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The “sins” that foundation executives often cite in their work with nonprofit grantees.

From the standpoint of many nonprofit managers, philanthropic grant-making foundations often seem like a black box, full of mystery when viewed from outside.  Proposals go in, funding sometimes comes out, but what happens during the grant-making process itself is often an enigma.  Because grants comprise a major piece of the total funding picture for most nonprofits—about 20 percent nationally and significantly more in many sectors such as advocacy and public policy—understanding what happens inside this proverbial black box is among the most important lessons that a nonprofit manager can ever learn.

Fortunately, you don’t have to be a master at grant-seeking to be successful.  Most organizations are in fact so disorganized, that being even a little better than the average will set you apart.  Consider some of the sins that foundation executives cite in their work with grantees:

1. Miss deadlines. “You wouldn’t make an appointment with a donor and not show up. It’s the same thing with grant deadlines,” said one grant reviewer.

2. Proposals lacking in context. One foundation executive told Philanthropy Daily regarding problem statements: “Many proposals I’ve seen throw out some statistics about how bad X, Y, or Z is, but don’t do a great job of connecting the dots and putting the specifics in a broader context.”

3. Too Much Selling. Said one grant reviewer: “If we’ve invited a proposal, we buy into the premise of what you’re doing… we’re more interested in the details."

4. Not doing your homework. “If your project isn’t what the foundation wants to fund, no amount of selling will close the grant,” said one reviewer.

5. Giving Up Too Soon. The reasons why your proposal didn’t get funded often have nothing to do with the merits of your funding request. Countless other factors from board politics to budgetary constraints can result in a rejection letter, even if you’re pitching an excellent project.  Don’t be discouraged or give up too soon. “There are a lot of stupid reasons why proposals don’t get funded,” said one reviewer. If your proposal was rejected, don’t try to guess what happened. Instead, call a foundation representative and ask for feedback.

The overarching message here is that half the battle is totally unrelated to your organization’s effectiveness, despite the huge outpouring of rhetoric to the contrary from foundations claiming to fund only “sound philanthropic investments.”  Good etiquette itself is a signaling mechanism and a proxy for the effectiveness of your organization to funders who must award grants with incomplete and limited information.  They see your group as every bit the black box that you perceive the foundation to be, and simply hitting deadlines, putting together competently written proposals, and paying lip-service to the foundation’s mission will set you apart in a world that too often can’t be bothered to do any of those things.


It’s my goal to help purpose-driven organizations achieve their fundraising goals, craft clear and compelling communications, and achieve greater influence. Please let me know if and how I can be of help to you, feel free to shoot me an email at srubush@americanphilanthropic.com, or check out our consulting services online at AmericanPhilanthropic.com and ongoing fundraising seminars throughout the year.

4 thoughts on “5 silly mistakes nonprofits make when applying for grants”

  1. Drew Anderson says:

    From 20 years of reading proposals for foundations, I would reinforce with # 3 Selling–avoid jargon( and have a friend who doesn’t know your project read the proposal to see if that person understands what you are saying) and # 5 Giving Up Without Feedback. A safe question to ask is “What can I do next to make a more competitive proposal?”

  2. Nancy Holt says:

    Grant seeking is a full time job and requires diligence and contacts with the grant makers. One of the first things I teach my interns is to record the cut-off dates for submission for grants, and to be sure to contact the foundation regarding programs your group’s needs may fit. Good article and valuable reminder for all seeking funding. Thank you!

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