in your narrative is consistent throughout.

Mistake 3: Repetition and grammar mistakes

Sometimes it feels like you’ve read your application a dozen times, and it’s hard to notice mistakes or repeated sentences. For example, I’ve gone back to a letter I’ve already mailed and found that I had the same exact sentence twice! To avoid this, I usually return to a draft on a new day with fresh eyes and catch mistakes I didn’t see the day before. I find I’m sharper in the mornings at catching small mistakes. I also like to have someone proofread my work when possible. Grammar mistakes probably won’t change the outcome of a grant application, but it makes you look better if there are no mistakes.

Mistake 4: Vague requests

Many grant applications only present vague information about the program, the request amount, how the grant would be used if awarded, etc. Think of the funder as an investor. They want to know exactly how their funds will be spent and how it will help your organization. So, it’s important to clearly state your request amount (and state it early in the letter or application) and how you’ll spend the grant (include exact costs).

Here’s a vague example: “We are requesting your support to help youth in our community”

Here’s a specific example: “We are requesting $5,000 to allow 150 youth to attend a jazz performance at the Lobero Theatre. Your grant will cover transportation costs as well as theatre costs for two performances in December 2018.”

It’s also helpful to be clear about the outcomes. How will your program change our community? Why is it important?

Mistake 5: Mechanical Problems

One of the trickiest things about grant writing is collecting and organizing the attachments. Funders often have very specific guidelines for what attachments they want (budgets, financials, reports, board lists, etc.) and how they want them presented. This often comes down to specific details about whether to use paper clips or staples, how many copies of the attachments to include, and whether it’s single or double sided. Pay attention to the guidelines and follow them as best you can. Some common mistakes include missing or incorrect attachments, wrong number of copies (think Towbes or Tuohy), missed deadlines, or using the wrong form (think Union Bank’s option of foundation grants vs. corporate sponsorships). If the foundation provides a specific form for financials (like the common grant application), it’s important to use those. Some funders have a cover sheet form (like Latkin) that you send in along with a letter. Don’t forget the form! Build in lead time for all the attachments to make sure they are aligned with the guidelines.

Good luck!

One thought on “Five Mistakes to Avoid in Grant Writing

  1. Diyana

    Great overview Kelsey!

    I see that you used a question from the Common Grant Application (for SB County) as a sample – Point #1 -The Common Grant Application still accepted by several area foundations. You did a really good job pointing out other details that the local funders I have applied to tend to spell out, and that matter.

    Note: Be aware that although most of the application is still the same, you want to link the responses that you give in a proposal to each foundation’s stated priorities and philanthropic goals.

    To avoid frustration I have tried to see the grant seeking process as a ‘challenge and intellectual pursuit,’ not as a test.

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