You ever wish you could just know what it was exactly you did wrong?
Or maybe turn back the clock and do things over again?
Or, even better, tell someone else what NOT to do?
Well it seems like a whole lot of people like to do that when it comes to grant writing. They like to tell you exactly what people do wrong. Fun, right?
Like when you do a playing test in front of the whole class and pick apart every single trumpet player because they aren’t using enough air and you keep wishing all of the others would finally learn from what you’ve been saying all along….*sigh*
Considering all my focus on grant writing lately, I haven’t really thought about doing an ‘AVOID THESE MISTAKES’ post; I’ve been more focused on “Here’s how to do it right to begin with”.
So with that in mind, I’ve decided NOT to write a post about the 13 mistakes to avoid, and instead I’ve researched the top several Google results and compiled, aggregated, and have now distilled for you the top 13 Mistakes that all of these authorities are saying you should avoid.*
Let’s count ’em down!
#13: The proposal is not structurally clear.
Now I’m guessing as musicians we are fairly strong writers to begin with. But if you find yourself staring at a grant proposal and not sure what to do…here’s my tip: Use an outline.
Just start with the problem, offer a solution, tell them what it’s going to cost, and ask for the money. Simple. [This is one of the things we talk about in my “How to Write a Grant in 30 Minutes or Less” online training….]
#12: Too much emphasis on the ‘why’- not enough on the ‘how’
When you have a blister on your foot, it’s easy to pinpoint the point of pain. It’s easy to say “I don’t have enough funding for my program.” But it’s more difficult to clearly and concisely state what the solution is.
[BTW, the solution is more hiking for those blisters….just get a callus. He he he]
For this to work easily for you, just use a timeline. At the end of the line, put the desired outcome- what life is like without that pain point. Then work backwards from there. What needs to happen to get that result?
Think of it like baking cookies. The problem? The cookie jar is empty and kids are going to come home starving and wanting cookies. How do we make that happen? At the end of our timeline, the cookies are made. To get to that point we baked them, heated up the oven, prepared the sheets, measured the dough into rounds, mixed in the dry ingredients, mixed the wet, prepared the mixer…..you get the idea.
Just think it through backwards.
#11: Reinventing the Wheel
Here’s an important question: who else is solving this same problem?
In business we would call this a ‘competitor analysis’. Once you find someone doing something similar, sign up for their email list….attend their events….stalk them. If you can find out where they are missing things, then you are one more step further on a more clearly defined proposal for a solution yourself.
[This is assuming someone is doing anything similar to what you are. Or solving the same problem you want to solve. There may not be!]
#10: Careless Editing
Seriously? Just send it over to a friend to proof-read. You don’t have to get a full-on analysis, but have someone at least make sure you are making sense. Being a teacher you have a FANTASTIC resource for this. It’s call the English teacher at your school. Or your Facebook friend that’s the grammar nazi. Whichever is easier and who buys better beer.
#9: Use of Jargon, Abbreviations, and/or Buzzwords
Now, don’t quote me on this…but I’m pretty sure education has more acronyms than any other field.
Right now the ‘buzz word’ in my district is “Performance Based Learning“- or, the acronym: PBL. As the board treasurer, I know better than to go presenting to a potential funding organization and tell them that our teachers need more money for PD because we are implementing PBL in our D51….
Spare the people who will be reading your grants from the confusion. Just spell it out. It doesn’t take that much longer to read.
[PS. “RFP” in the grant-world is the “Request for Proposal”. Aren’t you glad I spelled that out for you? Got me confused the first time I read that.]
#8: Focusing the Proposal on the Needs of Your Organization
Just like in dating….it’s not about YOU, it’s about THEM. Make it about THEM and they’ll want to take care of YOU.
Same goes for grantors. They have a mission to fulfill. They have donors to answer to as well. Help them out! Focus on their needs, and they’ll be more likely to help you with yours.
#7: Generic Proposals
In my “How to Write a Grant in 30 Minutes or Less” training, I simplify the process so that applying for grants is easy. But that’s not to say you’re going to write up one grant and mass-email it to every potential grantor you can find.
Be specific about the problem, the solution, the needs, and how it aligns with the mission of the grantor. [More on that in a minute.]
#6: Problems VS. Solutions
So this one was pretty fun to read about. Some of the articles said ‘the problem isn’t well defined enough’ and some said ‘the problem was talked about more than solutions’….
Which leaves me to conclude that it’s all about balance. Don’t spend a page describing the problem, and a paragraph describing a non-specific solution. Balance it out. Be concise, interesting, and specific.
Think of it this way: the problem you’re trying to solve is like an illness. You’re asking for a grant for the medication, which your program will administer, and thus heal the illness.
You don’t hear a doctor going off for an hour about a sinus infection. He/she just says, “Looks like you have a sinus infection. Here’s some antibiotics. Take them 3 times per day for 10 days.” BOOM! Done.
Be the doctor.
#5: Don’t Be Late
True story: my daughter did track last spring. Her final event was at the very end of every meet. And her first event was at the start. That meant I had to spend something like 18 hours at the track in inclement weather every week….
