Top Mistakes Grant Applicants Make (And How to Avoid Them)

Helen Richards grant writing unicorn
by Helen Richards
Aug 28th
Invite Only grant funders shaking hands and funding projects

This post is brought to us by grant writing student Helen Richards of Cradley Heath, West Midlands, England. She brings a unique perspective to grant writing as someone who has assessed thousands of grant applications.

Keep Getting Rejected?

You’ve shed blood, sweat and tears to get your grant application into the funder. You sit and wait, nervously twiddling your thumbs. Your charity/voluntary organisation/non-profit is relying on your grant writing wizardry to win the day.

Weeks pass. You get a letter/email into your inbox. You open it, twitching in anticipation. Then your heart sinks. Another rejection. You sigh and chuck the letter in the bin/delete the email and wonder how it all went wrong. Then curse under your breath as you know you must tell everyone else that you’ve failed.

Rejection hurts. No one likes to be rejected in general, especially when other people are relying on you.

Handily for you and your grant writing brothers and sisters, I’ve compiled the following tips to help you avoid the dreaded reject letter/email. I have read over 3,000 grant applications while being a grant officer for a well-known grant program in the UK. I’ve seen everything from small grant awards of £10,000 up to £750,000, and I have found that the same advice applies no matter the size grant you pursue! Read on and avoid some of the most common pitfalls that befall grant applicants.

#1

Not Fully Completing Application Forms

This may seem obvious, but in the grant programme I managed in the UK, I came across so many applications that didn’t get out of the starting blocks due to being incomplete.

Yes, filling in a form can be tedious, especially if you are in a rush. I know there are all those little tick boxes and seemingly useless sections that you think you can skip over. You can’t rely solely on the form prompting you to complete all the fields when it's online or electronic, and especially not when it’s in another format such as a PDF or a paper form.

But, from the funders perspective all those boxes are there for a reason. You need to pay attention and make sure you provide the required information, that is specific to your organisation and the funders requirements. Some of the most common things applicants miss out are:

  • Contact details; either not completing these fully or leaving sections blank
  • Organisation details and address not being fully completed
  • Not providing the required number of contacts for your organisation type
  • Not fully completing the project description/project idea/sections

Every application that is incomplete, either gets rejected outright or is delayed as staff must go back to the applicant to get this information. Make sure you check everything on the form has been completed and all the required contact and organisation details have been provided. Then check it again just to be sure! Then get someone else to check it. It’s no good having an amazing application if the basics are incomplete!

#2

Not Responding to Correspondence

Closely related to point one, is point number two. If your application is incomplete but only partially, most funding officers will drop you an email or a call to get the missing information.

They won’t wait around for you to respond forever. Funding Officers are busy people and have KPI’S (Key Performance Indicators) to adhere to. I think when I worked in funding, we had a two- or three-week grace period for incompletes. If the applicant did not respond in this time, then their application was closed as being incomplete.

If the applicant then called up, they had to submit a whole new application and go to the bottom of the pile. To avoid this I suggest:

  • Setting up new email addresses for all your project contacts, that they specifically use for the project. Make sure they are spelled correctly on your application form! This will lessen the chance of emails from the funder being lost in the sea of spam floating around your existing inboxes.
  • About spam, always check your junk folder. I have had issues with emails going straight into people’s spam folders.
  • Make sure your contact phone numbers are correct and for mobiles, switched on.
  • If you do get an email about an incomplete, respond asap to lessen any further potential delays.
#3

Taking Things for Granted AKA Your Funding Officer Knows Everything

You may assume that the person assessing your application has an encyclopaedic like knowledge of all things funding related. Whilst many funding officers may indeed have a large knowledge base, do not assume this is the case. You may be allocated a starry eyed, new to the grant world funding officer, like I was when I first started. You may get someone who is unfamiliar with your niche or subject matter.

Remember funding officers are people too with their own varying knowledge and experience base. If your application is page after page of jargon and obscure terms that even the most experienced of funding officers would struggle with, then you have a problem. This stands a high chance of being rejected.

For example, I once received an application and had no idea what the project was or what they wanted to achieve with it. I consider myself a dab hand with the written word, but this one stumped me. It was full of words and phrases I’d never heard of.

I reread it several times and was still scratching my head afterwards. I took it to my manager on the off chance I was just having a bad day, but he admitted he couldn’t make heads nor tails of it either. The result? It was rejected on the grounds of unclear project aims and how it fit in with the funding programme.

