Grantseekers, how irritating are you to funders? Use this checklist to find out


[Image description: A person wearing a black hat, black shirt, and blue jeans is sitting on the floor. Their face is covered by a white piece of paper with a simple angry face drawn on it. They are wearing two beaded black bracelets on their right wrist and several similar bracelets on their right wrist. They cast a shadow on the background wall which looks like a teal wall with yellow texture squiggles.]

Hi everyone. Last week, I unveiled the FLAIL Index, a tool that allows foundations to see whether or not their grantmaking process will unleash the demon-god Cthulhu upon this world. I’m now calling it the FLAIL Scale (#FLAILscale), since things that rhyme are always more worth our time. I will be updating the Scale this week, based on your feedback, to increase the aggravation points for certain items, such as requiring people to get anything notarized, as well as add some redemption points. Thank you to everyone who tested the FLAIL Scale, especially those who are actually using it to make their grant process better. You are amazing unicorns, and may Cthulhu spare you in the coming Apocalypse.

This week, for balance, we present the other side: Things that we nonprofits do that make funders want to punch us in the jaws—or worse, not fund our programs. I asked the NWB Facebook community, and received nearly a 100 comments from current and past program officers. I synthesized them into the checklist below.

So here, I present, the Grant Response Amateurism, Vexation, and Exasperation (GRAVE) Gauge (That’s, sadly, the closest rhyme to “grave” I can think of). Go through the list below, add up your points (or, use this Excel worksheet), and see how your organization does on any grant proposal. Use this to improve your process. And of course, this is also in beta—and the point values are arbitrary, somewhat based on the frequency the item is brought up—so send feedback and suggestions for GRAVE v2. Also keep in mind there are exceptions and extenuating circumstances.

How annoying are you as a grant applicant?

