Five Big No-No’s in Your Grant Application

It’s really hard to write grants in a vacuum. Someone has asked you to write a grant to pay for XYZ project in your school. But, if you don’t have any background information, you don’t know the why of the appeal for funds. Here are five big factors to consider before you start to write. They will help you sharpen your vision and show you’ve done your homework.

  • You need to know what your potential funding partner is paying for these days. The error in thinking comes when an applicant clones a good proposal and sends it out to multiple funders. This implies that the applicant has not done their homework to research potential grantors to determine funding priorities. Every foundation or corporate funding entity has a reason for his or her largesse. Lately, it’s been all about improvement in academic achievement. It is in everyone’s best interest to work together to bring our kids out of academic doldrums and excel in school. Find out what the funder values, is it STEM projects? Technology? Do your homework using the Grants Database to find funding partners who are in alignment with what you are trying to do.

  • Is your school eligible for funding from this source? Many foundations will only provide grants to non-profit 503(c) organizations. 503(c) is an IRS designation that shows your non-profit is organized in a certain way, has a board of directors, and a carefully designed plan to operate in your state. Schools generally, are not 503(c) organizations. You are a public school; therefore, a city funds your school from taxpayer dollars. If you are a public school, make sure the foundation you are courting will even read your appeal.
  • You’ve included incomplete answers to questions on the application. Foundations ask many questions to determine if your project is in alignment with their funding goals. However, they also want to know about your school, and especially your project. Although you ask, “Who would leave a proposal half-finished?” it happens all the time. Proposals are usually scored using a rubric, and the foundation readers can’t give you a score if the application is incomplete. It also shows that you don’t have the answers to the questions. Get the answers; they are being asked for a reason.
  • You haven’t revealed the problem you are trying to solve, or it is unclear. A grant application should contain evidence of a needs analysis, what are the reasons you need funding to solve your problem? The flip side of this, and equally important, is to explain how you intend to measure your success when you use the funds for a successful conclusion to the project. A strong needs analysis and equally strong evaluation plan will win the day every time.
  • When your objectives are unclear, it shows you have not thought through your application. Think of your program objectives as the center of your project. Remember writing behavioral objectives for lesson plans? It might be worth reviewing that model for grant-funded projects. How will your organization change its behavior to ensure success in solving your problems and meeting your objectives? Check out my article on narrative organization, lists of things that should be in your application. Most foundations provide detailed marching orders, but in the planning stage, it helps to have an outline of what you should include.
  • If you are asking for a great deal of money to pay for staff, it raises a red flag that your organization is underfunded at the basic level. A project for a grant will be well defined and requires only part time or consulting staff to complete. After school programs obviously need paid staff, but you shouldn’t be asking for funds for a full time project manager from the grantor, unless it’s at the funder’s suggestion. That position should be filled by the regular school budget; it shows commitment from the central office.
  • You litter your narrative with teacher-talk. Jargon, buzzwords and acronyms drive a reader crazy. They are usually very well versed in the areas of education you are addressing but the use of jargon suggests a writer who is inexperienced and needs to show the reader what an experienced teacher they are. This should be expected, you wouldn’t be applying if you didn’t know what you were talking about.
  • The application is loaded with spelling and grammar errors. Shame on you, how hard is it to run your narrative through a spell checker and proof it a few times? Hand it off to your resident English teacher, she’ll be glad to proof it for you. Get a copy of the scoring rubric the foundation uses to score applications; it will guide you to success.
  • Your budget does not reflect your needs. People often ask for funds for supplies that don’t have anything to do with the specific goals you have made. The funder will know these are items you are sneaking in to the budget, it’s bad form and will guarantee that your application will end up in the circular file.

A few good resources for grant writing:
Good lists of resources
Tips for Writing a Great Application
School Funding Center Grants Database
OWL Writing Center

Leave a comment or question, I’d love to pass along any tips you want to add.


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About Neva Fenno

Neva Fenno, M.S.Ed., MLIS, has been a special education teacher, school library media specialist, curriculum specialist and grants manager for several urban school districts in New York and Massachusetts for 30 years. As grants manager for 7 years, she managed up to $28,000,000 a year in federal, state, foundation and corporate grants from application through fiscal administration. She has hundreds of stories to tell, not all successes, but from each story there is a lesson to be learned.

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