Five Mistakes to Avoid in Grant Writing

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.

By Kelsey Maloney of The Write Team



Four Easy Ways to Add Storytelling to Grants

I can’t count the number of times over my career as a grant writer that I’ve heard that storytelling as a critical piece of grant writing. “Statistics raise eyebrows, but stories raise money,” they say. “It’s the most important part of a proposal.”

While in theory I believed this to be true, I had a hard time figuring out exactly how to tell stories within the confines of a grant application, which often lays out exactly what information must be included. And length limitations make it even trickier. I mean, how do you tell a story when you only have 500 characters per question?

Over the last few years I’ve figured out a few methods of storytelling that seem to work in grant proposals. It's especially easy in ones that are in letter format, rather than question and answer format, but you usually can sneak in some stories even in the shortest of application forms.

I’m still learning, every day. But I’d like to share with you what I do know in case it’s helpful in your work.

1. Use a conversational tone

As much as you can, use everyday, simple language in your proposal, and avoid jargon. This can create a feeling of storytelling, rather than a dry list of facts about your organization. It can also improve readability for the poor folks who have to slog through hundreds of proposals a year.

Here’s an example: Instead of saying, “Transition House provides a variety of services and programs that assist homeless families in meeting the goals needed to secure and retain permanent housing.”  (Ugh, jargon much?)

Try saying something simpler, like, “Transition House helps homeless families with kids get back on their feet and back into housing.”  

This gives the reader an image of a family walking into a house. It’s telling a story in one sentence. You can still give all the information about the services you provide, but your sentences don’t have to be thick with words that sometimes don’t say very much.

2. Give specific examples of what you are describing

When describing an aspect of your program, it’s powerful to immediately give a real-life example that illustrates exactly what you are talking about. This can take the form of a fact about a client, or a quote from a client. Here’s an example from Alexander House Foundation:

For rental subsidies, once a client is approved, he or she may receive ongoing support for the rest of his or her life. Over the years, as the client’s rent increases, so will the subsidy. For example, we have been assisting one couple since 2006. Over that period of time, the rent for their one-bedroom apartment has increased from $1,000 to $1,600, but their combined income has only increased by $300. Thus, the monthly subsidy we provide consistently increases. We recently increased the subsidy for an 89-year-old woman when her rent increased by $250. Staying in her apartment is particularly important to her because she lives near Cottage Hospital and is able to walk to get her weekly blood tests.

Now the reader has a better understanding of why the organization would increase the rental subsidies, and they might even remember one of those stories when making a decision about the grant.

Here’s an example that uses a quote from Girls Inc. Carpinteria:

Girls Inc. provides girls with safe, nurturing spaces to explore their hopes and fears, while taking them on adventures that push their limits. Not only do our girls develop as scholars, they gain a support network that helps them overcome their fears. One high school senior reflected on her experience by saying, “One of many core values I learned from Girls Inc. was to step out of my comfort zone. These words became my mantra… I overcame my fear of heights, my fear of speaking in front of people, and learned to take control of my depression and anxiety.”

Isn’t that powerful? And it doesn’t even take up that much space!

3. Use headlines to organize your text

I think it’s a good idea to break up the dense lines of text in a proposal with headlines that offer the essence of what a particular section is about. I say headline, rather than label, because it’s more impactful to take a journalistic approach and include a verb in there! This is the most recent lesson I learned (from a storytelling expert named Jeff Brooks), and I think it’s made my proposals more interesting.

Below is an example (from Pacific Pride Foundation) of how you can change a boring label into a more informative and engaging headline. The original section label I had on the example below was “Community Outreach.” Blah. Both jargony and uninformative. Here’s what I changed it to:

HIV and Hepatitis C Education Teaches People How to Stay Healthy

We provide HIV/HCV presentations to organizations, businesses, and schools. In 2017-18 we reached 2,004 people at 38 different recovery agencies, health fairs, Planned Parenthood, the Rescue Mission, testing events, and other locations.

The new headline is a step up in that it tells the reader something before they even read the paragraph. This can be important if the reader never actually reads the paragraph, or just gives it a cursory glance. I suspect there is a lot of skimming going on with proposal reading, so the more you can convey with headlines, the better.

4. Liberally use quotes and testimonials

Quotes and testimonials can be an easy way to bring stories to a proposal. One thing I’ve been doing for a number of years is introducing a section of the proposal with a headline and a quote that relates to the topic. This way, the reader knows something before they read the paragraph, and then they are drawn in immediately by a story that will make them feel something.

