Writing a proposal for funding can be a tricky endeavor. Much like a publisher sorting through thousands of book proposals, program officers simply don't have the time to entertain every request they receive, and furthermore, they don't have the ability to fund every proposal. While there are many reasons that a proposal may end up in the reject pile, after speaking to several seasoned program officers, we've come to the not-so-shocking conclusion that oftentimes, a rejected proposal has the same fatal flaws.
This is why it's imperative to make sure that yours stands out amongst the sea of requests. So how can you ensure that your proposal is well received? There are literally thousands of resources available to help nonprofits understand what funders want to hear, but we asked our experts a more difficult question - what are grantmakers tired of hearing? The same answers popped up over and over.
"There's no other program like ours"
Don't be cliché. Most writers strive to avoid this habit, and those trying to woo funders should do the same. Statements like "there's no other program like ours" are quickly dismissed because, let's face it, there probably are. And yet, many proposals claim this as fact. When you work in the nonprofit field for any length of time, you quickly realize that uniqueness is hard to come by because there are specific needs that are universal to the living condition. So unless your organization is tailored to fit a very specific niche' market need, chances are, someone else, somewhere, is probably working towards the same goals you are... and they're asking for money too.
"Our program has served over 30,000 children"
Don't be vague. Speaking generally or being overly reliant on "buzz" words may be appropriate at a dinner party, but it doesn't bode nearly as well with funders. "Our program has served over 30,000 children." What have these children been served? How did serving them help them? Wait, what are we talking about? Nonprofit organizations are designed to help. We know that. So be more specific. Tell funders exactly how your program is helping on an operational level. When your donors know the details, they can envision the value of your mission. That vision translates to funding.
"Your criteria has always been our top priority"
Be honest. Don't tell potential donors that the specific program they're showing interest in has been your target project all along. Benefactors will research your organization and they'll see where your efforts have been spent. It's in your best interest, and the best interest of your clients, to explain that although a particular area hasn't necessarily been the main focus, you're eager to see the revitalization that will come along with fresh attention and additional funding. Not only will your donor appreciate the honesty, but you may spark a little excitement over the idea that their money will make a clear impact in an area that is important to them.
"Everything is going perfectly!"
Be forthcoming about problems. Donors are tired of hearing that everything is perfect. If everything were fantastic, you wouldn't be on their doorstep. It's perfectly okay to be honest about difficulties your organization may be dealing with. If your potential donor knows about your successes as well as your complications, you can work together to find solutions that will make them feel like they've really helped to make a difference. Remember that honestly doesn't translate to pessimism, but craft your words carefully. You also don't want to sound hopeless. Communications 101- sandwich the negative between two positives - "This is what's going well for us, and this is where we're struggling. However, we know that with your help...."
"We just want to meet for lunch"
Just lunch? Really? No ulterior motives? Don't insult your donor's intelligence. We know what "just lunch" means. You know what it means. Literally everyone knows what it means. Our experts agree that it feels a little contrived to pretend they're being invited to lunch socially. Not being straightforward can leave a bad taste in many sponsors' mouths. You don't have to "sugarcoat" the relationship between nonprofit and potential donor, at least not until AFTER they've given you money.
Even if you've avoided these pitfalls, there is no guarantee you'll get funded. Maybe the timing was wrong, it didn't fit the vision of the foundation or the person handling your proposal on the ground level was not the only person making final decisions. There are board members, finance committees, countless reports, votes, and research that all must be consulted before any decisions are made, or any checks are signed. The person you're speaking with simply doesn't know if your request will be approved, no matter how smooth your pitch was.
The takeaway here may seem reasonable, but treating your funders more like partners and less like customers to whom you're trying to pitch is going to create a lasting and long-term relationship. Be realistic and honest about your program, recognize duplicated services and competitors and don't insult your funder's intelligence. Even if you don't get funded on the first go-round, building a better rapport with your supporters will go a long way to getting more dollars.