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Common grant writing pitfalls, and how to avoid them

Grant writing is a professional competency absolutely worth mastering, no matter what you do for a living. Someone who is able to generate funds by designing outstanding projects is very handy to have around. In these uncertain times, being able to raise your own salary will also increase your job security or create opportunities for you as a freelancer.


Enthusiasm and willingness to learn is a great start for developing this skillset. However, it is worth being aware of some common pitfalls.


Applying for everything: Not all funding is of strategic benefit, and not all opportunities should to be taken. Discretion is made harder if you have an enthusiastic line manager who wants you to leap at every opportunity. If possible, only apply for work that is aligned with the capabilities and interests of your team, proceeding on the assumption that you will be successful. Agree on a list of perquisites for moving forward with an opportunity. Otherwise you may hear a groan through the office when that award letter lands, as your stressed colleagues realize that they will be spending years implementing a nightmare project.


Forgetting your audience: A funder is in the business of catalyzing impact. Any project outcomes that don’t align with their strategy won’t get you to the top of the pile. Study the funder’s website and the call for proposals and direct your application at the heart of the impact the funder says that they want to have. I always try to touch in with the grant manager before submitting a proposal, to let them know that I intend to apply, and to clarify technical issues. This gives me critical insight and a foot in the door.


Promising too much, asking for too little: Reviewers can sniff out an over-ambitious project by the budget. Costing proposed activities is a time for realism, not for optimism. Pare down your activities to those that are absolutely essential for achieving your intended impact. Whenever permissible, include an organizational overhead to cover non-project costs such as office rental and administration. Funders also like to see a decent chunk of the budget going to monitoring and evaluation activities (~5%). This shows you are serious about ensuring the quality of the work.


Cluttering your communications: Any submission should be backed up by your organization’s communications. Your website, for example, should describe the overall impact your group is trying to achieve, providing evidence of success. You can do this by telling specific stories of success or learning, supported by evidence of broader impact. I would suggest updating your website to reflect your projected direction for the next 3 to 5 years, rather than using it as an archive of all your past work. This demonstrates that you have a clear organizational strategy.


In summary, our applications should be strategically aligned with our proven strengths, sensibly costed and designed, and backed up by clear communication. Critically, proposals must highlight the alignment with the impacts that the targetted funder wants to catalyze.

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