  1. You don’t do your homework about the foundation and grant, such as reading the RFP and website, so you ask questions the answers to which are easily found (+5 points)
  2. You don’t follow the guidelines of the RFP (+5 points). Says one colleague, “When I ask you for 1 copy, un-stapled PLEASE send it un-stapled because I’m trying to save you the time and postage of sending 10 copies for the panel books. And if you send it stapled, it’s like a big middle finger to me and more time I’ll have to spend in front of the copy machine. To This Day—and this program ended almost 10 years ago—I still remember the 3 org that always, ALWAYS send their app stapled. It’s the little things.”
  3. You don’t answer questions that are asked (+5 points). There is a basic rule of applying for grants: Answer the questions asked on the applications. Some questions have multiple parts, such as “How many people did you serve this year, and how do you expect this to change in the coming year?” That’s basically two questions. Answer them BOTH.
  4. You ignore your program officer’s advice (+5 points). Your program officers serve as the bridge between us and ethereal, mysterious world of trustees and other decision makers. They know stuff and try to help you out with advice. When you ignore their advice, it’s irritating and greatly decreases your chance to get the grant.
  5. You don’t communicate with program officers before turning in your application, when asked. (+3 points). Some grants ask you to call or email program officers before submitting a proposal. This is actually not another hoop to jump through. This is to save everyone time, especially yours. A 15-minute conversation to see if your project is a good match can save you hours of writing.
  6. You name files to make it easier on you, not on your program officer (+3). Imagine if you’re with the ABC foundation, and you receive 200 LOIs, and each file is named “ABC Foundation.” Be thoughtful. When in doubt, name your file something like “[your org] [grant name] submitted on [date].”
  7. You use 50 words to explain something that can be explained in 20 words (+3). This may be why many grants have strict character limits. Because left to their own devices, some applicants try to dazzle with jargon and fancy prose. Get to the point.
  8. You didn’t do your homework on your project (+5). If you don’t understand your project backward and forward, funders can sense that you’re BSing stuff.
  9. Your budget does not include both revenues and expenses (+3). Your budget should include both expenses as well as revenues.
  10. You have a budget that has a bunch of revenues TBD. (+3) Yes, many of us have no idea where our funding is coming from next year. That still does not excuse you for listing “$300,000 to be determined” or “from other sources.”
  11. Your numbers don’t match up, like the requested amount doesn’t match the budget (+3). If you put in the narrative that you’re asking for $100,000, and your budget only adds up to $98,714 in request, that sends signals that you are not good with managing funds.
  12. You deny that you have any weaknesses or challenges or mistakes (+3). On applications and on site visits, it’s always suspicious when you say everything is going well. Usually at least a couple of things are not. It makes you seem shady and not a very good partner. Be transparent.
  13. You are not realistic with staffing plans (+3). Really? You plan to grow your program and expand to 5 new schools, but you’re not planning to bring on new hires?
  14. You apply for grants you are not a good fit for (+3). This is worse for you than if you don’t apply at all. It shows you have poor planning skills and didn’t bother to do your research.
  15. You exaggerate your reach and relationships with partner organizations (+3). Organizations that partner with other organizations, or intermediary orgs, do not exaggerate your reach and influence and how awesome and looked-up-to your org is.
  16. You say what you think funders want to hear, whether it’s true or not (+3). Program officers have a BS detector. Just like with hiding your weaknesses or exaggerating your organization’s influence, they can tell when you’re lying.
  17. You don’t differentiate between foundations (+3). Yes, I’ve been advocating for funders to just accept applications written to other foundations (thanks to the Whitman Institute and its Trust-Based model). Still, until that happens, ensure you’re tailoring your application to the foundation you’re applying to.
  18. You have way too much general statistics (+3). Make sure the statistics you quote are relevant and well-thought-out. Says a colleague: “Please don’t fill the narrative of your application with paragraphs upon paragraphs of statistics. Even if it’s relevant, it reads as though you’re stuffing the box. I read 120 grant applications per year – I’ve seen those numbers hundreds of times.”
  19. You put inaccurate information in the application (+3). I ran into a funder today who said, “I read an application, and they wrote something that I know wasn’t true. Thankfully, I’ve visited their programs so know that what they wrote was probably a mistake.” Make sure your information is correct.
  20. You wait until the very last minute to submit grants (+5). A grant proposal is due at 5pm, and you hit submit at 4:57pm. You daredevil you! This is fine…if it works. What’s aggravating is if you experience technical challenges or other barriers and you call your program officer, freaking out. Give yourself plenty of time to submit your application and handle website and other problems.
  21. You only communicate when it’s time for a report or new request (+3). Funders love hearing how their funding is helping make the world better, and they appreciate getting a heads-up about challenges or crises you’re facing. So send in those heart-warming stories, and updates on challenges.
  22. You don’t tell funders in advance of crises, major staff transition, or negative press. (+5) No one likes being surprised. Bad press not just reflects on you, but also on all the foundations that support your org. Plus, program officers want your programs to succeed, and they have lots of connections and resources and may be able to help out if you communicate before stuff goes down.
  23. You talk bad about other organizations or funders (+3). Sometimes you are asked about organizations doing similar work as your org, and how your org and project are different. Focus on community needs and what your organization is doing well. It impresses no one if you trash-talk another organization. Be gracious. Remember, if you have nothing good to say about someone, just focus on making sure your budget numbers add up.
  24. You don’t fill out feedback surveys/requests (+3). Some funders are trying to be really good partners by soliciting feedback, often in the form of surveys. It’s disappointing when people don’t fill them out. Spend the two minutes to fill out those surveys, and be truthful.
  25. You are defensive and argumentative when given feedback (+5). Sometimes, some funders don’t give feedback when your proposal get rejected. If they do give you some feedback, then that’s a great chance to learn. You may not agree with the stuff they say, but arguing back and becoming defensive will not leave them with a good impression of you and your org.
  26. You don’t follow reporting instructions (+5). Just like with the grant applications, it is irritating when you don’t follow the guidelines for your grant reports.
  27. Your client impact stories are not well-thought-out (+3). Many foundations ask for stories about the impact your organization has had. Spend time on these stories. “We had a kid, named John, who struggled in school. Now he’s fine.” That does not inspire anyone. Put some thought into it, especially since program officers often take these stories to the rest of the team or the board to advocate for continuing to fund your organization.
  28. You believe and act like you are actually entitled to funds (+5). Foundations are not ATMs. You don’t automatically deserve any funds. It is a partnership, and it must make sense for everyone.
  29. You forget that most foundations are also nonprofits (+3). Let’s all be reminded that most foundations are 501c3s, and that many program officers face similar challenges. So talking to program officers as if they have no understanding of the stuff you’re facing, or that they don’t have challenges of their own, is irritating.
  30. You don’t accept denials gracefully (+5). Says a program officer, “We actually had to institute a policy to never release denials over the phone, after an unsuccessful applicant threatened to come to our office and beat me up!” (To my credit, I did apologize later).
  31. You don’t use all the funds (+5). If you don’t use all the funds you are granted, it often causes all sorts of challenges, such as program officers have to justify why your org should get a renewal grant if you can’t use what’s given to you. However, our work is often unpredictable and there are lots of circumstances where you can’t use all these funds at the predicted time; be communicative with your program officer to work through this.
  32. You CC program officers’ bosses and coworkers on complaints (+5). If you have a complaint, resolve it directly with the program officer. Going over their head or doing things like CC’ing their bosses or colleagues, is a losing strategy.
  33. You don’t acknowledge foundations when receiving good press (+3). Especially for important projects where a foundation’s support is particularly critical, it’s irritating to not get acknowledgment in the role the funder played.
  34. You don’t list your full contact in your signature (+3). List your contact info in your signature! Otherwise, if a program officer has a question, or if they’re meeting you for lunch or something and wants to confirm, they would have to try to search through your website to find your info. It’s far easier to just refer to the last email you sent, if your signature includes your contact info. (This goes to everyone; funders, you need to do the same).
  35. Your application smells (+3). I was just being facetious when I asked “Funders, what annoys you, besides applicants who spray cologne on their proposals?” But apparently, this sometimes happens. Don’t spray cologne or perfume. Though some funders are OK if you light incense or sage over your proposal.