The point is, her band teacher scheduled their festival concert the same day as a meet. Though I did my best to sweep her off the field after her victorious run, by the time we got to the school, the band was playing their final number. [Without their star tuba player!]**
The concert was over. There was no re-do. We didn’t go into the auditorium and beg her teacher to re-start at least the last song so she could perform. It was over.
Grants are the same as concerts like that. You miss the deadline, it’s over. Don’t ask for an extension. Just do what you can to get it in on time- or EARLY. [One more reason I’m teaching the aforementioned training.]
#4: Lack of Details
Why did the doctor decide you have a sinus infection? Well, he looked at your symptoms. You had a fever, stuffy nose, swollen glans…etc. etc. These were the details that he could easily site to prove that there was a problem. He could even quantify it- by taking your temperature, looking up your nose, or measuring your pain when he taps on your forehead.
You’ve got to think in the same terms. You shouldn’t just say, “Look. We have a problem here.” You’ve got to prove it. Show the data. How do you know there is a problem? What can you cite to prove it?
If you can’t prove their’s a problem, then who’s to say there is one to begin with? It nullifies your very proposal.
#3: The Request Doesn’t Match the Funding Organization’s Interest
This one is so simple, but it is possibly the hugest mistake that grant writers [like yourself] make.
Don’t apply for funding from an organization that doesn’t care. That’s what it comes down to.
I’ve mentioned that I’m on the nonprofit board for my local school district. If we tried to ask for a grant for classroom technology from the Great Outdoors Colorado program, they wouldn’t even consider it.
Why? They fund trail projects. They sure are giving out a lot of money…and they probably would agree that classroom technology is important. But that’s not what the money is mandated for.
Find the grantors that are funding programs like yours. That are funding solutions like the one you are proposing. Submit to them.
Don’t waste your time trying to make your request fit if it doesn’t. You’re maybe not their Cinderella.
#2: Don’t Follow Instructions
How often have you told your class, “Okay, put away your instruments, pick up 10 pieces of trash, and line up at the door….” and they end up doing something completely different? I know this happens to me all of the time.
As teachers, we know exactly how to follow instructions. After all the tests and certifications and background checks and hoops to jump through…we know very well.
Yet this is one of the most common mistakes grant writers are making! Double and triple-check to make sure that you’ve done so.
[This is especially tough if you’re going for a government grant. There’s usually multiple online systems that you have to go through…one to find grants…one to apply for them…one to check for awards…and one for accessing those funds. Ugh.]
And this brings us to…..
#1: Financials and Budgets
This was, by far, the most common mistake that every article cited in some form or other. From poorly-defined budgets, to inaccurate financials, to sloppy formats of financial statements…it’s clear that a whole lot of people applying for grants don’t know much about financials.
So here’s my #1 recommendation for you: use a template.
It’s not very often you’ll hear those words come out of my mouth…or, uh…keyboard. I tend to toss out most of the templates I get, after I glean what I want from them, and create something customized that makes more sense to me or my clients. They tend to be simpler. I feel like people who make ‘templates’ of most varieties are just trying to add as much as possible to them, making them MORE complex, because they can. Not because it’s best.
Here’s the thing about financial statements: it all comes down to the information needed to make a decision. That’s all.
Whether you’re a CEO, or an elementary music teacher, or grantor, the only thing financial statements are for is decision making.
Help them make the decision to fund you by making sure your budgets are complete, as accurate as you can make them [research costs if you have to, don’t guess!], and that they are legible. That means lines line up. Numbers add up. And it’s easy to read.
BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE!
I recently downloaded a simple financial template for my grant-writing students to use. Please, if you’re even thinking about writing a grant, use it. You can customize it more if you like…but it’s a good place to start. You can download it by entering your name and email below.
I have to admit that there were a couple of other ‘mistakes’ that the posts I aggregated insisted on mentioning, and I would be remiss if I didn’t at least let you in on them. I didn’t add them to my list because each mistake was only mentioned by one article- whereas all of the above were mentioned in multiple articles.
Honorable Mention #1: Circular Reasoning- this is where you state that the problem is there is no solution, so there needs to be a solution to not having a solution. For example, you don’t have a booster club, so you need money to fund a booster club.
But why do you need a booster club to begin with? That’s the real pain point.
Honorable Mention #2: Incompatible Partnerships. Often you can find grants where you need a partnership of some kind. Just make sure that your partnership makes sense. For example, the first grant I wrote was for a Tri-M program in my school [like an honor/service society for music students]. This was a partner grant I wrote with the ELA department in my school and the money was intended for ‘gifted and talented’ programs. It was an alignment…sure. But looking back now, I could have created something even more closely aligned. We got the grant anyway, but it made me cautious from there on out.
Honorable Mention #3: Repeating exact phrases from the funder’s guidelines. This makes me think of Craigslist spam. You know, when you list something for sale and you get an email that suspiciously quotes you while keeping the body of the communique vague? Yeah. don’t do that.
FINALLY…and here’s the biggest mistake YOU can make:
Not Applying For Grants At All
They are out there. They are waiting for you. Just take a deep breath, and do it.
Want to become the super-star grant writer you know you can be?
An online independent study course designed for you.
*Okay, so I guess I kind of DID write the post. But still.
** I absolutely adore my daughter’s band teacher. ♥ You, Mrs. Kamstra!