Here is an example from Transition House of how to incorporate quotes as a storytelling method:

We are requesting a grant to support our family emergency shelter, the first stage in our three-stage housing program. This program has a tremendous impact on families in our community. One of our volunteers recently told us this: “I have been profoundly touched, moved, and taught by the families here. I often see families one year, two years, three years later in the community and they always say, ‘Thank God for Transition House. It is the best thing that ever happened to me.’”

And a final one from Girls Inc. Carpinteria:

Our girls have experienced acute anxiety as the result of recent attacks on immigrant and women’s rights and terrifying events like school shootings. Through the She Votes civic engagement program, they turn fear into action. Girls learn about public policy issues and participate in a mock election in which they cast votes for the candidates and initiatives on the real ballot. Our 21st recipient of the prestigious Girls Inc. National Scholar award recipient, Jenna Ortiz*, explained our impact on her life by saying, "I am grateful to have won the Girls Inc. National Scholarship, but I could not have done it without the help of my Girls Inc. mentors. They taught me how to be genuine and provided me with tools that will continue to support me in the future. I will always cherish Girls Inc. of Carpinteria for giving me a second home and making a confident woman out of me."

I also think that quotes are helpful when talking about impact or evaluation. Here's an example from Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation:

In determining our outcomes, we gather data through an annual survey that asks families how they were impacted by our services. We collect quantitative data through numeric rating scales about our services as well as qualitative data through feedback written in the family’s own words, such as:

"You hear about children getting sick but you never imagine it will happen to you. When Will* was diagnosed, we were in shock and were not prepared for the impact it would have on our family both financially and emotionally. With the loss of one income and huge medical bills, Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation provided financial support that allowed us to keep our heads above water. They also helped to cover counseling services to help repair the emotional and social impact on Will. We are so grateful to be part of their family.” ~ TBCF Family

"My wife and I are very thankful for Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation who has helped us financially and emotionally. We were invited to Family Support Groups once a month to speak with others families, connect with them, and become like a family; we felt safe talking to others about our issues." ~ TBCF Family

There are many more aspects to storytelling in grant proposals than what I laid out here. Please share other methods you use in the comments below!

* Names have been changed to protect privacy.

By Heather Stevenson of The Write Team



Finding Funders That Fit

Have you ever heard anyone say, “Why don’t we just write up a letter of inquiry and send it out to a bunch of foundations and see what sticks? What’s the downside?”

I can practically feel the foundation staff members cringing right now.

According to a couple of foundation representatives I spoke with, this “scattershot” approach is something that they are basically begging us to not do. Not only does it make extra work for them, it can be a waste of time and resources for the applicant. Here are some tips to help you figure out if a funder is a good fit or not before you send off that LOI:

Read the guidelines!

This is definitely a “no-duh,” but it’s easy to become complacent and skip a thorough review of the guidelines (if they exist). The most efficient place to start is the geographic area within which they fund. If your location is included, your next step is to look up their list of grantees and see if any of them are in your area. You can easily pull funder tax returns (the 990 form)--which have this information--at Many foundations say they give nationally or regionally, but they really focus on only a handful of locations. So technically you might be a fit, but in reality, if they have never funded in your area before, it is unlikely that they will do so now. This might be particularly true in a community of the size and perceived affluence of Santa Barbara.

Also check if they have restrictions on the budget size of the organization. This nearly happened at The Write Team just this week! We got wind of a new grant opportunity, got excited and shared it with our clients, and then realized that the limit on organizational budget size excluded most of our clients.

By the way, reading the guidelines before each time you apply is important, even if you apply for the grant every year and believe that you already know the guidelines well. As the years go by, it’s very possible to forget some of the finer points that could help you make your proposal more compelling or help you with the submission process. And the funder’s guidelines might change. You wouldn’t want to have missed it when the Towbes Foundation started accepting proposals via email, right? (No more worrying about staples versus paper clips!)

Determine how well your program fits their guidelines

After you determine that the foundation gives in your geographic area, dig down into the types of things they fund. Some funders are very general in their guidelines, saying they fund “education” or “youth programs.” Okay, so they fund “education” but what aspect are they really interested in?

