Writing to the Grant:

Following Funder Guidelines



By Mary E. Costello © September 2007

Independent Consultant

Grant Writing & Program Development

Creative Edge Consulting





One of the greatest avoidable mistakes that a non-profit can make is submitting a grant proposal to an inappropriate source.  It is usually one of the top reasons an application is rejected, not to mention the fact that it reflects poorly on your organization.


Just like we, as individuals, need to pick and choose the charities we support given our own financial limitations, so do grantmakers.   They establish clear-cut priorities, giving interests, and funding restrictions.


While there are also typically biases and unpublished preferences involved in their decision making, the guidelines are a starting point.  If you do not fit these guidelines for whatever reason, move on to another funding target.


I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a naïve non-profit leader state that “maybe we can convince them otherwise.”


Nine times out of ten, this is unrealistic. Although some funders will occasionally consider projects outside their specifications, they usually initiate these endeavors or these exceptions come about through unorthodox means such as a connection with a trustee or a personal cause of someone at the foundation level.  It is, however, the rarity.


1.    Generally speaking, I recommend that new non-profits begin by researching the local foundations and corporations.  Geographic location is typically the first indicator of potential funding because most will only support programs in particular states, counties or towns.   Even though there are grantmakers who fund on a national level, newer programs, unless incredibly innovative, will most likely have a more difficult time garnering support outside their own immediate locale.


2.    Once you have identified funders who support programming in your region, it is important that you review their application guidelines.  For some, these will be available online.  For others, you will need to call or write to the grantmaker to obtain a copy.  Do not submit a proposal without getting a hold of this information.


3.    When reviewing these guidelines, you must be objective.  Far too often, I have found that non-profit managers read what they want to read in these outlines.  They try to “make it fit” when there are typically many reasons why they are ineligible.  In other words, if it is a “stretch,” you need a different target.  It is otherwise not worth your time, effort, and money to pursue this resource.  Consider having a colleague review the guidelines in comparison to your program if you are “too close” to it all.


Once you are certain that this funder’s interest areas fit you, it is time to begin preparing your letter of inquiry or full proposal.  In doing so, it is imperative that you following the instructions and answer the questions as stated.


For example, I have had several Executive Director’s ask me to look over a proposal they wrote, thinking it was ready to go after some simple edits.  When I compared their document to the actual guidelines, I detected many blaring errors.  Usually, these problems come down to a few items:


·         They exceeding page or word restrictions

·         They ignored font size or margin instructions

·         They didn’t answer the questions posed

·         They provided information that was not requested

·         Their budget request was out of line with the foundation’s award ranges

·         They asked for funding for programs that are outside of interest areas



Start by reading the guidelines with a fine-toothed comb and make sure that you are putting this application to good use.  Compare your line-item budget with their giving restrictions and allowable requests.  If they do not provide operational monies, look at your project needs.  And, make sure you do your research on their past giving.


I recommend that you check out the Foundation Center.  You can do searches on former tax records, 990’s, of foundations.  That will tell you who they gave money to, what type of projects, and in what amounts.  The more you know about a funder, the better.  You can then tailor your materials to what interests them.


When preparing your proposal, fully read each question and be sure you answer it in its entirety.  Label your sections according to their question, such as:




Please provide a brief summary of your organization’s history, mission, and purpose.


Proposal Heading:


History, Mission, and Purpose



Creating a strong grant proposal is not rocket science.  Yes, you need to write it in a compelling way, balancing both fact and emotion.  You need to fully answer all questions in a concise and clear manner.  And, you must tailor your document exactly to the funder.


Funder guidelines are your outline.  Just like when we were in school, you get points for following instructions fully.  Missing information goes against you, and, the strongest students know to give the professor what they are asking for in order to score that “A.” 


Give them what they want.  No more, no less.





About the Author: Mary E. Costello holds a BA degree in Social Work from the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.  She is a former Social Work Administrator who specialized in the management of complex human services programs and leading new projects creation.  Forming Creative Edge Consulting in February of 2005, she now is the “resident expert” on grant writing and non-profit program development issues on the Boys Project website, a sponsored project of the University of Alaska/Fairbanks.  She serves clients throughout the United States, including both community based programs and those of national scope. Programmatic and grant related questions or inquiries regarding her professional line of services may be directed to MaryCostello@CreativeEdgeConsulting.org.  Mary will attempt to answer all general questions from the public but cannot guarantee a personal response, dependent on volume of requests at any given time. 


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