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, âMake sure you spell the name of the program officer correctly.â This seems perfectly obvious, but grantmakers say itâs not so obvious to some applicantsâand they add that the correctly spelled name should be the current program officerâs, not that of the person who worked at the foundation or government agency 10 years ago. They said that too many grant seekers donât bother to make sure their âcorrectâ 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 foundationâs 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, Joeâs name is not Josephâit 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: âMake sure you spell the name of the current program officer correctly and donât formalize or informalize the personâs name unless youâve checked that individualâs preferences.â
Another common tip warns grant seekers to âFollow the guidelines.â Makes perfect senseâ¦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? âWrong,â say our interviewees. âNot only do ineligible applicants routinely apply, they do so with the attitude that we donât know what weâre talking about.â
Guidelines appear to be tricky for some reason that we donât understand. There is a tendency for grant seekers to pick and choose the guidelines that suit them and ignore the ones that donât. One grantmaker told us that, although the guidelines clearly stated, âWe only accept grant applications from Brooklyn,â 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 âFollow each and every guideline, not just the ones that you like.â
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 applicantsâ¦which is what tips are meant to do.
Ellen Karsh and Arlen Sue Fox are the co-authors of The Only Grant-Writing Book Youâll Ever Need (Fifth Edition) Basic Books, 2019.