Make sure to avoid jargon and make it clear and specific as to what you are applying for funding for. This will make for a much happier funding officer and increase your chances of success!

#4

A Lack of Flow and Continuity Across the Application Form

This may sound like an odd one but hear me out. Imagine if you started reading a novel and the first chapter was about a gruesome murder being investigated by the police. Well, you would expect the story to progress along this theme, wouldn’t you?

Imagine getting to chapter three and suddenly, the novel changes genre. It wouldn’t make any logical sense to you and would most likely get terrible Amazon reviews.

I saw many applications where it looked like different sections had been bolted together from totally different projects. The project summary was about one thing, the budget another and the project aims something else entirely.

This is not a good way to construct your application form, it rings alarm bells with the funding officer and does not give a good impression of your organisation.

Is there continuity across your application form? Do the sections flow and make sense? On a similar theme, organisations used to just copy and paste a previous application and submit this, sometimes without even changing the dates!

I appreciate why charities and not for profits do this, as a time and resource saver, but it’s a fatal mistake. If you’ve not bothered to update the information and make the application current, the funder will reject your proposal.

#5

Applying for Ineligible Items And Bad Budgets

Whichever funding programme you apply to, it will have its own set of rules. This includes what the funder will and won’t pay for. If you submit a project where most of your budget is for ineligible items, guess what happens? Yup, a big fat reject stamp. Be sure you read the programme guidance before you start putting your proposal together. This will help you avoid this common pitfall. Some funders have odd little rules that applicants can easily miss, such as not funding used vehicles (but funding new ones!). Other budget pitfalls to avoid include:

  • Do not use miscellaneous or contingency as budget headings. This will most likely result in the funder contacting you for more information, thus slowing down the whole process. Especially miscellaneous, I mean that could be anything. Avoid.
  • Make sure it’s clear what each item in the budget is; remember a human will read your application.
  • Make sure your project is value for money. A lot of grant funding is from public money and is zealously guarded by the Funding Officer and whomever the Funder is. For example, if you list 20 iPad’s; can you justify why you need these specifically for the project? Or would a cheaper type of tablet work just as well? Projects can be rejected on the grounds of poor budgeting and/or not demonstrating value for money.
  • With seasonal workers/staff make sure you put down the hourly rate and how many hours per week they will be working. Again, make sure the hourly rate/salary is fair and demonstrates value for money. If you put some far-fetched hourly rate, the funding officer will be raising eyebrows (as well as questions) about your budget.
  • Ensure budget totals are correct at the bottom of the page.
  • Be sure to indicate how much of the project costs you are aiming to get from the funder, and how much your organisation is putting in from its own funds (for each item in the budget).
  • Align items in the budget with the activities you are planning to deliver. This must sound obvious but I have seen many applications where the budget had no apparent relation to the project. This will trigger a Funding Officer’s ‘Spidey Sense.’ They will most likely become suspicious, and if they are kind, they might contact you for an explanation. That is if they don’t just reject the project up front of course. Don’t even think about applying for dishonest reasons. The longer the Funding Officer has been in post, the better their ‘Spidey Sense’ will be.
  • Include a budget. Yes, people sometimes miss this out entirely.
#6

Not Asking For Feedback

If you do get the dreaded rejection letter/email, then all hope is not lost. Call or email the funder and ask them to provide some more feedback. Ask them for specific examples as to why you did not meet the programme criteria, or for any other pointers that could help you improve the application. Funding Officers are not gargoyles, at least in my experience and generally a friendly and understanding bunch.

If your application has potential and the programme allows it, you can always reapply. I can see all the introverts cringing at the thought of making a phone call but trust me it’s worth it. Just make a note of what you want to say beforehand, and you’ll be fine.

Summary Of Tips

To recap, remember that the top mistakes grant applicants make are:

  1. Not Fully Completing Application Forms.
  2. Not Responding to Correspondence.
  3. Taking Things for Granted
  4. A Lack of Flow and Continuity Across the Application Form
  5. Applying for Ineligible Items and Bad Budgets
  6. Not Asking for Feedback

Avoid these pitfalls and you’ll be on your way to grant writing success! I hope you found this post useful and would love to hear any comments in the box below. What have you found to be the most difficult parts of grant writing?

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