Are you making these three mistakes when asking a foundation for a grant?

In the spirit of the Olympic games, my recent post, How to Win an Olympic Medal in Grantseeking, shared three tips for creating standout proposals:

  1. Communicate the urgency of the funding opportunity – not the urgency of your nonprofit’s need.
  2. Present projects that fit into a larger program vision, rather than projects that are small, one-off efforts.
  3. Make the results of your project tangible and personal.

Of course, not every athlete wins a medal! We all stumble and fall at times, and it's the mistakes that can teach us the most

But to help you avoid avoid a major wipeout, here are three things NOT to do when approaching a foundation. 

MISTAKE 1: Rely on acronyms, jargon, and insider-speak to communicate what your nonprofit does.

When applying to most family and community foundations, your grant proposals should be written in plain language.

Readers should be able to understand what you propose to do, even if they are not familiar with the ins and outs of your organization or cause.

(On the other hand, sometimes it is appropriate to be highly technical and to use the insiders' terms. Take your cue from the funder's RFP or guidelines.)

Nonprofit leadership maven Joan Garry writes here about all how nonprofit peeps could up their game in explaining what it is exactly that their organization does. She warns against "the curse of knowledge — a presumption that your listener is inside your head, your sector, your organization."

Read the post and apply her advice to all of your philanthropic communication!  (Treat your grant proposals and letters of inquiry as written versions of an elevator speech.)

MISTAKE 2: Believe that program officers need to be “wooed” in order to give you a grant.

Some people approach grantseeking with the idea that they need special connections to foundation program officers. It’s nice if you can name-drop and draw on social ties to connect to certain funders, but it’s usually not necessary or even appropriate.

The average program officer wants to be wow'ed by your project, not wooed by your social graces and connections.

When first seeking to build a relationship, approach program officers professionally. Throughout the relationship, the program officers will value you more if you can provide them with new information about your issue and role in the community.

Think of it as an exchange -- in which your contribution can be as important as the funder's. The currency that program officers have to offer is grant funds; the currency that you can offer is an insider's perspective.

MISTAKE 3: Make funders fear that supporting your nonprofit would be too risky.

It’s very important to understand that many foundation boards are risk-averse. As a result, program officers screen for risk.

This means that it’s quite difficult to get grants for new nonprofits, because the new organization doesn't have an adequate history of sustaining its operation and successfully managing grants.

Yes, it's a catch-22. The best solution to this conundrum is to get support from individual donors and build momentum and a good track record from there.

Incomprehensible financial information about your nonprofit isn’t welcome either. Funders loathe the idea of making a grant to a nonprofit that may go out of business during the grant term. They want to be able to understand your organization's financial position as part of the decision about whether to fund you. (This is not unlike a banker deciding whether to give an individual a loan.)

In addition, proposals that ask for 100 percent of project support may be perceived as risky. Grant funders generally want to provide just one piece of the funding pie. Most funders don’t want to be the sole supporter of a major project or program of your nonprofit. Prior to submitting the proposal, you can always ask the funder what percent of support they think is reasonable. Also, be sure to calculate the value of in-kind support you'll get from project partners, and include this as "in-kind match" in the project budget.