To Get the Grant Funding, Make Sure You Follow All the Rules

If you want your grant proposal to rank at the top of the pile, or in some cases even be read, you must follow all the rules. Some grant presentation rules are obvious because they are given to you. Some rules not so obvious because they are not written anywhere. However, your proposal will be expected to follow them too.

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The tips and tricks presented in this article are based on my experiences as a grant reviewer and fund allocator. For a complete overview of my proposal review experiences, listen to my free online training How to Get Funded: An Ex-Grants Reviewer Reveals Her Secrets at

The Written Ones

The written ones are easy. They are the ones written on the website or in the application guidelines. They usually refer to things like font type and size, margin size, and number of pages, Sometimes you’re also given specific headings to use or the order in which to write or submit your materials, Sometimes they want the pages numbered. In all cases, it the funder gives you directions to follow, follow them. Don’t try to be creative and stray. If a funder takes the time to give specific directions, you need to show them that you can do what they want you to do. Number one, you don’t want your request to be automatically weeded out for not following directions, which I have seen happen. Number two, you want to let them know that you can follow prescribed courses of action. Specifically, that you can follow your own directions in how you will spend their money.

The Unwritten Ones

That’s not enough though. There are also unwritten rules to follow. Ones that are hidden in the context of the application guidelines or that you learn by experience.

Write to THEIR Need, Not Yours

The number one unwritten rule to abide by is: match your mission to that of the funder. It is not your financial need that motivates funders to give. It is fulfillment of mission. In the case of foundations, they give money to those organizations who can best meet THEIR mission and fulfill their charitable purposes. In the case of governmental funding, the money goes to who can best meet fulfill the terms of the legislation. None of this is about your agency. It is all about them. Your nonprofit is just a conduit for them to reach their goals. 

So when you reach out to funders, reach out with the goal of helping them meet their goals rather than them helping you meet your goals.

Write as though They Know Nothing About You or Your Industry

I am always thankful for the funders that tell me up front to make no assumptions about their knowledge level. Such an admonition reminds me to assume that they know nothing about my nonprofit or nonprofits in general. In the case of foundations, by and large, you will have business professionals reviewing your proposal. For government, you may have other nonprofit leaders. I have been both.

As an outsider it is very difficult to get through all “nonprofit speak” agencies put in their requests. The alphabet soup you sometimes get is one example. Words like “organizational capacity”, “unmet need”, “disadvantaged”, and “at-risk” are others.  While using these words is fine, using them without defining them sometimes leaves the reader very confused. Very few times do nonprofits use words and concepts that businesspeople are familiar with, like “brand”, “market demand”, “market penetration”, “return on investment”, and “operating margin”. While using these exact terms may or may not be appropriate in any one specific request, using the concepts they represent may help the reader better understand what you are trying to say. And help you stand out from the rest of the pack.

Make Sure the Narrative and the Budget Tell the Same Story

You want your narrative to reflect your budget and you want your budget to reflect your narrative. Everything you talk about in your narrative should be included in your budget. For example, if you talk about your nonprofit absorbing the general and administrative costs or your project or program, show general and administrative costs in your expense budget and your agency’s contribution of that in your revenue budget. And everything you present as part of your budget should be in your narrative. For example, Or if you include staff recruiting costs as part of your budget, talk about staff recruiting in your narrative. Some reviewers, both foundation and government, go straight to the financials to see what’s going on. You want them to be able to reach the same conclusions from your budget as those who go directly to the narrative.

 Submit an Application Pleasing to the Eye

Sometimes in the pursuit of space, grant writers use up most of the white space and the submission looks crowded and like a bear to read. Sometimes when there are no written rules on font or margin size but there is on length, writers try to cram in as much as they can and use small font sizes or less than one-inch margins. Don’t do this, no matter how pressed you are for space. Number one, you don’t want a reviewer approaching your proposal with a sense of dread. Number two, you don’t want them to get a headache because of the presentation. Instead, start early and learn to write concisely. Make sure your proposal has plenty of white space, using headers and sub-headers to separate new content.

Make Your Thought Flow Easy to Follow

Do the different sections of your proposal all support one another? Does your mission align with the need you are meeting? Does your background or credibility statements show past success in meeting that need, either through process and impact? Are your goals in line with the need you are trying to meet? Do your objective show how your goals will be implemented? Do your evaluation techniques measure how well you will meet your goals and objectives? Does your budget tell the same story as your narrative? Do your attachments support the facts stated in your narrative? You entire submission package should point to one thing: how their resources will be used in pursuit of their mission.   

Do Your Math Correctly

Make sure your numbers add up correctly. And that the numbers you use in your narrative are the same numbers that you use in your budget. Nothing frustrates a reviewer more than confusion over what you are asking for. If your numbers are not consistent with one another how is a reviewer to know which one is right? If you have math errors, what does that say about your attention to detail, or worse, or ability to manage finances. Check and double check your numbers. Always.  

Address Your Request Correctly

One of the sloppiest mistakes reviewers see is the proposal is not addressed to the right person at the right organization with the right title at the right address. Or the names are spelled incorrectly. What kind of first impression does that make?

Proofread, Proofread, Proofread

Always proofread. I know I do. If I don’t my proposal usually has stupid mistakes in it, which detracts from the quality of my submission and reflect poorly on my nonprofit. Plus, misspellings and grammatical errors interrupt thought flow. Start writing early enough so that you can always proofread it at least three times and get someone else’s eyes on it. Competition is fierce. You don’t want your proposal to be the one not funded because of a stupid error easily caught by proofreading.

Wrapping It Up

The goal is to get funded. To do that, your proposal needs to one of the best at the top of the pile. To get to the top of pile, always follow the written rules. And learn the ones that may be hidden. Good luck in your pursuit of grant funding!

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