Nonprofits: Avoid These 5 Killer Grant-Writing Mistakes

To be frank, certain mistakes can spell certain doom for a grant submission and result in a “desk reject.” This term means a grant contained many errors and was not a serious contender for funding. To avoid this fate, read on and use these tips!

Starting too soon 

 Black roadway says "Challenges" in all capitals in white font.

This is a common mistake, but easily avoidable. It is rare for nonprofits to find much success in securing grants as soon as they are incorporated. GrantSpace encourages new nonprofits to first secure funding from board members, donors, and local community leaders, if possible. Once a nonprofit shows it is sustainable and has community backing, grantmakers are more likely to support it.

If your organization’s not ready for grant writing at this time, I can still help! I offer blogging and content development services to influence prospective and current donors.

Too much focus on why, not how

Light aqua circle featuring the words plan, organize, implement, evaluate, and refine.

RFPs often ask nonprofits to define the problem they wish to solve. For example, many kids in your neighborhood do not attend college. Your organization wants to increase their access to educational opportunities. Being aware of your community’s problems indicates you have undertaken research. However, you must demonstrate how your organization will improve conditions. Otherwise, your request will not be funded.

No unique selling point (USP).

A bright light bulb stands out, surrounded by blown out bulbs on the ground.

This mistake occurs when nonprofits lack a for-profit business mindset. To follow up on my previous point, you have to offer more than a generic solution to a problem. Your program must stand out from the competition to gain funding.

Let’s continue with the example of an education-based nonprofit. A non-profit may “sell” their brand by recruiting former students from schools they serve as volunteers. They could also partner with a nearby university for program evaluation. These actions show strong community engagement.

Regular assessment and market analysis are keys to avoiding this mistake.

Lack of quantitative data

Gas meter in a car reads "empty."

Without some quantitative data, how will you show your organization’s positive community impact?

Relying only on anecdotes and “feel good” stories is a major mistake. Grantmakers want tangible numbers that show positive change.

Failing to follow up

Blue button with white arrow on a keyboard says "Follow Up" in all caps.

This is one of the biggest mistakes I see both nonprofits and municipalities make.

Trust me, I know–it’s a bummer when your request isn’t funded.

But the best thing to do is to ask why it didn’t.

Some program reps may just say, “It was a competitive year.”

But others will offer you a review, going over strengths and weaknesses of the application. This positions you in a better place for the next funding round. Grantmakers often remember what organizations made the extra effort, too.

Remember that each of these mistakes is entirely avoidable.

Following the guidelines I’ve proposed doesn’t guarantee funding, but they can certainly help you avoid the dreaded “desk reject.”


  1. I like this piece…important information. I am on board with the advice.

    Where I disagree a bit is in the section about offering a generic solution…maybe you mean offering a solution that does not seem to match client needs? Otherwise, I would say that always trying to dream up a new angle is not the way to go…in that context, I would pursue funders that understand that some standard solutions work and continue to work for certain issues. The “selling point” here would then be the amazing impact…and yes, play that up.

    I think that is part of the challenge with funders who are always looking for something new…non-profit, in that sense, is not a “business.” What’s “hot” does not work for me. What grounds people in normalcy or gets them to have functional lives or to learn how to read or to graduate from college…some of that is to provide foundational supports that clients lack. If the sellable piece is the partnerships, by all means. But most organizations need to fund the day to day. Let’s get money to make that happen. And then once that is cemented, let’s look at the “new” bill of goods.

    • Thanks for the comment, Michele!

      I agree with your response that nonprofits do need to follow certain standard solutions or proven effective techniques in their field, whatever it may be. However, I think that it’s important to have something within that framework that other organizations may not necessarily offer. For instance, an educational nonprofit I used to work for in Cleveland is currently focusing on building up a core group of regular volunteers that interact with 6th-8th grade students through regular discussions. Creating this rapport ideally will build more comfort between the students and the volunteer speakers.

      Basically, as you mentioned, reinventing the wheel doesn’t necessarily work for nonprofits. However, finding ways to add unique value within reliable, effective programming is important.

      By the way, if you could tell me how you found my blog, I’d greatly appreciate it. Thanks!

Leave a Reply