Why Grant Applications Fail

Grant Applications

Last month I attended the Quad Cities’ Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals annual Funders Panel. Each of the six funders in attendance offered an overview of their grant programs followed by answering questions from the audience.

As a firm believer that we often learn more from the negative than the positive, I found the last question the most valuable:

“Other than lack of funds, what is the most common reason applications submitted to your organization do not receive funding?”

Great question, huh?! Here is what these granting professionals said.

  1. Lack of clarity. Be sure you clearly explain your project or program to the reviewers. Remember that they do not come with your same experiences and background, so leave out the jargon and abbreviations. I had this experience when serving on a review panel; the three of us making the funding decision had no idea what the grant would fund. So, we turned it down.

  2. Lack of a compelling need. You might have the coolest program in the world, but if it doesn’t solve or attempt to solve a community need, it will not receive funding. Equally important, if the need it solves does not fall under the priorities of the funder, it will not receive funding. Again, the funder does not live in your world day in and day out so clearly explain the need including why people with this need suffer (what I call the “so what?”).

  3. Lack of purpose. If you program has no purpose, it will not receive funding. To demonstrate purpose, clearly outline your need and how your program helps to meet that need or overcome that shortcoming for your clientele. That is, if your need stems from low high school graduation rates, how will your program improve the chances that participants will graduate from high school?

  4. Unclear project budget. Your project budget should clearly follow from the program description. Make sure you explain the use of all of the budgeted items in your project plan and include everything you need to make your program work. It goes without saying (but I’ll say it): the budget absolutely must add up correctly.

  5. No other funders. Few funders want to provide the sole support for your program. It shows that you have no skin in the game (if your organization hasn’t invested) and that no others have found it compelling. Having only one funder also means that funder shoulders all of the risk for the program. If they cannot fund the program in the future, it means the program will not likely survive. Show they you have or will leverage their grant with other funds to increase your chance of funding.

  6. No compelling story. People give to people. Your grant reviewers are people so tell them the story of your organization and your clients and how their support can make a real difference in their lives. Make it personal and human, not just a list of facts and figures. It’s easy to deny funding to a list of facts; it’s much harder to not help people.

  7. Not a lot of thought. If you threw the application together at the last minute, funders can tell. Incomplete sentences, lack of argument depth, few or uncompelling stories, typos, spelling and punctuation errors, and generic arguments (not personalized to the needs of this funder) all point to a hastily thrown together application that funders can more easily decide not to fund.

Next time you do not receive funding from a grant application, take an honest look at the request and see if your application suffered from any of these foibles. Then call the funder and ask for feedback. Never argue, but see what you can learn from the funder about their perception of your organization and application. Throughout the conversation, you may have an opportunity to educate them more about your organization, cause, and clients that might make it more likely to receive funding next time.

And don’t forget to thank the funder who does make a grant to you. Ask them for feedback too. Although your grant received high enough marks to receive funding this round, few write perfect applications. Use this as an opportunity to learn how others viewed your application so you can improve the next one.


Related Nonprofit Tips & Tidbits