This is another time that it helps to look at their past grantees. You may find that they generally fund GED programs for high school seniors, or retention programs for college freshmen. That means your tutoring program for kids with cancer wouldn’t be a good fit, even though technically you would fit under the “education” interest area. Unless you have been encouraged to apply by the foundation, don’t send an LOI in this case! Another example is a funder who supports only classical music programs. You won’t want to send them a request for a rock music programs for kids.

Touch base with foundation staff

It never hurts to call the foundation and ask them if your program/organization is a fit. Sometimes they will say, “Well technically your program is a fit, but we are unlikely to fund such a program at this time.” Blammo! No need to waste your time with this one. You may want to put a tickler on your calendar to try back in a year or two, but for now it’s a “no.” Conversely, you may happily find out that your program is a great fit, and the foundation person could give you helpful guidance on the best way to approach your application. I’ve also been able to find out about newly shifting priorities (like a board member’s particular interest in music therapy for disaster relief survivors) that aren’t listed in the guidelines yet when I make that call. This puts me ahead of the curve in approaching this funder.

Don’t chase the money

Sometimes non-profit staff will see a grant opportunity that loosely relates to the mission of their organization, and want to develop a new program to fit the guidelines, even though it’s not something they would have done on their own. For example, an after school program might be tempted to start offering a theatre program in order to qualify for a Santa Barbara Bowl grant. Or an HIV prevention program might think about starting an STI screening program because the health department has money for this purpose. It’s rarely a good idea to create a new program just because there is funding for it! It’s far better to plan what you want to do, then seek funding to support it. Otherwise your organization could stray from its mission.

This is a hot topic for nonprofits. Here’s a longer article that underscores why it’s essential to avoid chasing funding and allowing potential funding to drive program choices.

Make it interesting, easy to read, and brief

If, after all this, you feel like it’s a good fit, go for it! Remember to keep the reader in mind as you write, as they might be up late at night reading through dozens of letters. Make your two-page letter of inquiry easy to read, and as interesting as possible. Include stories about those you serve (see my article about storytelling in grant writing <here>). Break up long paragraphs into sections with headlines. Attach photos or newsletters when the funder allows it. Try not to be repetitive. Be clear about what you are asking for. All of this will make it easier for the reader to understand the importance of your program, and thus you will be more likely to be funded.

Do longshots ever work out?

Yes! While I try to live by these guidelines, every once in a while I’ll put in an application to a longshot funder and end up with a grant. Those times are wonderful and amazing! But, for most organizations, these times are the exception to the rule. So...find a funder that fits before you forge forward!

By Heather Stevenson of The Write Team



Be an LOI Hero


Securing funds for your non-profit’s crucial mission is challenging and rewarding.  The work of a grant-writer is behind the scenes, making you one of the unsung heroes of the non-profit world. If winning a grant for your agency is a hero’s journey, then the first step of the journey is often an LOI (letter of inquiry or letter of intent). Of course, the first step is the most important one, so this post will guide you to write great letters.

As you begin crafting your letter, think first about your reader. Grantmakers are generous philanthropic folks with a lot of reading to do, often in their own free time.  They probably share your vision and want to make the world a better place. And yet, they probably know next-to-nothing about your specific agency. A few keys:

  • Pretend the reader has never heard of your group, your work, or why it matters.

  • Explain exactly what need in the world you’re addressing and how.

  • Write in plain English, avoiding jargon. Instead of writing a brief history of your agency, take a page from the advertising professionals and attempt to keep to a single minded proposition (SMP).   

  • Focus on how the funder’s stated goals will be met through your work.

  • Tell a story! Target your story to your audience (know what they care about).

To review the basics, your letter will be two pages (or fewer), and will answer these questions:

  • How will this project change the world?

  • Why is this important and urgent now?

  • Who will benefit directly, and what will be the long-term outcomes?

  • What is the budget, and how will the funds be spent?

Now that you’ve put yourself in the mind of the reader, it’s time to start from the ground up. The ground, in this case, should be your project budget. Before you begin writing any narrative, you need to  have a good grasp of the “what” of your request. Make sure your project budget is final and clearly illustrates where the grant funds will be spent.