Redemption points:

  1. You send glowing letters to the editors or board of trustees about the outcomes you are achieving with help from the funder (Remove 10 points).

How did you do?

You scored 0 to 10 points: You are a magical grantseeking unicorn. Your charisma is only matched by your intelligence and stunning good looks.

You scored 11 points to 25 points: You are a pony, somewhat irritating to funders. Work hard, and you too can become a magical unicorn.

You scored 26 to 50 points: You are annoying, bordering on aggravating, and at risk of not being funded by most funders

You scored 51 to 75 points: You got a lot of stuff to work on. At this rate, it’s hard to see anyone funding you.

You scored 76 to 131 points: No one is going to fund you. Your organization will whither, your land fallow, your livestock barren. Your favorite shows will be canceled.

You scored -10 points: You’re a liar


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42 thoughts on “Grantseekers, how irritating are you to funders? Use this checklist to find out

  1. Dana Doan

    I love these quizzes and learn so much by filling them out! Thank you for collecting the feedback and sharing this tool with us.

    That said, and given that GRAVE is in beta testing, I would like to share some concerns about a few items on your checklist…


    #4. You ignore your program officer’s advice (+5 points).
    Comment: On several occasions, I received advice from foundation program officers with regards to a project or proposal that was unethical or did not align with our organization’s mission or stated objectives. As such, I believe we were correct to ignore the program officer’s advice.

    #31. You don’t use all the funds (+5).
    Comment: If an organization does not take the time to prepare a thoughtful budget and they clearly mis-budgeted at the start of course that is a problem; however, if an organization comes under budget because it was able to negotiate for free or greatly discounted products and services such efforts ought to be rewarded. A donor should not get upset with an organization for leveraging its networks and/or trying to bring in more partners. If donors do that, they are sending the wrong message to nonprofits who will soon opt to pay full-price for everything and never seek out donations or discounts.

