Best PracticesGrants

12 Mistakes Made by New Federal Grant Seekers

For your consideration: a few of the issues that trip up new federal grant seekers. In no particular order.

  • Starting too late. Most federal grants have an application window of 30-45 days and you’ll need all of it to prepare a competitive proposal. If you start too late—either because you took too long to decide to apply or you didn’t discover the grant until well after it opened—you’re at a big disadvantage.
  • Missing the deadline. Self-explanatory.
  • Failing to proofread. Every proposal should be reviewed by an outsider prior to submission. No exceptions.
  • Lack of discipline. Novice federal grant seekers tend to take a shotgun approach with their efforts. They go after every grant, large and small, regardless of whether it’s a good fit for their organization. The theory being the more applications you submit, the more likely you are to receive funding. Not true. In fact, this is one of the worst ways to approach federal grants. Applying for every federal grant that comes along is sure way to quickly suffer burnout. Experienced, successful federal grant seekers know a focused approach is the best strategy.
  • Not registering early. New federal applicants often don’t realize how long it takes to complete the required registrations with the System for Award Management ( and It’s not like creating a new account on your favorite shopping website. The process can take up to two or three weeks. Register when you’re not going after a grant. That way, you’ll have the registrations complete by the time a grant opportunity comes along and you won’t have to worry about it.
  • No persistence/no patience. Federal grants aren’t a quick fix and they’re not easy: not easy to apply for them and not easy to manage. A common issue with new federal grant seekers is they lack stick-with-it-ness. They apply once, give it their best shot and, when they don’t receive the grant, they give up and never try again. Where’s the fun in that? Federal funding is a long-term play. You need patience when going after them. And, you need patience while waiting for departments to make their decisions. From the time you submit your application to the time you receive a decision, it could be six months to a year or longer. Patience. Patience. Patience.
  • Not following the RFP’s guidelines. Details matter. Before you get started, always read the RFP’s fine print.
  • Inconsistency between narrative, budget and budget narrative. Everything in your program narrative, the budget and the budget narrative needs to tie together. The most frequent mistake is to mention an activity in the program narrative that clearly requires a budget item but the applicant fails to include it in the grant’s budget or the matching funds description. Make everything connect for the reviewers and you’ll score much higher.
  • Applying too soon. That is, applying for federal grants before your organization has sufficient capacity to apply for the grants and to manage them. If you’re not sure where your organization is on the readiness spectrum, use our free federal grant readiness assessment (.pdf).
  • Chasing dollars. Do you know why you want a federal grant? Or, are you simply in we-need-money mode? You need to have a purpose for those dollars. That is, you either need to have an existing program to expand, or a new program to pilot, that fits a grant’s priorities. If you’re chasing after anything/everything just to keep the lights on, you’ll end up in a vicious cycle like the above-mentioned “no discipline” pitfall. Don’t chase grants. Let them come to you. The right one will come along. Be patient.
  • Unrealistic expectations. Federal grants take a long time to cultivate and to get into a good rhythm with the application process. If you think you’re going to be swimming in millions of dollars within your first year, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.
  • Failing to explore alternatives. Is a federal grant the best option for what you need funded? For relatively small amounts (e.g., less than $25,000 or $30,000), I would avoid federal grants. Start by reviewing your current budget to see if any funds can be reallocated; search for small private grants; explore local fundraising events; and take a shot at a crowd sourcing campaign. You can raise the money you need a lot faster with far fewer strings attached than going after federal dollars.

Bonus: Failing to check and the Federal Register every day. Grant opportunities don’t always post to both sites on the same day. Sometimes, there’s a difference of up to one week. With application windows as short as 30 days, it’s essential to check both sites so you don’t miss anything.

For my complete commentary, please watch the video below. Cheers!