January 26, 2017

While most of Elevate’s work and blog posts focus on how to win grants, it’s also important to understand how grants are lost.

Losing a grant is not uncommon, and in fact, there are times when it even makes sense to pursue a grant that you are likely to lose. For example, if you hope to win a large public grant next year, you might apply just to get reviewer feedback on your program. Or, you might submit to a foundation that will be cultivated over time, in order to begin a relationship with them.

The reasons organizations lose grants are typically specific to the organization and proposal, so a generalized list can only be so helpful. (But we’re going to try!) This list is adapted from a comprehensive version by the United Way, which is available here. We’ve boiled it down to this.


1. YOU Gloss over the details

Strong requests are built around specifics. Funders are unlikely to approve requests with unclear implementation plans. You need to clearly articulate: what specifically is being done, the day-to-day, month-to-month, and annual timeline by which its being done, and the specific person(s) responsible for executing.

2. YOU ARE an unknown entity

Funders are much, much more likely to invest in organizations they know and trust. But the good news is that there are a lot of ways to become known—build your brand in the community, reach out well in advance of submitting the proposal, or have someone else do the same on your behalf.

3. YOU Forget to include an expense in your budget that’s in your narrative

Oops! You developed a new program, or made adjustments to your existing program, but you forgot to adjust your budget to reflect that change. Whether you left out a new position, cut a workshop, or mentioned supplies without a line item, these mistakes can immediately kill your legitimacy to a funder. It is essential that your budget and budget narrative align precisely.

4. Write or format your request in a way that does not inspire confidence

You must write with confidence and expertise. This is actually one of Elevate’s biggest secrets for small nonprofits just starting out. Sometimes, simply by sounding professional and presenting your materials in an organized way, you can inspire outsized confidence in your organization—especially when you do not have a long track record of results.

5. YOU Use jargon unnecessarily

At Elevate, we actually believe there is a place for some forms of jargon; not using the technical term when it is expected might indicate that you are out of your depth. At the same time, jargon can prevent a reader from easily understanding what and why you do the work that you do. Instead, we recommend that you tailor your writing to your audience: sophisticated foundations with subject-matter experts are going to expect a more technical proposal than a giving circle or family foundation without paid staff.

6. YOU ARE good but not great

Funders are looking for impact. If your organization has unfocused programs, or does something pretty well, but not exceptionally well, you have to be prepared to lose funding to more specialized or higher-impact organizations. Unfortunately, this is one of the hardest areas to improve—and nearly impossible if you do not have the support of your executive leadership. Organizations can improve their programs and results over time—but it is not frequently a quick process.

7. YOU Ignore the elephant in the room

Do not avoid what needs to be said; frame it, yes, but do not avoid it. If you have had a major staff transition on your leadership team, if you lost a key partnership, or if your program outcomes just are not promising—you have to address the issue directly. If you’re struggling with what to include or not, review our post on transparency.

8. YOU Ask for too much money…or not enough

Your request amount has to be right—not only because you do not want to leave money on the table by asking for too little, but because you do not want to appear uninformed (at best) or offensive (at worse) to your funder. The best way to ensure your request amount is in line with the funder’s expectations is to do your research on other grants they have given or to ask them directly.

9 .YOU ARE TOO similar to other organizations in your space

You must put in the hard work to know your peers, know their programs, and know your points of divergence. Differentiation can be tricky and is always nuanced. For example, Elevate works with multiple theatre organizations in Washington, DC that are within blocks of each other and have similar budget sizes. But no one would think their artistic or community engagement work is similar. On the other hand, DC has dozens of youth development or mentoring programs that have to work hard to clarify how their program design is more effective than others with similar models.

10 YOU DON’T Stick to your values

There are funders who will not support your commitment to providing options counseling to pregnant youth. And there are millions of dollars to be won from corporate funders, if you do not care where or how they made their money. And for some organizations, these revenue sources are perfectly valid and welcome. For others, they are not. Remember: it is always better to lose a grant then to concede your values.

Are you surprised that “typos” didn’t make the list? Well, proofreading does make most of the Internet’s top ten lists for how to win a grant and of course you should proofread. But one small mistake is NOT going to lose your grant. (Twenty maybe, but not one.) This is because funders care about substance first. Substance! If your programs, leadership, and financials are not in place—a perfect grant will not win funding.

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