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Guest Post: Top Ten Dos & Don'ts for Grant Proposals

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b2ap3_thumbnail_Nikki_for_web.jpgNikki Estes is the program director at South Arts where she manages the grants program which awards more than $700,000 annually. She has served as a grant panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts and numerous state arts agencies and arts organizations. Nikki is also serving on the Advisory Board for the Atlanta Foundation Center.

Just like anything in this world, there are pros and cons, joys and frustrations. And being a funder or grants director is no different – we love to see the changes in communities that happen with the help of our grant dollars but we hate to see the same mistakes plague applicants year after year. I've seen the same unfortunate errors in the 15 years that I have managed grant programs.  Help me to help you and read these tips before you submit your next grant application. Any of these common mistakes could put your reputation at risk. You and your potential funder will thank me later!


  1. Don’t cut and paste the same application narrative that you’ve used in the past. There will likely be outdated information that you’ve overlooked but the funder or panelist will notice.
  2. Don’t assume the funder knows your organization and neglect to provide essential information.
  3. Don’t make mathematical or spelling errors. You might think this goes without saying but take advantage of spell-check and calculators.
  4. Don’t ask for an extension on the application deadline (or exceptions to the guidelines). On the same note, don’t submit an application that you know isn’t eligible as a “just in case.”
  5. Don’t submit a sloppy or thrown-together application. It never ends well. Funders can usually tell when an application was last-minute and that doesn't make you look good.
  6. Don’t change who you are (your mission and values) to fit the grantmaker’s guidelines.
  7. Don’t make promises that you can’t keep or exaggerate anything in your application – your budget, objectives or outcomes, project scope, or your achievements. Grant panels are usually composed of people who are your professional peers, who are likely familiar with all of the above, and they won’t hesitate to point out “untruths.”
  8. Don’t be afraid to contact the funder to discuss your project, their priorities, or guidelines. (But no daily phone calls, please!) Contrary to popular belief, funders and grantmakers want to see applicants succeed. They don’t want you to waste your resources if it’s not a good fit. Be prepared to take their advice even if it’s what you don’t want to hear.
  9. Don’t be skimpy with the details. Provide as much detail as permitted without being too overzealous.
  10. Don’t call with an urgent question (or any question) five minutes before the office closes on a deadline date.

As a bonus, here are a few of my TOP DOs:

  1. Do make sure all project partners are on board and have been involved in the planning process. And be sure to include this valuable information in your application submission.
  2. Do properly plan and make sure your project is well thought-out from beginning (planning) to end (evaluation and future sustainability).
  3. Do follow instructions! 


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For me, fundraising and communications go together like peanut butter and jelly – delicious & filling!

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