April 24, 2003

Grant Makers Reveal the Most Common Reasons Grant Proposals Get Rejected

Eighty percent of the grant applications that cross Debbie Rey's desk are immediately rejected.

Ms. Rey supervises the central proposals-processing office at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, in Battle Creek, Mich., where the bulk of the proposals to the foundation are first vetted.

The reason so many don't pass muster: The applicants didn't do their legwork. They may have glanced at the grant maker's Web site, she says, but they didn't dig deeper to learn Kellogg's specific grant-making priorities. "A lot of people, when they're doing research, read the philosophy statement,but they don't go into the detail, into the different departments to see what initiatives we have going on," she says.

Ms. Rey echoes the sentiments of many grant makers: Nothing is more important when applying for a grant than having the right information.

In their haste to win money at a time when many foundations are reducing their grant making, many charities skip over steps that could make the process go more smoothly -- and that may even make the difference between winning a grant and getting turned down. Missteps happen all the time, including math errors and omitted contact names and numbers. 

Some charities take a blanket approach, sending out a proposal to as many grant makers as they can, on the theory that one is bound to click, says Jim Durkan, president of the Community Memorial Foundation, in Hinsdale, Ill. "They don't spend the time upfront to really research and see if there's a match," he says. "I always say that the time they spend researching will be returned tenfold."

Where to Start

The first places many grant seekers think of are Web sites for the Foundation Center, a clearinghouse of information about grant makers with offices in New York and Washington, and GuideStar, which gathers financial information about foundations and charities, in Willamsburg, Va. Both of these sites have searchable online databases on grant makers.

But they are only starting points, says Katherine T. Freshley, senior program officer at the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation, in Washington. The information on those sites is not meant to be comprehensive, she says. Only highlights are presented, and they can be misleading if the grant seeker doesn't dig further.

"Sometimes people go to the Foundation Center site and look up funders that support in a particular area and they get wowed by the size of many of those grants. But often the Foundation Center picks the highest grants to profile, so it skews what is normally possible," says Ms. Freshley. "There may be a really good reason why an organization has been given a large grant -- it may be for a capital campaign, for example."

Charities should take a look at the grant maker's Web site, annual report, and informational tax return, she says. Those sources can hold a gold mine of information about the foundation's assets, past grants, giving priorities, contact names, and guidelines for seeking grants.

Careful examination of an organization's Web site can help grant seekers draw connections that may aid them in preparing their applications, says David Littlefield, communications officer at the California Wellness Foundation, in Woodland Hills. For instance, he says, "We have an environmental health area that some people might not think of as health -- the impact of things like a safe work space on health."

A look at the Lilly Endowment's Web site shows that it has geographic limits for most of its grants. "We do a lot of education grant making, but it's virtually all in Indiana," says Gretchen Wolfram, communications director of the foundation in Indianapolis.

If, after pouring over the available information, a charity still questions whether its programs are a good fit, it should check with the foundation, says Andrea L. Reynolds, chief operating officer of the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis. Large foundations often take time for a five-minute chat with a potential grantee. The Community Foundation of Greater Memphis will even meet face-to-face with people who want to apply for a grant.

Follow Directions

Once a charity identifies a foundation that's a likely prospect, carefully following the guidelines is key, emphasizes Ms. Freshley. Rules exist for a reason, she says. "When we say 10 pages, we're really serious about that," she says. Some people, she says, just squeeze 12 pages' worth of type onto 10 pages by using small type and narrow margins. "It just makes the program officers work harder," says Ms. Freshley. "They may be reading 250 proposals. You don't want people to have to dig through your information to find the kernel of what you're talking about."

One sign of an amateur writer, she says, is a proposal that includes five programs that need support and asking the foundation to take its pick. "Avoid fishing expeditions," she advises. Tailor the proposal to a particular program.

Just as some charities send out proposals to many foundations simultaneously, they may also blanket a particular grant maker with applications. Instead, Ms. Rey suggests, it's best to find out who the grant maker's contact person is and send the proposal only to that person. "Don't submit multiple copies of the same proposal to more than one person," she advises. "Some think it may increase the chances, but it doesn't. It just causes confusion, and it's hard for us to keep track."

