As Sunday offerings have gone down for many congregations, their interest in alternative revenue sources has gone up. Many churches are now considering grant funding as a way to support some ministry programs. In my twenty-plus years of writing grant proposals and teaching grantwriting, I’ve found that churches and ministry groups often have a lot to learn about the process of applying for grants. Securing grant funding can be possible for congregations, but it’s important to avoid the following pitfalls along the way. The following are the ten most common mistakes I’ve seen churches make when applying for grant funding.

1. Sending the same generic proposal to every funder

Each foundation and corporation you apply to will be unique, with its own set of guidelines, preferences, and processes. Each funder will focus its resources in particular interest areas—education, housing, or health care, for example. Some foundations and corporations fund in very specific geographic areas or like to support organizations with small (or large) budgets. Funders may have simple application processes or more complicated ones. The great diversity among funders means that preparing a generic proposal, without considering the proposal guidelines or requirements of each foundation or corporation, isn’t going to get you very far.

Before you even begin to write your proposal, research the funders you would like to approach. Identify those that are the best fit, then tailor each proposal to meet that funder’s requirements. You may need to change only a few sentences or paragraphs each time, but being responsive to the funder’s focus will make all the difference.

2. Spending too little time planning before seeking funding

Many ministry groups think they are ready to request grant funding, but then can’t answer simple questions about their programs or organizations. It’s not unusual for me to meet people who haven’t thought through the intended results of their program or the details of phasing it in, for example. Who will the intended beneficiaries be and how will you recruit them? Who will run the program and what are their qualifications? What are the activities and where will they be held? These are all basic questions you will need to answer before you begin to write your grant proposal. The time you spend planning may seem to be getting in the way of grantwriting, but consider planning a key part of the grant-seeking process. You won’t succeed without it.

3. Requesting support from “secular” funders for spiritual programs

I define “secular” funders as those foundations and corporations that do not have spiritual development as a goal for their funding. Many corporate foundations and giving programs are secular, and you will find private foundations that are as well. It’s important that you identify whether a foundation is interested in spiritual development before you approach them, so you know what can (and cannot) be included in your proposal. One tip-off that a funder doesn’t support spiritual programs is a statement like this in their guidelines: “We do not support religious organizations for religious purposes.” When you see that statement, you know that you cannot ask this funder to support spiritual or religious programming at your church. Spiritual programs would include activities like Bible study, worship, evangelism, discipleship, spiritual formation, and pastoral care. However, a secular funder that does not fund spiritual activities may be very interested in supporting community outreach activities sponsored by your congregation that focus on housing, child care, job training, or education (just to name a few).

4. Lacking outcomes for proposed programs

Knowing the intended results of your work is critical before you begin to seek grant funding. You should be able to answer the question: “What will be different in the lives of the people we serve because of our work?” As part of your proposal, just about every funder will require you to complete an “evaluation” section, where you will identify the outcomes of your program and how you intend to measure them.

Outcomes aren’t just a list of activities that are offered or the number of people who attended. Outcomes measure real change in people’s lives. For example, if you offer a literacy program for youth after school, an outcome would be “on average, youth improved their reading skills by two grade levels each year,” rather than “thirty-five youth participated in the program each week.” If the idea of outcomes is new to you, you may want to get some training in program evaluation before you begin to seek grants. Training may be available through your local United Way or a university with a nonprofit management training program.

5. Putting all of the eggs in the grants basket

To some congregations, grants seem like a funding solution that is shimmering off in the distance. “If we could just get one big grant, then our financial troubles will be over” is a statement that I often hear when I teach grantwriting seminars. In reality, it’s much better to have a diverse funding base—support from a variety of different sources and in a variety of amounts. Groups that become too dependent on just one or two large grants are often devastated when one of those grants is no longer available (a more and more frequent occurrence in this economy).

Ideally, grants should be just one ingredient in the revenue soup. Congregations already have the faithful support of individual donors. You ask them to give every Sunday, and their support is a great base to build on. There may even be individuals outside of your church who may want to give. Special events could be another source of revenue, and sales of a product or service could generate income as well.

6. Moving ahead too far, too fast

Congregations often have a big vision for what they want to see happen in their communities. Vision is essential, but it needs to be translated into focused pieces that will be implemented year by year. I love to listen to pastors talk about all they want to see happen, and then I frequently say, “Pick one or two.” Start off with one or two pieces of your “big dream,” and then once you have experienced some success, you can begin to move forward with some of the other pieces. Your grant proposal should include specific plans for what you intend to do in the next year as well as a summary of the larger vision.

For example, if your vision is to eventually build a youth center in your community, you may decide to begin by offering after-school programming at the church focused on athletics and arts. This year you will work with elementary-age youth, next year add middle schoolers, and in year three add high school students. Run the program for all age groups for several years, then consider building the center. Funders appreciate advance thinking on how programs will be “rolled out.” It gives them greater confidence that you will be successful in your work.

7. Thinking that capital grants will be easy to come by

Securing capital grants to build, renovate, or expand a church facility is tough. Many corporate and foundation funders want to have a long-standing relationship with a group before considering capital funding, so if you are new to grantseeking, capital support is probably down the road a bit. If you do develop these kinds of relationships, secular funders (described in #3) will want to see how expanding or building a church building would benefit the broader community, not just the members of a particular congregation or religious group.

So, before seeking capital grants, you should be able to describe, in specific terms, how the new space will be used and who will be using it. For example, if you were adding onto your church bu
ilding so that you could provide shelter for the homeless or a youth center that serves young people from the community, capital grant support may be more of a possibility. On the other hand, expanding your worship space might not be fundable with capital grants.

8. Not following directions for how to submit the proposal

Guidelines for foundations and corporate giving programs will include details on how to submit your proposal—including page length, number of copies to send, even the font size that is required. A deadline date will also be included in the guidelines, and whether the funder accepts proposals via the U.S. mail or an online submission process (something more and more funders are requiring). Ignore these details at your own peril. Send in a proposal that is too long, too late, or via the wrong mail system and it is likely that it will not be considered at all.

9. Not following up

If you get a “yes” from a funder, respond promptly with a thank you, something that (surprisingly) not all organizations do, according to foundation staff members interviewed for my book Winning Grants to Strengthen Your Ministry (Alban Institute, 2007). Also, stay in touch throughout the year, maybe sending brief quarterly updates about how your program is going.

If you get a “no” from the funder, you may be tempted to give up, but instead, make sure you follow up. Call the staff member at the foundation or corporation and ask for feedback on your proposal. You may find out that foundation staff thought the evaluation section of your proposal was weak, for example, or that you needed a more specific plan for the proposed program. If funders are willing to give you honest feedback as to why you didn’t receive funding, you can improve your proposal for submission next time.

10. Not trying again

You may not be funded on the first try. Submitting your proposal a second or third time may be required, so don’t give up if you get a “no.” Get some feedback from the funder (see #9), improve your proposal, and send it in again next year. Persistence is a key mark of a successful grantwriter. A staff member at a foundation once told me that she paid more attention to groups that kept trying again, improving their proposal each time. She said she thought if staff members were committed enough to the organization to keep trying, then it might be an organization worth funding. So don’t give up!