When we talk to nonprofit staff, one commonly recurring question is “How can we do better at grant funding?” We’ve decided to leverage our history and experience in the sector to gather materials for a series of articles on this topic. Our in-depth conversations with foundation and corporate program officers and a wider survey of their peers form the basis of the series. The first article in this series focused on the value of your relationship with your program officer. In this article, we go a little deeper on what program officers we talked to say about the ways applicants shoot themselves in the foot.
Three Cringe-Worthy Errors
Writing a proposal for grant funding is an investment. Before you picked up your lucky pen and jumped in, we assume you will have looked deeply enough into the RFP to understand what the grant costs you if you win it—to write it, to deliver on it, to report it out—and understand what it costs the organization to have you go through the effort but not secure any/enough funding. You’ve laid aside long shot proposals, and accepted that the odds of getting a rejection letter are higher than you’d like. But what then?
We’ve asked program officers from around the country to say more about why proposals go unfunded, beyond the reality that requests exceeded funds available. Three cringe-worthy responses came to the fore:
1. The proposal writer didn't follow instructions
Mystified program officers shake their heads on this one—“It’s on the website! They just had to read it!” Consistently, 20 to 25 percent of the program officers we speak with say this is a reason for immediate outright rejection.
Research!!!! Who are we, what is our mission and vision, who's on the board, who are the jurors; follow the guidelines, be clear & on time.- Donna McNeil, Executive Director, Ellis-Beauregard Foundation
2. The proposal failed to meet eligibility requirements.
This is related to the previous response, and may be a case of digging down on the fine print. To be fair, there isn’t always a helpful checklist of what would make you ineligible. But often, there is!
We have a Letter Of Inquiry stage to weed out those that are not a good fit with a minimum of work on either end. Of a pool of 50 Letters Of Inquiry, probably 5 or 6 are totally off the mark. – An anonymous respondent in Powering Nonprofits' survey of program officers
Another funder, who asked to not be identified, said that it is evident when a proposal is “stretching to make their project fit within our interests.” More to the point, they said “as tempting as it may be, I typically advise prospective grantees not to try and fit a square peg in a round hole.”
3. The proposal was incomprehensible.
Ouch. It sounds harsh, but it points to a frequent problem with external communications; have you written a proposal that understands who the audience will be? Using terms that they can understand? In language that makes it easy for the proposal readers to see how your proposal meets their priorities? (If you haven’t waited until the last minute, your program officer will sometimes be willing to take a look at a draft. Take them up on it!) You, the wonderful work you do, and the great people who benefit are not going to be in the room with your proposal. As on interviewee said: “Put the time in before submitting the application, because it shows!”
Ask For Feedback
We’ve all seen the single sheet rejection that basically says “we received far more requests for funding than we could meet.” But in most cases, program officers have told us that their declined-to-fund letters included an invitation to follow up with them for more information.
Shockingly, in the foundation pool we looked at, only 10% - 30% of those organizations ever did pick up the phone and ask for more information. If you are one of those, consider this comment:
We are always available to provide feedback on a proposal that wasn’t funded, but surprisingly few applicants take us up on this offer. It’s probably less than 20%. To get the most helpful feedback, we encourage applicants to schedule a call within a month or two. If they wait until they are working on their next proposal, it’s more difficult for us to provide meaningful advice – Phillip Gonzalez, Senior Program Officer, Tufts Health Plan Foundation
Before your next proposal is due, take an extra few minutes to double check eligibility and guidelines. And promise yourself one thing: If it doesn’t work out, call and find out why.
If you’ve got a stellar relationship with a program officer please share, and Powering Nonprofits may include your story in this series. Following articles will cover other proposal-killing errors, best advice from program officers, and what’s different when working with corporate foundations. Please subscribe to our RSS feed or check back over the next few weeks for updates.
Kara has a lifetime of success in patron engagement and fundraising in North America, and spent two years recently at Birmingham Royal Ballet building systems for engagement.