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7 red flags for funders in your grant proposal

Two messages on a chat board from Candid and Kate Tkacik Sweeney.

Grant proposals take a lot of work. And nobody wants to see their proposal get discarded by a funder for something that could have been easily fixed. So, we asked you on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook: What red flags do funders look out for when reading a grant proposal? 

Here they are in this crowdsourced list of grant writing red flags. Did we miss a red flag? Share it in the comments! 

1. Not reading the directions

Forgetting to follow “funders’ rules” was the most cited red flag. This could be missing small things, like a requirement to use Times New Roman font, or bigger issues, like forgetting to include a section on sustainability in your proposal. It’s critical you read, re-read, and follow the instructions.  

2. The numbers don’t add up

To avoid this pitfall, make sure your proposal’s financial statements and budgets (literally) add up to the correct amounts. Double and triple check your math to be safe.

You’ll also need to ensure that the line items in your budget match the activities outlined in your broader grant proposal. For example, if you’re requesting funding to host an event at a local park, make sure you include every single expense from staffing and catering to rental and promotional costs. 

3. Outcomes are not clear—or are confused with activities or outputs

When it comes to grant proposals, funders care about outcomes, which are different from activities and outputs. An activity is a specific thing you are planning to do as part of your program. An output is the number of times you do that activity, or the number of people it serves. An outcome is the broader change that occurs as a direct result of your program activities.   
Confused? If so, you’re not alone. Let’s make it as clear as we can. Activities are plans; outputs are counts; outcomes are changes. 

For example, an activity is running a series of workshops to teach high school students in your district how to do workouts at home. An output is hosting six exercise workshops for 300 students. The outcome for this program might be improved physical fitness for 80% of these high-school students within a six-month period.  

4. Proposal is not personalized to the funder

Grant writing takes a lot of time, and we’re all guilty of reusing content from one grant in another. While it’s ok to take this approach, make sure you’re also taking time to personalize it to the specific funder and their grant requirements. The more generic your grant proposal reads, the less exciting it will be to the funder.   

5. Not being clear about who is going to do the work

To bring your ideas to life, you need people to do the work. Every activity in your grant proposal should have at least one identifiable person who is going to help make it happen, whether it is a staff member, volunteer, consultant, or collaborator. 

6. Your proposal is unrealistic 

It’s great to dream big, but grant proposals aren’t the best place for that. Here’s why: You’ll want to show that your proposal is realistically achievable within the specified time period if you were given the funding.  

If you’re taking a chance on a big idea, make a good case for it by backing it up with research and data to show it’s a smart, calculated risk. 

7. Not checking spelling, grammar, and formatting

Once your grant proposal is done, don’t forget to edit it. It’s easy to miss errors if you’ve been spending a lot of time writing and editing the same document. To avoid this scenario, use a spelling and grammar check tool on your computer to find mistakes. Similarly, ask a coworker or friend to proofread your proposal to get a second set of eyes on it. Finally, make sure it is formatted properly; all the fonts, margins, tables, and images should be standardized across the document.  

Now that you know the top red flags to avoid, you’re ready to tackle your next grant proposal. Interested in some additional pointers? Here are our favorite resources to get you started: 


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  • Ingrid Prescott says:

    August 13, 2023 11:49 am

    ;o) Hello Thank you for your clear and concise realistic "don'ts" for Grant Writers to take heed. It is not about writing grants, just to write a grant in the hopes of winning from the Granter. Granters believe in you with compassion, that "you and your organization" will make a dent in the Universe, as they believe in the plight, cause, vision, and mission. Let us remember, it is not about us, but helping those who genuinely want to impact their communities, and the world at large for humanity. Where LOVE is the foundation of giving back. "Service is the Rent we pay for Living" - Marian Wright Edelman. Loved your Blog post. Thank you again.

    Ps - (Mr. P Randell, thanks for adding the eighth "don't". Fluff dissipates into the air every time. Lol.)

  • Philip Randell says:

    July 5, 2023 10:51 am

    This is an excellent list. As a funder, I wish to add an eighth: excessive flattery for one's own organization and/or for the funder. Being respectful and positive is great, but do not appeal to ego. Appeal to minds and hearts.

  • Bruce Thorsen says:

    June 22, 2023 10:08 am

    This is great advice! I've been successfully writing grants in the health care and now animal welfare areas for 45 years. You are so right to lead with "read the directions!" That is such an easy thing to do. I have also found that making sure the "numbers add up" is critical as well, and I have been guilty of that myself! I might add that having all your supporting documents in both a paper and electronic file helps as well (like IRS letter, mission statement, one page overview of your organization, your current budget, signed W9 form etc) and in the right format (jpeg etc). Many grantors ask for these particular documents. I also have found adding some photos helps too, as it gives funders a sense of what your organization does, its location and outcomes.

  • Louis Albert says:

    June 22, 2023 8:31 am

    Another piece is the section on sustainability. It’s not enough to say you’ll fundraise or seek additional grants.