Top Mistakes to Avoid When Grant Writing for Nonprofits

Writing grants for nonprofit organizations is practically an art form. People take years to master the process and it can be arduous, particularly for new charitable organizations who need to qualify for grants in a hurry.

At Addition Financial, we work closely with our nonprofit members to help them manage their finances. Sometimes, they ask us for advice about grant writing – specifically, they want to know what NOT to do. Here are the top mistakes to avoid when writing grants for nonprofits.

Mistake #1: Not Following Instructions

This first mistake might seem like a no-brainer, but you’d probably be surprised at how many grant writers ignore the instructions when writing their proposal. The best way to avoid this mistake? Read the instructions carefully and make a checklist to use as you write (and before you submit).


  • Instructions about what supporting documentation to include – and be specific. If you need to submit a three-year budget, make sure you write that and not just “budget.”
  • Instructions about how to format the proposal. Some funders include nitpicky formatting requirements that are designed to weed out amateurs. Make sure you stick to the guidelines even if they seem silly.
  • Instructions about how to submit your proposal. Sometimes, using a staple instead of a paper clip can get your grant denied.

Use the checklist both while writing your grant and again before you submit it.

Mistake #2: Asking for the Wrong Amount of Money

Another common mistake is to ask for too much (or too little) money. The solution here is an easy one. Research the funder. Find out what size grants they most frequently award and ask for an amount that’s in their wheelhouse. If you’re not in the ballpark, they’re going to assume you didn’t take the process seriously. The likely result is that you won’t get the grant.

Mistake #3: Not Asking for the Grant

Sometimes, the people writing grants aren’t comfortable with the idea of asking for money – and it shows. Your grant proposal must specify the amount of money you want. We’ve heard from some funders that they routinely receive grant applications that don’t actually ask for the grant!

Our recommendation is that you put the grant amount on your checklist. That way, it’s part of the grant-writing process and also part of your final check before you submit the proposal.

Mistake #4: Focusing on Your Organization Instead of on the People It Serves

When a funder awards a grant to the organization, they’re not doing it to help the organization. Instead, they’re doing it to help the people that the organization serves. Keep that in mind when writing grants. If you say you want a grant to bring your community food bank out of the red, you’re going to be denied.

The alternative? Say you want the grant to feed 1,000 families in your service area. The more concrete you can be about how you will use the money, the more likely it is you will receive the grant you need.

Mistake #5: Using Jargon Instead of Clear Language

Grant writing is an art, but that doesn’t mean you should use fancy or incomprehensible language in your proposal. In fact, the opposite is true. Your proposal should be clearly written and easy to understand, even for someone who doesn’t know the ins and outs of what you do.

Another way to say it is that you should never assume the person evaluating your application knows your work or organization the way you do. You don’t want to talk down to them, but you should be clear, precise and define your terms so that anybody can understand your proposal.

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Mistake #6: Cutting and Pasting the Funder’s Guidelines

It’s important to follow the instructions and guidelines provided by the funder. However, avoid taking shortcuts. If you simply copy and paste their instructions, they’ll notice – and they won’t award you the grant.

Instead, use the guidelines as what they are intended to be – a guide. Explain how your proposal fits into the guidelines and why you think your organization deserves the funds.

Mistake #7: Faking the Budget

The budget you submit with your grant proposal must add up. This is not the time to throw together some numbers. You need to think carefully about how you will use the funds you’re requesting and make sure the items in your budget are reasonable, appropriate and accurate.

That means you’ll need to double and triple-check your budget before submitting it. Make sure you follow the instructions and then add a final review of your budget to your checklist.

Grant writing is an essential skill for nonprofits. If you avoid the seven mistakes we’ve outlined here, you’ll maximize your chances of getting the grants you need.

To learn about Addition Financial’s business accounts for nonprofit organizations, please click here now.

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