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How to not win a fire, EMS grant proposal

Here are four of the most common mistakes in public safety grant writing and how to avoid making them


Grant proposal writing isn’t any more complex than running a cardiac arrest resuscitation or leading a team of firefighters at a residential structure fire. It’s a learned skill. Like any fire or EMS skill, it takes practice, practice and more practice. You don’t improve your intubation skills without practice. The more grant proposals you write, the better you will get.

Inexperienced grant writers tend to make similar mistakes. Here are four of those common mistakes.

1. Not following instructions

Almost all funders, whether a government agency or a foundation, will tell you exactly how to present the materials. The request for proposal and proposal guidelines will tell you what information they want and how they want you to format the proposal. They will tell you what font type and size to use, the page margins, line spacing, and other seemingly unimportant stuff. If they don’t tell you, opt for simple: 11 or 12 point Times New Roman, single spaced, with one-inch margins all around. You may also encounter word limits or character limits, especially with online applications.

Not following instructions is usually the first step the funder uses to eliminate proposals. If you can’t follow instructions, you probably can’t manage the grant successfully. Everything in an RFP is important.

2. Not researching your funder

Many funders have very specific priorities. You need to make sure the government agency or foundation funds what you want or need. If the organization has a website, check it out. It will tell you what and who they fund and do not fund. Unfortunately, most foundations do not fund municipal agencies, but they might fund nonprofit fire/ambulance services. If the website lists a contact person, it’s always good to call and ask questions. That way you can introduce yourself and your agency and the contact person can put a voice to an application if you decide to submit.

For foundations, websites such as GuideStar will give you a lot of information and if you register, which is free to do, you can access the most recent IRS 990 forms. These will tell you how much the organization gave during that year and the 990 lists the organizations to which they gave money and the amounts.

For government funders, the agency website will list the grant recipients and what they received. Grants.gov is the go-to place for Federal agency grants. Grant Finder, a Praetorian Digital product, is another good way to look for state government funding sources, as well as many foundations. You can also check your local public library. It often provides access to the Foundation Center’s Foundation Directory. The online directory only list foundations, but they have the largest number of foundations in their database.

3. Not using plain English

Every occupation has its own language, buzzwords, jargon and acronyms. Different occupations often use the same acronyms to represent different things. These words are common for you, but a grant reviewer might not know what you mean or the context in which you are using the words. If the reviewer doesn’t understand your words and must continually look them up to know what you are saying, this will drastically reduce your chance of success.

Most reviewers are reading dozens of applications and they are looking for ways to eliminate applications quickly. Two of the worst things you can do are losing the reviewer’s attention or interest and making them do extra work to understand what you are saying. They will probably toss your application, even if it is for a worthy cause or a community need.

Don’t use fancy words and phrases to impress the reviewers. They will know you are trying to polish a poor application with a fancy vocabulary. Instead, use simple and concise words. Avoid words like innovative, cutting-edge, game-changer or unique, unless you have done your research and you find you are the only one in the country doing what you propose. You may think it’s new and innovative, but it rarely is.

4. Not using a proofreader

Not much puts off a reviewer more than a proposal that has grammar, spelling and punctuation mistakes. The reviewers have probably read many proposals and they will not tolerate bad writing. This will cause the reviewer to eliminate your proposal or give it a low rating. It shows that you don’t care enough about what you are presenting to correct your mistakes. If you don’t care about the accuracy of your proposal, why should they?

To avoid this, have another person review your writing; preferably someone who doesn’t know anything about the subject. When my wife was alive, she reviewed everything I wrote. She had a keen eye for spotting mistakes. If I saw a puzzled look on her face, I knew something was amiss. If it confused her, then it probably would confuse the reviewer.

Today's grant world is very competitive. Foundations and government agencies will always have many more applications than they can fund. One of the local health care foundations in my area routinely has more than $20 million worth of "asks" and only $4 million to award. That means even very good proposals don’t get funded. I’m not saying don’t try. An old fundraising adage says, "You don’t get what you don’t ask for," so keep working to present the best possible application you can. Ask for professional help if you need it.

About the author
Mark is a Grant Professional Certified (GPC), through the Grant Professional Certification Institute, and is a member of the Grant Professionals Association. He has been a full-time grant professional since August 2006 and has more than 19 years of experience identifying and securing grant funding. He has been a grant consultant since January 2012. 

He has written 160 successful grant proposals, totaling more than $37.7 million and reviewed/edited 15 successful proposals totaling more than $17.03 million. He averages 11 successful grants per year and more than $3.8 million per year in grant funding. He has achieved 61 successful health and healthcare-focused grants, totaling more than $25.18 million, for hospitals; safety-net clinics; and fire/EMS departments. Contact Mark by email at mark.dunlap@emsgrantshelp.com.

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