    #32. You CC program officers’ bosses and coworkers on complaints (+5).
    Comment: In general, I agree with the implied recommendation and best practice. Nevertheless, I have crossed paths with a small number of foundation program officers that are not good listeners. These individuals may be engaged in making inappropriate comments or suggestions (refer to above comment on item #4), requesting multiple reports or updates (not agreed upon in advance), or demanding cooperation for yet another unplanned site visit. If we raise our concerns directly and to no avail, it may then become necessary to copy in the boss and/or a co-worker.

  2. Erik Hancock

    GRAVEGrade (TM). I also had a really nerdy one, which was GRAVE-Sieve. I’m an architect and we specify gravel (connected on so many levels!) according to numbered sieves (i.e. “stone passing a #2 sieve). It also drives the point home that bigger offenses are like bigger pieces of stone. Anyway, I’m like the one reader of your blog who would get that reference so I’m going with GRAVEGrade!

    1. Vu Le

      Thanks, Erik. I love “Sieve.” In fact, I was thinking of changing GRAVE to GRIEVE so it would rhyme. But I think I’m overthinking it. I’m going to eat some hummus.

  3. Tamela Luce

    As a program officer, these all ring true! I once had someone call 30 minutes before the application deadline to tell me they’d broken their arm a couple weeks earlier and could they have an extension? I would add a few more…

    * Spell Check! I have seen proposals riddled with typos. Some truly unfortunate ones, including one proposal with a repeated typo that seemed to change the actual purpose of the project. * Ask someone who knows nothing about your organization/project to read your proposal for clarity. Assume you’re writing to someone who knows nothing about what you do. Your program officer may know your organization very well; trustees may not. We are all close to our work and frequently think we’ve clearly communicated something when we haven’t. By asking someone else to review the proposal ahead of time and quizzing them on what they don’t understand, you can really improve your application.

    * Understand your organization’s budget and finances and be able to explain any significant anomalies. Large surpluses and deficits can make it easy for funders to turn down proposals, especially those that receive more requests than they can fund. Maybe there is a good reason why you have a surplus or a deficit, but the program officer may not have time to reach out to hear the story and you’ll just get rejected. Find a way to include the explanation with your proposal and (especially development folks!) be prepared to talk about it if a program officer calls with questions. Having to call the program officer back ends up because you need to talk to the finance director can cost precious time. Sometimes you need to talk to a finance director or someone else to get the full story, but learning about an organization’s finances is good professional development!

  4. Cheryl Slavin

    What about GRAVE-Rave? Also, did you misspell gauge (gage) on purpose?

    Regarding the survey, I scored a 14, although I gave myself the full 5 points for the last minute submissions, even though I only do that about 1/3 of the time. Overall, I think this is a really good, very common sense list.

  5. Maria Mia Burk

    I’ve been on both sides of the fence and relate to all of the above. I think too many grant writers try to impress with fluff and don’t really answer questions. Or they try to place a needs statement into every single response. That’s just bad writing, period. I’ve also been on the receiving end and I’ve HATED when applications don’t come in as requested. There’s a reason I want the application in Word, so I can copy and paste, sending me a PDF is wasting both our time. And naming files….sigh. There should be a class in that alone. If you can’t properly name a file and send me something with PDF#12adf32, that means I need to spend time saving dozens of files correctly. Let’s all work together to make our magical, nonprofit unicorn lives easier!!

  6. Morgan Lindsey Tachco

    Suggested add:
    Maintain your own files. Funding program officers are not there to maintain the project budgets or fiscal sponsor agreements you submitted with your applications.

