Attention Grant Seekers: There’s More to a ‘Hot Tip’ Than Meets the Eye

By Ellen Karsh and Arlen Sue Fox

Most of the time the “hot tips” given to grant seekers by experts in grantsmanship are short and sweet– do this, don’t do that. But extensive interviews with government and foundation grant makers suggest that many proposal writers either ignore tips or fail to use common sense to understand them.

So we think perhaps we should revise some tips.

Take the commonly offered, “Make sure you spell the name of the program officer correctly.” This seems perfectly obvious, but grantmakers say it’s not so obvious to some applicants—and they add that the correctly spelled name should be the current program officer’s, not that of the person who worked at the foundation or government agency 10 years ago. They said that too many grant seekers don’t bother to make sure their “correct” information is current!

Along the same lines, a foundation director told us that, though he is listed as Joe Smith (not his real name) on his foundation’s website, many grant applicants think they are being polite by writing to JOSEPH Smith. Unfortunately for the well-meaning but misguided writers who do this, Joe’s name is not Joseph—it happens to be Randolph. As he explained to us, if he wanted to be called Joseph (or Randolph, or anything else), the website would reflect that. So maybe the tip should be more specific: “Make sure you spell the name of the current program officer correctly and don’t formalize or informalize the person’s name unless you’ve checked that individual’s preferences.”

Another common tip warns grant seekers to “Follow the guidelines.” Makes perfect sense…but apparently not to some grant seekers. If the guidelines say that only municipal agencies are eligible, no tiny nonprofit organization would be silly enough to apply, right? “Wrong,” say our interviewees. “Not only do ineligible applicants routinely apply, they do so with the attitude that we don’t know what we’re talking about.”

Guidelines appear to be tricky for some reason that we don’t understand. There is a tendency for grant seekers to pick and choose the guidelines that suit them and ignore the ones that don’t. One grantmaker told us that, although the guidelines clearly stated, “We only accept grant applications from Brooklyn,” she routinely received proposals from the other four boroughs, plus New Jersey, Westchester, and Connecticut. To make the point more clearly, maybe the tip should say “Follow each and every guideline, not just the ones that you like.”

So, if you hope to receive the funding you desperately need: Think carefully about the tips you get from experts. To be a savvy, successful grant writer, look for the comprehensive meaning of each tip. A little extra thought will give you an edge over other applicants…which is what tips are meant to do.

Ellen Karsh and Arlen Sue Fox are the co-authors of The Only Grant-Writing Book You’ll Ever Need (Fifth Edition) Basic Books, 2019.