5 Things Not to Say in Grant Applications for Nonprofits

Blog Post by CharityHowTo Expert Diane H. Leonard, GPC

When you set out to secure funding through a grant, you might be surprised that not only are the *right* grant opportunities to apply to are hard to come by, they are even harder to successfully receive grants through for your organization once identified.

What Not to Say In a Grant Application for Nonprofits

The competition for grant funding is fierce. This is why it is important to know what to say in your grant proposal. You want your grant application to be well received by the grantmaker and as competitive as possible compared to other grant applications being considered.

While ideally, you want to focus on providing the most concise and compelling narrative about your proposed project/program/service, it is also critical to know what NOT to say and why.

5 Common Mistakes in Grant Applications

We’ve identified five common things well-intentioned organizations say in their grant applications that lead to rejections. Below you’ll see them outlined and why you should avoid including them in your own proposal. 

1. “We Are Not Sure How We Will Continue The Program After Your Grant Funding Ends.”

As you start to seek grant funding for your project/program/service, you will not have met all your resource needs yet. It is also unlikely that you will have a major donor with an unlimited checkbook to support your work.

This means that there is likely a great deal of immediate uncertainty in how you are going to secure all of the grant revenue necessary to implement the project/program/service the way you have designed it now as well as in the future.

So even though you might not be sure about which of the pending proposals will piece together to support your program in the upcoming fiscal years, you should never tell a potential funder that you don’t have future plans for how you will fund your program. 

At the very least, you likely have a fundraising plan for your organization as a whole for your special events, annual appeals, and grant-seeking strategy. So you should share that plan with potential grantmakers.

Outline the other types of revenue you plan to use to support your programs and highlight how your organization is not dependent on this one grantmaker as a funding support.

Therefore, it is also a smart idea to outline the long-term funding relationships you already have in place.

Include other committed grant funds, how many consecutive years the other grantmakers have been supporting your organization and at what dollar amount.

2. “We Hope To Be Able To…”

There’s no good way to end this sentence. You do not just hope to do anything in a grant-funded world. Rather, you need to convey confidence in your ability to accomplish your goals.

Your grant application is the precursor to a grant agreement

A formal legal agreement that you will spend the money the way that you outlined it in your grant application. You will implement the program/project/service as you outlined it in your grant application, and achieve the goal and outcomes outlined in the application.

Instead of “We hope to…” statements, use “We will…” statements. For example, instead of saying, “We hope to provide support to…” say “We will provide support…” or instead of  “We hope to increase the knowledge…” say “We will increase the knowledge…” 

You should never merely hope, as this denotes a lack of confidence in your organization’s ability and capacity. Rather, build your narrative so that you send the message to the grantmaker that your organization is too good at and too confident in what it does to simply hope for success.

3. Buzzwords, Phrases, And Industry Jargon

Including buzzwords and industry jargon in your proposal makes it more difficult for the reviewer to understand.

While you are submitting a grant application to a grantmaking organization that theoretically shares a passion for the type of work that your organization does, those that are reviewing your application may share your passion, but not your detailed knowledge of the work in the field.

You should not assume their level of knowledge about the day to day type of work and language used within your specific nonprofit.

Therefore, if your application includes any industry, and especially organization specific jargon, unravel it into plain English so that anyone can understand what your program entails.

Since those words have become so overused, reviewers now dismiss them as hollow sentiments. Select the most impactful language that the rest of your narrative supports.

Additionally, words such as ‘unique,’ ‘collaborative,’ and ‘impactful’ are all overused in narratives. They come across as filler words unless followed by evidence in the ensuing narrative.

Other words to avoid in your Nonprofits Grant Application include:

  • Innovative
  • Cutting-edge
  • Game changer
  • Cooperative

Finally, if there is one universal thing in a narrative that will frustrate your potential grantmakers, it is acronyms.

Acronyms annoy and confuse reviewers of grant proposals. They often cause the reader of your application to flip back in a proposal to remember what the acronym defined in an early response or on the first page means.

Some grant reviewers have said point-blank that acronyms actually make them angry, causing them to want to stop reading. They sometimes move on to a different proposal, and return to the acronym filled proposal last in their review process.

Unless you are desperate for space in a character-counted situation, look at your response and consider how to eliminate. Or at least reduce, your use of acronyms for the sake of the reader.

4. “We Need Your Funding To Continue To Operate…”

Highlighting your need for money over your program goals makes your organization appear desperate.

Other variations of the above phrase to avoid include, “We need your funding to survive the government funding cut,” and, “We need your funding in order to continue to provide services.”

Not only is this a poor way to position yourself to a potential grantmaker, but it also puts too much emphasis on your organization’s monetary needs and not enough on your clients’ needs.

This lessens your chances of being granted the funding you need. Overall, you are presenting the wrong story to the grantmaker. 

Rather, you want to present the story of the impact that will be created, the knowledge that will be gained, the behavioral changes that will occur, etc.

Each grantmaker has its own mission and set of goals they are working to achieve. These grantmaker goals are achieved when you deliver impactful projects/programs/services, not when your payroll is met.

So, for example, don’t ask for $15,000 to help your organization stay operable; ask for $15,000 to feed 11,000 people. 

Grantmakers become interested in awarding grants to organizations they care about, so researching the causes close to their heart — adult education, impoverished schools, etc. — can greatly increase your chances of securing their funding.

Focus on the goals you share in common with the grantmaker. Show how your organization can achieve those specific project goals with the help of their funding. You can usually find this information by reading the foundation’s guidelines.

Keep in mind that this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask for the money. You still need to be direct and ask for a specific amount of money in your proposal, but don’t make it the focus of your writing.

Consider adding a concise sentence or two at the beginning of the proposal about how much money you’d need to carry out your project.

5. Overly Ambitious Outcome Statements 

Never tell a grantmaker that you intend to address or solve an issue that is beyond your organization’s capacity to take on with the resources available to you.

In particular, look at the request that you are making in this specific grant application and ensure that the goal of the project and the anticipated outcomes you will achieve with the proposed funding are realistic and attainable.

Your proposed outcome statements in your grant applications should stem from a clear overall goal for the project/program/service. Be sure to include SMART objectives that are then clearly aligned with the anticipated outcomes.

To outline strong outcomes, ensure that you know how to write SMART objectives first. (Note: SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic/Relevant, and Time-bound).

For example, avoid making blanket statements like, “We will eliminate childhood hunger in Town X”. With such ambitious statements, a grant reviewer will question the validity of the rest of your proposal.

Focus instead on a realistic goal and outcome. Such as, “We will increase the number of children receiving summer meals by X%, increase food pantry utilization for children by X%, and implement a job training program for adults with children being served by the hot meal program.”

Avoiding these five common grant-writing mistakes is a way to push your grant to the top of the list for consideration. 

What other items do you consider to be ineffective to include in the text of a grant application? Share them with us in the comments section of the website or via social media. We love hearing about your experiences!

For More Information On This Or Related Topics Join Me For One Of My Upcoming Webinar Trainings!

About The Author

Diane H. Leonard, GPC, is a Grant Professional Certified (1 of less than 400 in the world) and Approved Trainer for the Grant Professionals Association.

Since 2006, Diane and her team have secured more than $61.6 million dollars in competitive grant awards for the clients.

When not working with her team on grant applications for clients, or providing grant training, Diane can be found in the 1000 Islands, out for a run, or drinking a strong cup of coffee.