  7. P Bacon

    Great gauge. My issue is with no. 27: your client impact stories suck. Okay here it goes… I HATE the constant need from funders, founders, private donors and media to always have a “client impact” story.
    Firstly, it can be downright exploitive to be pandering client impact stories all over the place. We are often working with very vulnerable populations; people whose experiences in life have been rife with a lack of respect for their boundaries and privacy. For the charity that serves them to be flaunting their story is self-serving and only further exploits the people we say we’re trying to help.
    Secondly, many of us are operating a charity in small communities. The client impact story is not a “faceless” stranger that our founder may not know; there is a real possibility when I tout someone’s impact story, there would be a lot of people who would know exactly who I was talking about.
    Thirdly, it is not my story to tell. The narratives of success or failure in the lives of our clients are their narratives to talk about or not; they are not my narratives to exploit. It is arrogant for me to tell another person’s story and framing it that without my charity program they surely would have continued to fail.
    Fourthly, I get it that an individual client impact story can be as adorable as a baby unicorn. However, I sorely wish that founders, funders, and media and greater community could find some other way of measuring whether a charity/organization does meaningful community work. I’m sure there are. There’s many smarty pants people in the business; lets come up with some better measures than the client impact story.
    Finally, in the 12 years I have been in the biz, not only have I had requests for client impact stories, but sometimes funding folks are making insane requests: “please don’t send us narratives about 40 year old drug users with HIV, can you instead send us a narrative focusing on a little white kid who got HIV from blood supply and how you’ve made his life better?” or “do you have anyone in a wheelchair and of color who might speak to the media about your program?” Oh common! really??!!

    1. Vu Le

      P Bacon, thank you for some really important feedback. I agree with you. We need to be very thoughtful about the potential exploitative nature of asking people to tell their stories, or telling other people’s stories for them. I should write a post on this in the future, and maybe quote you, if you don’t mind.

      1. Derek Floyd

        Wow! So I also work with orgs that serve vulnerable populations, and understand P Bacon’s concerns. Looking forward to seeing your follow up post on this topic, Vu Le.

        In the meantime, however I would like to comment on a few points.

        (Stepping on soapbox)

        1. “For the charity that serves them to be flaunting their story is self-serving and only further exploits the people we say we’re trying to help.”

        Nonprofits exist because of generous, philanthropic donors. Sharing of stories is how you connect donors to your work. It’s not “self-serving” – it’s serving both the funder and the child or senior or whomever is the beneficiary of the funding.

        2. “It is not my story to tell. The narratives of success or failure in the lives of our clients are their narratives to talk about or not; they are not my narratives to exploit. It is arrogant for me to tell another person’s story and framing it that without my charity program they surely would have continued to fail.”

        In my experience, if you are serving a vulnerable population, they most likely have no voice. Our job is to help give them a voice. You aren’t “exploiting” their narrative if you are authentically listening to them and using your organization to speak their truth. I would question why one would be even working with a population if you didn’t believe that you understood the challenge/need in the population you are serving, and had the exact solution to meet that need to help those you are serving overcome their challenges. Otherwise, why do you exist?

        3. “I get it that an individual client impact story can be as adorable as a baby unicorn. However, I sorely wish that founders, funders, and media and greater community could find some other way of measuring whether a charity/organization does meaningful community work.”

        There is basically ONE critical difference between a for-profit and a nonprofit, besides how each handles revenue surpluses annually. And it has to do with client stories. What is it? Market Test. In a for-profit, those who are paying for the goods or services are the ones using them. So a company or organization can measure it’s success by how well their product is selling. The market tells it whether or not it is successful, and leads companies to change strategies if they are not selling goods or services. In a nonprofit, generally those who are receiving the services are not the ones paying for it. Therefore, to really understand whether or not our programs are successful, we need other measures, which absolutely MUST include client feedback. There are many ways this can be collected an analyzed, and respectfully shared, but if this is not part of your organization’s program evaluation, how do you know what you are doing works?

        (Stepping off soapbox).

        Perhaps we can connect at your talk at USD on March 2.


  8. Patrick Taylor

    I’d add grantees who don’t understand what their organization’s legal name is, or change the name of their organization without alerting the IRS. It’s a big pain for foundations when all of your tax documents are for a different name than what you call your organization, or when all of your application materials use the name of your affiliated C4 instead of the public charity that can actually receive grants from private foundations. It’s frustrating to get an application from “Save Seals” and realize that the organization is actually called “The society for seal conservation and preservation,” only that’s not what is on their bank account anymore because they changed it to the zippier “Save Seals” without telling the IRS. or when Action Now! a lobbying organization, submits a proposal filled with information about what Action Now! is going to do when it is really The North Bay Improvement Committee who are the affiliated C3 that will be receiving the grant.

