Seven Obstacles That Kill Your Proposal

The seven most common issues that I encounter from grantees in my workshops emerge from desperation, a false sense of security, or intellectual doubt. I hear comments such as “I thought I would get it done, but time just flew by,” or “we need the money to survive.” I also frequently take notice of statements such as: “my research is so extensive, that I just cannot focus on one issue.” Often, I find that a false sense of security prevails for anyone not armed with the data and facts pertaining to their topic. For each of these examples, the consequence is that their projects are rejected, despite the fact that these stumbling blocks are easily avoided when recognized. Some of the critical impediments that can be overcome are:

  1. Time – Above all else, the most common predicament everyone has is with last-minute applications. If you can prepare a timeline of how long it takes to complete the proposal and follow it, chances are that you will not fall prey to this setback. Remember that applications submitted 4-5 days prior to the deadline have a 37% greater chance of being funded than last-minute submissions.
  2. Rejection – At some point in time, everyone who writes proposals will be rejected. A submission may be rejected for any number of reasons, and – rather than speculate – you must speak with the donor to learn what went wrong. If the reviewers of your proposal thought your idea was sound, then your chances for a resubmission are excellent. However, if your idea is flawed, the prognosis is not good. Either way, you need to hear it from the donor, and follow their advice on what could be corrected.
  3. Money – I hear time and again: “we need the money and have to apply for grants to exist.” This is one of the most common realities and falsehoods about proposal requests. Grants are not about chasing the money, but about your good idea. If you have a project grant based on a good idea that will make a difference for your constituents, then the money will be forthcoming. If, on the other hand, you have an infrastructure grant, you need to prove excellent stewardship in serving your constituents in order to receive the funds. Unfortunately, foundations that live on the precipice have a greater chance of falling than those who don’t.
  4. Length – One major complaint is that the RFP does not allow for full explanations and limits pages. Grants are about saying less rather than more. If you can describe your idea in a succinct and precise manner, reviewers and donors see it as the hallmark of your proposal being well thought out.
  5. Substance – Believing that your idea is good without research often stems from a false sense of security. A proposal has substance and depth that originates from your well-designed plan and is supported by data from others in the field. Demonstrating that you will improve the well-being of your constituents or add to research in your area is the only way to convince reviewers you have a well-developed roadmap.
  6. Size – Many want to bypass smaller grants and take on more competitive ones that will bring more money. A track record is extremely important when it comes to success. It is easier to develop your record via smaller grants that may not be as competitive. Once you have a proven record of excellence, you can easily transition to the larger and more extensive proposals.
  7. Conspiracy – Interestingly, I have been told many times that the reason for failure of the out-of-the-box ideas is a conspiracy by the medical community, and especially the pharmaceutical companies. The latter do not want their existing drugs disproven and the established medical community does not want to risk what currently exists. Some research may threaten established approaches, but when submitting to such federal agencies as the NIH, transparency and integrity usually prevail.

How you deal challenges such as these will often be a determining factor in how successful you are in your proposal submissions. While obstacles come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, the seven listed above are self-imposed and can therefore be avoided. As grantees, you must have the patience to step back and see the problem at hand through broadened observation and circular vision. You need to see around, beneath, and beyond the problem itself, and well beyond the obvious.

Mathilda Harris

Over the past 18 years, she has written grants, conducted capital campaigns, developed strategic plans for grant procurement, and assisted individuals and institutions to write winning proposals for various donors.

2 comments on “Seven Obstacles That Kill Your Proposal

  1. Ms. Harris:
    I agree on most of the points you make about grant writing. Through trail and error and many rejections grant writers learn the tips you mention…rejection is a great teacher.
    However, I disagree on your point about, “Chasing the money”. While sponsor programs directors and grant writers will tell you, “they don’t chase the money”.
    They do.
    They will not say it publically, but their very existence is contingent on, “chasing the money”.
    Who doesn’t live on a precipice, these days. with the cut backs on funding?
    Dr. W. Salazar

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