Tracks to Success
Common Grant Writing Mistakes You Can Fix Today!
by Alice Ruhnke, CEO, The Grant Advantage
Writing grants can seem like a daunting task to both the novice and experienced grant writer. There is an art to grant writing and understanding the terms and technical aspects of an application is not always an easy task. The good news is that time and practice can help us improve our skills…we learn more about what funders are asking for in their applications and how to answer their questions the way they want us to respond.
Oscar Wilde is quoted as saying, “Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.” All grant writers grow in their craft over time and learning from mistakes (and the mistakes of others) helps us increase our skills. Given this framework, I would like to share my experiences as a grant writer and grant reviewer—outlining eight common mistakes and ways to correct them—to help you increase your chances of getting your application funded.
Mistake #1: Assuming the funder knows what your organization does
and the impact you have on the community
Most grant applications start with a background or introduction section. The purpose of this section is to establish your organization’s credibility. This section should have information on your organization’s history, mission, clients and service area, initiatives and programs, and accomplishments. You don’t want to be too philosophical or overload the section with history, but you do want to convey the critical milestones in your organization’s history. Let the reader know whom you serve and in what geographic location. Outline the services you provide, highlighting the strengths of the particular initiative you are applying for funds to support. Finally, share your accomplishments. This is your time to shine and ensure the funder that your organization can get the job done, evidenced by the demonstrated positive impact on the community or target population.
The mistake many writers make is to not include enough information in the section to adequately tell the story of their organization. This section should build confidence in your ability to perform the work you are proposing. Don’t overlook this important opportunity to demonstrate to the funder that you are an organization worth supporting!
Here is an example of a background section that positively demonstrates the organization applying for funds, when it was developed, its mission, community and target population served, and its strengths and accomplishments.
The Grant Advantage is a progressive, innovative 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to advancing the mission of nonprofit organizations, faith-based organizations and educational institutions through fund development. Born in 2006 from a burning desire to help nonprofit organizations better serve their communities, The Grant Advantage offers grant writing and editing services, strategic funding research, comprehensive program development, outcome measurement assistance, and facilitation of skill-based fundraising workshops and trainings. The Grant Advantage strives to provide services that are high-quality, dynamic, individualized, and customized to meet the needs of each client.
The Grant Advantage has been successful in raising over $3 million for nonprofit organizations from a variety of federal, state, and foundation sources. Over the past five years, over 1,100 unduplicated individuals have received training from The Grant Advantage from a variety of trainings, including Accessing Federal Funds, Finding Funds, Grant Fundamentals, Planning Grant Applications, Foundations of Fundraising, Outcome Measurement, Developing a 501(c)(3), and Developing a Successful Grantseeking Strategy. The founder and CEO also serves as the lead trainer for the Mountain State Leaders Program—a program designed to teach all of West Virginia’s full time AmeriCorps members how to be active in the community change process. In addition, she has successfully planned and implemented two statewide “Funding Conferences” to teach nonprofit organizations a myriad of strategies and techniques to develop organizational sustainability.
“Building on what works” has led to a unique partnership between The Grant Advantage and CharacterEthics. CharacterEthics is also a West Virginia-based nonprofit organization whose mission is “to be fully present to the best in each of us so that we experience the peace and power to act in the interest of equality, inherent worth and self-governance.” The two organizations have collaborated on a variety of projects to bring strength-based approaches to nonprofit development and sustainability. As a testimony to the power of the partnership, a recent workshop participant stated, “The approach of this training was the easiest, most useful thing I’ve learned in being able to accomplish what I want to do in my community and personal life as well as future ambitions. THANK YOU FOR THIS OPPORTUNITY.”
Mistake #2: Discussing your organizational needs and not the needs
of your target population in the needs section
The needs section of an application should clearly define the needs of the target population. To adequately paint this picture, it is necessary to discuss both the need itself and the reason behind the need. The need itself describes the current condition or status of the population being served. The need should be documented with credible sources, relevant to the project being funded, and local in nature. You want to use up-to-date numbers and statistics that paint the picture as well as stories of the target population to further illustrate their struggles. This baseline data of the “here and now” will also benchmark your progress which will help you develop your goals and objectives.
