Common Mistakes to Avoid in Grant Writing

By David Hesselmeyer

David Hesselmeyer, EEM, EMT-P, MPA, is a twenty-year veteran of emergency services and currently serves with Buies Creek Fire Rescue (NC).  He holds certifications as a firefighter, rescue technician, paramedic, instructor and Executive Emergency Manager.  In addition, he earned a Masters of Public Administration from East Carolina University.  David is the owner of On Target Preparedness, LLC (OTP), an emergency services consulting firm based in North Carolina.  He can be contacted at or visit his website at

If you have applied for grants, you have likely experienced the rejection of a proposal. Usually, many people are applying for a limited amount of funding regardless of the identity of the source. Thus, it is important to ensure that your proposal is as solid as it can be. Even the simplest error can cause your proposal to be moved to the “not in consideration” pile.

Many mistakes can easily be prevented. Others take some consideration and work to avoid. You need to prevent mistakes if you want to obtain the grant funding. This article discusses some of the common mistakes found in grant proposals.

Missed Deadline

Every grant has a deadline. It may be a recurring deadline that is the same every quarter or year, or it may be a one-time deadline for a rare grant opportunity.  There usually is a rhyme and reason for this deadline. Normally, it correlates with the funder’s budget timeframe or with its tax season.

When you miss the deadline, you are doing more than decreasing, if not destroying, your chance of obtaining the grant. First, it tells the funder that you do not care about its time. The delay jeopardizes the time frame the funder has set up for its needs and to ensure that it has enough time to be objective in the selection process. Often, missing the deadline will result in rejection of your proposal.

Preplan. Set your submission timeframe early enough so that if something that might delay you occurs, you will still be able to submit an effective proposal on time. Go the extra mile: Document for yourself that the submission was received in time. I recommend that when submitting a hard copy of a proposal, you forward it with a delivery receipt or other mail option that is to be signed by the recipient on delivery. The signed receipt will then be forwarded to you and will serve as proof of when and how the package was submitted. This receipt has helped me to prove to funders who said the deadline was not met that it was received before the deadline. Never argue with the funder; just provide your documentation.

Spelling and Grammar

Unfortunately, tools like Spell Check in Microsoft Word have spoiled us in terms of spelling and grammar.  To make matters worse, Spell Check does not always work properly. I am sure you have seen errors that Spell Check missed. Thus, we must be vigilant in preventing spelling and grammatical errors. Why is this important?  Think about when you are reading an article in a newspaper or on the Internet—or even when reading a book–if you see spelling and grammatical errors, you often begin to question the writer’s credibility.

These errors negatively affect your proposal. Funders begin thinking all kinds of things: Did the writer take time to recheck his work?  Does he know he made a mistake?  The questions weaken the funder’s confidence in the proposal and probably its chances of success. Spend the extra time to recheck your spelling and grammar.  Have multiple people read the proposal.  The more eyes on the proposal, the better when it comes to spelling and grammar.

Poor Mouthing

Early in my grant writing career, I often made this mistake, which I named “poor mouthing.” I made it a priority to tell the funder that my department could not afford to buy whatever it was that we were looking to purchase with the requested grand funding. Examples of poor mouthing include the following:

  • We are not properly funded.
  • We cannot afford to buy this.
  • Our agency is poor.

Putting too much emphasis on your department’s lack of funds could lead the funder to wonder why you do not have the money. Could it be poor budgeting? Embezzlement?  Do not include in the proposal anything that could be construed as a possible factor for excluding your proposal.


In the past, it was possible to write a grant for something you wanted without providing a rationale for it. Today, funders want to see that they are making a difference. Therefore, it is important that you link the problem to the solution for which you are asking funding. This information usually may involve providing statistics, which normally helps a proposal’s chances.

Example of a problem-solution. Emergency medical services (EMS) is being more and more taxed because of the need for health care and the abuse of the system. Many fire departments are rendering first responder services to aid their citizens in getting medical care as fast as they can. Your department may be able to afford bandages, c-collars, and so on, but it does not have the initial funding to purchase automated external defibrillators (AEDs). Since we can show that there is a problem with the availability of EMS units, the solution would be to initiate first responder services with AEDs, which would enable EMS personnel to more quickly defibrillate patients who have experienced a sudden cardiac event.

Funders are also looking for solutions that can be replicated in other locations. In this way, the funder can point to the innovation you initiated and their support of it. Including this type of information in the problem-solution portion of the proposal can be very beneficial.

Size of Request

People often like to ask for the moon, thinking that if they fall short, they will still hit the stars. This is not the case when it comes to grant writing. It can be problematic to ask for funding for large projects; it is likely that they will not be funded. A reason for this is that the funder wants to make sure that the money is in good hands and will be handled properly. If your agency is not accustomed to managing more than about $100,000, the funder is not likely to fund your $1-million-dollar project.  Normally, it is recommended that you do not ask for more than a third to a half of your annual operating expenses.

Failure to Follow Directions

This is another area where you need to make sure that you “cross the t’s and dot the i’s.” A common error is to disregard or overlook the funder’s directions for binding the proposal.  Sometimes, funders want the proposal stapled; other times, they may want it bound in a specific way.

Read through the directions one last time before you send off the proposal. Ensure that you followed them. I generally have another person look at the proposal while I call out the requirements. If everything goes well, we are ready to send off the proposal. If there are errors—provided that we maintained a good timeframe–we can go back, make changes, and still submit the proposal in time.


These are just some of the common mistakes that can be made when creating proposals for grants. Taking the time to thoroughly review your proposal will limit the potential for making errors. Unfortunately, an error-free proposal will not guarantee you a grant. However, neither will your proposal be rejected for errors, bad judgment, or failure to follow the guidelines.


If your agency is not accustomed to managing more than about $100,000, the funder is not likely to fund your $1-million-dollar project.

Running Head

Grant Writing

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