Top 4 Things That Frustrate Grant Writers About Grant Applications

By Corinne Marasco

There is a lot of advice in books and on the Internet about mistakes to avoid when writing grant proposals:

  • Do your research: Target your proposal to the right source.
  • Follow the application guidelines to the letter!
  • Ask your board members if they have contacts at local foundations.
  • Work with your program staff to make sure your information and data are current.
  • Send only the attachments that the grant maker requests.
  • If at all possible, don’t wait until the last minute to send out your proposal. Don’t send it Express Mail, because it leaves a bad impression about your organization’s stewardship abilities.
  • If you are awarded a grant, be sure to send progress reports. Keep in touch with your funding sources.
  • If you are turned down for a grant, send a thank you letter and ask for information on how to improve your chances in the next funding cycle.

I see so many discussions and articles like this that one day I decided to turn the conversation around. I posted this question to grant writers in one of my LinkedIn groups: “What frustrates you most about grant applications?”

I won’t generalize beyond the answers of my self-selected respondents but what I heard didn’t surprise me.

1. Cryptic Instructions

Grant makers, if you’re looking for well-written proposals, please do us a favor and generate well-written instructions. Nothing frustrates a grant writer more than reading the instructions and finding them obtuse and even contradictory. What adds to the frustration are instructions that don’t offer a means to contact the funder with any questions.

On one Request for Proposals (RFP), I had to contact the grant officers multiple times because the RFP required the audit management letter as an appendix to the proposal. I knew that was wrong, since that’s a confidential communication between a nonprofit’s board and its auditors regarding deficiencies and weaknesses in the organizational structure. Surely they meant the audit opinion letter, which states that the financial statements are presented in accordance with generally accepted accounting principles. However, it took three e-mails just to clarify that was what they really wanted.

Different people within the same foundation can have very different interpretations of the instructions. I prefer mysteries that come in paperbacks, not grant RFPs.

2. Application Complications

Online applications are convenient for grant makers but they come with their share of headaches for grant writers. (By “online,” I’m referring to the web-based proposal submission systems.) The technical challenges involved with using these systems-if we can even access them at all-place additional demands on the grant seekers’ time.

Please provide a “save and finish later” option. I am not going to complete a multi-page online application in one sitting. It’s not going to happen. I generally approach these like school exams; get the easy questions answered first, e.g., EIN number, executive director’s name, contact information, board roster, and so forth. This frequently means skipping through the application, and not being able to save my work as I go is a huge pain in the neck.

Clicking the “back” button in the browser causes data to disappear in some forms. This headache is lessened by drafting your answers in a Word document, and then cutting and pasting the text into the application form. If your answers disappear, at least you don’t have to recreate them.

However, cutting and pasting come with limitations because it sometimes results in weird characters showing up in the application form. You may not find this out until after the application is submitted and you print out your copy.

Narrow character limitations prevent thoughtful responses. This is not a debate between what grant makers want to know vs. what grant writers need to say. If my organization has a meals program, case management services, an after-school program, an advocacy program, an emergency shelter and an employment and education program, is 1,000 characters sufficient to summarize it all? (That’s about three paragraphs.) Personally, I would much rather write 500 words than 1,000 characters.

Please don’t use software that is so unique that I can’t use it again. One Midwest funder required downloading a specific type of software just to complete the final report.

Speaking of unique, may I add that finance people love to work with foundation-specific budget templates that don’t allow adding new categories or even footnotes? (No, not really.) If grant makers can collaborate to create a common grant application, surely they can create a common financial template as well.

And please, don’t leave me guessing whether the submission was successful. I appreciate even an automatically generated e-mail confirmation.

3. Go Green!

I find government agencies are particularly bad at this. For one grant, a local government agency wanted an original proposal and 5 copies-one-sided only-packed in a box that was clearly labeled in a particular way. If I have the ability to save a document as a PDF, I should have the ability to e-mail it to you. Spending my time at Kinko’s thinking of all the work I could be doing while I’m babysitting a copier is no fun.

Speaking of PDFs, I know the technology exists to edit and save my work in PDFs. Please use it.

4. Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You

An oft-repeated recommendation is to contact the grant maker if the proposal isn’t funded. However, many grant makers say in their rejection letters “Don’t call or write.” I recall one organization I worked where one grant maker, after several years of funding, declined our proposal. If the rejection letter had simply advised us that they were skipping us for a year and to reapply next cycle, that would have been fine. The letter simply said we hadn’t been chosen for a grant. I called the grant maker and left messages that weren’t returned and my e-mails weren’t answered, either.

Sometimes you never hear any response at all: “If you don’t hear from us, you haven’t been approved.” A simple little e-mail with the answer and a few tips would really be appreciated. If I don’t know why the funder rejected my proposal how will I know what to do better next time?

Some grant makers are so small they have one staff person, usually part-time, so getting answers from them will be an uphill climb. Better to just try again next funding cycle.

I also follow a “three strikes” rule. If a proposal has not been funded or even acknowledged three times, then it’s time to re-examine whether it’s worth the effort to keep submitting proposals. Ask your board members if they have a contact at the funder. Have you been able to connect with someone at the funder to have a conversation about your proposal and its chances for success. If the “nays” outweigh the “ayes,” then it’s probably time to stop submitting to this funder and move on.

I’m not the only one riding this hobby horse. The Foundation Center released a report in April 2011 with recommended best practices to streamline the application and reporting process.

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