It is also important to discuss the reasons behind the need or why the target population is experiencing their current condition or status. Most often, there will be several reasons behind the need, so you should clearly identify the one you will be addressing through your program. The reason behind the need will lead right to your approach, or in other words, the causes of the need leads to what you will do to address the need.
The common mistake in this section is for organizations to discuss their own needs (i.e., “We need a staff person to provide services” or “We need a new computer for outreach initiatives”) instead of outlining the needs of the people being served. Quite simply, your organization cannot be part of the problem…you exist to serve a need. You will get a chance to talk about how you will use the items you are asking for, but that will occur in the approach section.
Relating to the previous example, the following needs section describes the service area, current condition of the target population, and the reasons behind the need.
Needs of Service Area: State of West VirginiaIn the Part Two of this series, common mistakes in the goals and objectives section and the approach section will be highlighted. In the meantime, check the grant applications you have already written to see if you can identify and fix the common errors we discussed in this article.
West Virginia, the only state entirely within the Appalachian Region, encompasses 24,321 square miles of area and is home to approximately 1.8 million people. With its mountainous terrain and picturesque scenery, West Virginia’s nickname as the Mountain State epitomizes the “hills and hollers” associated with Appalachia. As the second most rural state in the nation, West Virginia is confronted with significant physical barriers which add economic challenges to many communities. According to the US Census Bureau (2009), the median household income in the state ($47,601) is significantly lower than the national level ($62,363). The state also fares worse than the rest of the country in unemployment levels, with West Virginia at 9.7% compared to the United States at 9.2% (US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2010).
These poor economic conditions lead to negative outcomes for many vulnerable populations—youth, the elderly, prisoners reentering communities, homeless, low-income families, veterans, and numerous others. Many nonprofits exist to address the unique needs of these at-risk populations; however, most do not have the funds to achieve the impact they are seeking to make on their communities.
Needs of Nonprofit Organizations (Data in this section are for illustrative purposes only—these are not actual numbers/statistics)
Guidestar, an online search engine that culls information on nonprofit organizations from the Internal Revenue Service and a variety of other sources, reveals over 14,000 nonprofit organizations in West Virginia—almost double the number identified in 2004. Seventy-two percent (72%) of these organizations report less than $25,000 in annual income (Guidestar 2011). As a result, the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office recorded that 1,500 nonprofits closed their doors in the last year because of a lack of funds. With the pool of funds available to nonprofits decreasing and competition for available funds increasing, it is vital that nonprofits are in position to obtain funding from a variety of sources to meet the needs of vulnerable populations across the state.
Reasons for the Need
In a feasibility study for the West Virginia Community Development Partnership, Terrell Ellis & Associates reported that “past research has shown that many of West Virginia’s nonprofits are struggling to effectively accomplish their mission.” This is attributed in large part to two factors: lack of organizational development and lack of access to philanthropic giving. The study further states that these organizations experience limited access to the wide variety of public and private resources for technical and financial assistance, particularly those at the national level due to a lack of knowledge regarding those resources and to a lack of “critical mass” needed to attract national funding organizations.
To follow up on these needs, The Grant Advantage conducted a survey in July 2010 of 100 nonprofit organizations across the state of West Virginia to ascertain their particular fund development needs. Eighty (80) organizations responded, revealing the need in the following areas for “some or significant assistance” to increase their capacity to attract funding:
84%: Communicating their story
95%: Grant writing skills
75%: Identifying funders
95%: Measuring outcomes
58%: Strategic planning
Lacking awareness and passion is not the issue. Strapped operating budgets and small staff sizes contribute to the fact that nonprofit organizations are not fully equipped to attract significant funding, let alone engage in organizational or leadership development activities. Most often, all energies are concentrated on the immediate problems they are working to alleviate and capacity-building activities have low (if any) priority for the scarce resources of the organization. This is true for West Virginia nonprofits, but collectively they have the potential to transform capacity-building resources, training, and technical assistance into stronger services.
This article was edited by Julie Kaufman. If you have any questions, comments, suggestions, useful tips, or are interested in writing a series for us, please email our Research team, or call our toll-free number: 877-784-7268.