With the budget in hand,  you’re ready to make your outline. Here’s a place to begin:

Sample LOI Outline:

  1. BRIEF Introduction (first sentence includes the ask including a $ amount)

  2. Case Statement

  3. $ Request

  4. Project Details

  5. Outcomes (Impact), not outputs (actions)

  6. Summary, Gratitude and Next Steps

To succeed in your hero’s journey, your letter should be attuned to the funder and focus on the outcomes of your work. It should have one very short story or testimonial from a constituent (or another funder). You won’t have space in this letter to provide your organization’s entire history or the details of the way you deliver your program. Stay at the high elevation: explain the problem you’re solving, the way you make the world a better place. Better yet, practice the “show don’t tell” style of writing by using a specific quotation or example to illustrate the power of your work.

Now go out and get some grants! Remember that, just as in fundraising from individuals, the most common response to an LOI ask is “no.” Keep at it: identify funders who care about your mission, and hone your letters and grants. Use a trusted system like this one to keep track. Thank your funders, and follow through with reporting requirements.

P.S.  Read more about using the hero’s journey in your grantwriting.

By Michelle Howard of The Write Team



Preparing for a Site Visit

Preparing for a Site Visit

“Yahoo! We’re getting a site visit. We are awesome!” Making it to this point in the grant application process can be exhilarating, and it can be tempting to pat yourself on the back and relax until the day of the visit.

The truth is, these visits do make a difference, and the more prepared you are the better. The people who sit on site visit committees are often volunteers who have to read 20-30 applications in a short period of time, so you can’t realistically expect them to retain all the information from the written application. This means they may ask questions that are already covered in the application, or confuse your application with another one they read that day. Over-preparing is the best way to navigate this potentially stressful situation! Here are some helpful tips for getting ready for the day:

Decide who will be there

Some funders require certain people to be at a site visit, such as a board member. Make sure you get the required people in the room. If you need a volunteer or board member, make sure to contact them with plenty of advance warning. This is a common thing that organizations forget about and they end up scrambling at the last minute. Other than board members, you should probably have the executive director and a representative from the program who can answer very specific questions. If your financials are complicated, you may want to have your finance person there a well. Sometimes it’s helpful to have the grant writer there to take notes, explain aspects of the application, or ask the funder pertinent questions about the process.

Give everyone a copy of the application

Make sure everyone has a copy of the application well before the day of the visit. If you email the application to your group, make it into a PDF that includes all the attachments--such as the board list, financials, budget, and statistics sheets. (You usually won’t need to include the audit, 990, or tax letter, but do make sure one person in the room has access to these documents in case you are asked about them.)

Read the application

Make sure everyone reads the application--including the budget! You will need to know how much you are asking for and what that funding will support. It’s easy to think you know the program well enough that you don’t need to read the application. But funders often have specific questions or requirements that you may be unfamiliar with. Having all the information fresh in your mind when you enter the site visit makes answering questions easier, and keeps you from frantically shuffling through the pages trying to answer a question you weren’t prepared for.

Brainstorm possible questions

Meet a day or two before the site visit and brainstorm what questions might be asked, and write down your answers. You may also want to have a general plan about who in your group will answer which kinds of questions. Some funders send questions in advance, which is a wonderful thing! If they don’t give you questions, you can certainly call and ask what kinds of questions you should be prepared to answer.

Prepare the location

Some “site visits” are actually just interviews at the funder’s office. In this case, you don’t need to worry about the space. But if they come to you, decide where the best place to meet is. If you run a food bank or a shelter, you will want to meet there so you can give them a tour. If you meet in your office, make sure it is tidy and that you have water available for everyone who is at the site visit.

Come with statistics, financials, and updates

One thing that can really trip up a site visit is when the visitors ask a question about specific statistics or financials. Numbers can be hard to remember, so come with a written summary of your statistics--and updates since the application was submitted--that you can easily reference during the meeting. Come with your most recent financials, and be familiar enough with them that someone in your group can discuss them if needed.

Fit in a story

This is your moment to shine. Identify your best program story and your best storyteller, and make sure that person finds a way to share the story in the site visit. Another way to do this is to have a constituent or graduate of your program present to tell their own story.

Ask questions

At the end of a site visit, the visitors will likely ask if you have any questions. This would be a good time to ask what the timeline is on decisions (if they haven’t already told you), or ask something else that came up for you in the meeting. But don’t make up questions just to have something to ask!

Being as prepared as possible will help you get through this process. But even the most prepared group will sometimes not be able to answer a question. There is nothing wrong with saying, “We don’t know, but we can get back to you.” Then make sure to get back to them that day or the next.

Hopefully these tips will help your next site visit go smoothly!

By Heather Stevenson of The Write Team