And on the application, be clear about who the contact person is, and that the phone number and e-mail address are correct, she adds: "Sometimes several people sign a letter and it's unclear who to contact."

Do the Math

Some common problems don't necessarily hurt a charity's chances of winning a grant. They just make the process more time-consuming.

For example, writing a proposal by hand is generally acceptable unless the handwriting is illegible, says Ms. Reynolds. "We don't have problems with handwritten proposals because we are dealing with a lot of grass-roots groups without access to computers," she says.

Math mistakes in particular take time to iron out, says Mr. Littlefield. The California Wellness Foundation recently awarded 11 grants, of which three applications had math problems, he says.

Still, he says, calculations should be double-checked before sending out the proposal. "It's really important to have a treasurer from the board or a finance staff member review the budget to be sure line items are appropriate and reflect the real costs," says Mr. Littlefield. "When program staff without a strong finance background do the work, details often get missed."

It's not enough for the math to be right, says Ms. Reynolds -- it also needs to be realistic. If a charity submits a proposal with a three-year budget that calls for $100,000 in the first year, $200,000 in the second, and $1-million in the third, it would give her pause. She would be taking a closer look at how the organization has planned its programs, and how it intends to meet such lofty revenue goals, she says: "I would be concerned about the ability to get those kinds of funds."

Success Boosters

Proposals most likely to catch a foundation's attention are those that convey plans to use the grant money to bring in other money, says Jane S. Englebardt, executive director of the Hasbro Children's Foundation, in New York. "Being able to use that money effectively is what foundations are after," she says. A proposal, she says, should spell out a charity's plans for using the grant to make the most of a charity's resources, along the lines of: "This funding will help us match government funding," "This funding will enable us to utilize volunteers to complement the work of professionals," or "'This will allow us to create a training program to expand our services without asking for more money each year."

Wording is key, she says. Don't write, "We're running out of money," but rather, "We have a wonderful program, but we want to make it more cost-effective."

When it comes to seeking grants, success breeds success. If a charity can show it has other grants, that's a plus, says Ms. Englebardt. "National foundations look for organizations that are supported in their communities," she says, "so we know they're going to be strong and sustainable."

Organizations with no track record have a different challenge, she says. Startup organizations have to explain their programs in terms of how they will address some gap -- for example, addressing an underserved population. "Identify the gap and the service needed to fill that gap and how you propose to deliver that service," she says.

Patience and Persistence

Foundations are often flooded with proposals, so it takes time to sort through them, says Ms. Rey. The Kellogg Foundation, she says, receives thousands of proposals each year -- and it could take applicants as long as 12 weeks to get a response.

That also means that if charities want something financed by a particular time of year, they need to start early. "A lot of times, especially on the holidays after Thanksgiving, we'll start getting letters of support for Christmas," she says. "We're at year end, so we won't be funding those."

Grant requests are turned down for all sorts of reasons, many of which do not reflect badly on the program, says Ms. Englebardt. "Just because they didn't get a grant is not a comment on the quality of their program," she says. "The hard part is none of the foundations have the resources to fund everything that fits their guidelines. That's the heartbreaker."

"Each foundation has its own strategy about how it is trying to make a change in the world," she adds. "They're trying to put together the pieces that make that change. And there is a certain amount of luck in being one of those pieces in a market like this where there just isn't enough funding."

Not getting a grant doesn't necessarily mean a door has been permanently closed, says Jane C. Geever, a fund-raising consultant and author of The Foundation Center's Guide to Proposal Writing (2001, $34.95). Charities may be able to win money during another grant-makng cycle. In fact, it's a good idea to give the foundation a call to find out why a proposal was rejected, she says.

"Most grant makers say that if the agency is a fit, they will encourage the organization to come back with another proposal," says Ms. Geever. "Everybody has time frames in terms of how long you have to wait." Even if it's unlikely the charity will get a future grant, foundations are often willing to suggest other grant makers to which the charity might apply.

When the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis declines a grant, it sends a letter offering to talk with the applicant about the reasons. "Very few people take advantage of that," says Ms. Reynolds. "It's surprising."

From beginning to end, grant seeking is all about good communication, says Mr. Durkan: "It really comes down to relationships and getting to know people."

Send an email to Marilyn Dickey.