  9. PattiG

    i scored fairly well on this!! Not a unicorn, but getting there. But only because you didn’t include the really annoying things that I fail at, which includes the following: Not having a web-site. Almost never answering calls (however, I do give my e-mail address in my phone message). I would enjoy it though if applicant’s realized that I’m doing a part-time job: just a bumbling human, bumbling along, not trying to be difficult, but having only so much time to devote to many, many applicants.

    1. Vu Le

      Thanks, PattiG. I appreciate the bumblers of this world. So much of our work is complex, and focused bumbling is often how we find solutions.

  10. PattiG

    My pet peeve is when applicants do not include an e-mail address. This means I can’t communicate with them unless I call (if a phone number is included), or send a letter. This really happens! Often! Or, when the address to send checks to is not clear. I get 2 or 3 letters a year returned to sender. Stupid. This happens sometimes when a non-profit changes addresses, but don’t tell me, and they only correspond once a year.

  11. Carol Clarke

    Another winner, Vu! Thanks for the advice, lots of things I can swerve with this foresight. You are funny af.

  12. Mehitabel

    Just one quick comment on #13. If the funder is actually wiling to fund staff salaries, then yes, it’s not good to have a bad staffing plan. If the funder won’t fund salaries, then the nonprofit’s options as far as staffing plans are pretty limited. And it kinda drives me a little crazy when a funder insists on budgets that include items that they refuse to fund.

    1. Vu Le

      Thanks, Mehitabel. I agree. In fact, it is #49 on the FLAIL Scale:

      You ask for things you refuse to help pay for. If you don’t pay for “overhead,” then don’t ask for evaluation data or audits or program reports, because those things are all “overhead.”

  13. Michael Brand

    Related to #8. Several times I’ve had an applicant’s program staff have no idea what the grant writer put into the application. And yet it’s the staff who are expected to carry out the plans.

    1. Cloggie

      As the person writing the applications, it became part of my job to take the plans that more senior people seemed to create from thin air while having lunch or a call with a program officer. I’d then have to negotiate between what was promised and what staff could/should do. The senior staff who’d made the promises thought this was a waste of time and I should just create plans that they’d “figure out”…sigh.

  14. famlyslave

    How about the grantees who get irate because they missed an LOI or proposal deadline and complain that you didn’t remind them that it was time for them to apply? Like it’s the foundation’s job to make sure they meet our deadlines!

  15. Sherri R

    Thank you…thank you!!! As a funder, we feel pretty beat up much of the time, so this is a welcome post!

  16. Marshall Ginn

    Another winner for sure, Vu. (Can’t wait to read the one for funders, too.) Both nonprofit leaders AND funders should take the time to read through BOTH of these checklists. Lots can be learned from reviewing the advice being given to “the other side.” Lastly, as someone who’s read many, many grant applications and award applications, I’d love to add a special checklist item for the word “unique.” Every nonprofit is and should be treated like the special snowflake it is. But – I still propose adding 1 or 2 points for every time a grantseeker uses the word “unique” when describing their approach or programs!

  17. violent_blue

    When you ask us to talk to you about your organization or proposal, please LISTEN! I just got off the call with a grant writer who was bent on telling me ALL about her organization and every single client and their stories and their programs and their board members and their story…. Instead of using the time to learn about how we look at applications and what she could do to strengthen hers, she got nothing of value, other than perhaps some talk therapy.

  18. Cloggie

    I want to put #2 in a needlepoint and send it to a former employer.

    My supervisors (who had not read the RFP) would insist on sending things in formats that were contrary to what was requested because “it looks more professional this way”. The protests of me (who had read the RFP and was waving it around) went unheeded. This resulted in having to format all of our materials back into the requested format and not mentioning it. Total waste of time.

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