Grant Application No-Nos: 4 Phrases to Avoid to Increase Your Funding Chance 

May 29, 2024
min read

Applying for grants can be a daunting task, especially for African NGOs and startups eager to secure funding for their projects. As an African NGO or startup, you have been told to showcase your project's potential and demonstrate your organization's expertise to make your application stand out. That tip is still valid and helpful. However, the way you present your organization and its needs can make a significant difference in whether you receive funding or not. 

In the same way that a drop of stain ruins a white cloth, including certain words or phrases can raise funders’ eyebrows negatively and hurt your chances of securing funding. Those words or phrases look insignificant but communicate a message to funders about you and your organization. In this post, we will explore five things to do (words and phrases to avoid) in your grant application to boost your chance of winning. 

1. Highlight Your Team's Strengths and Capabilities, Not Incompetence

Funders want to invest in organizations with the expertise and capacity to execute projects successfully. Avoid phrases like "While our team lacks direct experience," as they can undermine your credibility. Instead, highlight your team's skills, qualifications, and relevant experience. Remember, you are the skilled driver guiding your project toward its desired impact.

Imagine a funder reading your application as if it were a job interview – you wouldn't highlight your lack of experience; instead, you would sell your qualifications and abilities. The same principle applies to grant writing. Funders want to invest in organizations that exude confidence and capability, not those that raise doubts about their ability to execute.

A well-crafted grant application should be a showcase of your organization's strengths, not a spotlight on its weaknesses. Emphasizing your team's expertise demonstrates to funders that you have the necessary knowledge and competence to bring your project to fruition.

2. Convey the Problem's Urgency, Not Desperation for Funds

While funders appreciate the urgency of the problem you aim to solve, avoid sounding desperate for funding. Phrases like "Our organization urgently requires" or "We need your funding to continue to operate" can portray your organization as overly dependent on external funding and lacking self-reliance. Instead, focus on clearly articulating the problem's significance and your proposed solution's potential impact.

Consider this: a funder is more likely to be compelled by a well-articulated problem that resonates with their values and objectives, rather than an organization's desperate plea for funding. Highlighting the significance of the problem and your proposed solution's potential impact aligns your project with the funder's mission and demonstrates your commitment to creating positive change.

Your grant application should be a rallying cry for change, not a plea for survival. Funders are not interested in rescuing organizations; they want to invest in projects that will create meaningful and lasting impact. By focusing on the problem and its urgency, rather than your organization's financial woes, you shift the narrative from a personal need to a societal one.

3. Maintain Transparency and Avoid Raising Suspicions

Funders value transparency and often request financial statements and other documentation as part of their due diligence process. Statements like "Due to unforeseen circumstances, our financial records for the past year are unavailable" will raise red flags and potentially disqualify your application. Be honest and upfront about any challenges or limitations; funders appreciate and respect transparency.

Imagine a seller approached you with incomplete or misleading information about the goods he/she wants to sell. Finding out the truth will sow distrust and skepticism in the seller and eventually hinder the transaction. The same principle applies to grant applications. 

In grant funding, transparency is the currency of trust. Funders invest not only in projects but also in the organizations behind them. Maintaining transparency demonstrates your organization's integrity and commitment to accountability, the two qualities that are highly valued by funders. Being transparent and upfront establishes a foundation of trust with funders and increases the likelihood of securing their support.

4. Mask Your Uncertainty With Confidence and Clarity

Readiness is a crucial factor to assess before embarking on the grant funding journey. Grant Master emphasizes this. Phrases like "While we are still determining" or "We hope to be able to..." raise doubts about your preparedness, regardless of how they conclude. If you find yourself uttering such words, you have no business pursuing grant funding at this stage, because you are not yet ready. Hoping to achieve something is akin to having nothing concrete to offer. Even if you are operating a fledgling startup, approach your proposal with the confidence of an expert in their field, rather than the timidity of one merely hoping for success.

Suppose you are setting out on a journey to fetch water in a completely new location but with signposts here and there, while the new location might make reaching the destination in time uncertain. In that case, the signposts should give confidence and clarity. Avoid projecting an image of a clueless applicant when there are guides because your uncertainty can be seen through the words you use. 

Your grant application should stem from a place of certainty – a clear understanding of what you aim to achieve and how you will accomplish it. Apply because you have a well-defined action plan, not merely a vague hope. Exude confidence and clarity in your grant application. Demonstrate a firm grasp of your objectives and the means to achieve them. Present a coherent and well-articulated plan, devoid of uncertainty or ambiguity. 

5. Strike a Balance Between Confidence and Realistic Expectations

Avoid phrases that convey uncertainty, such as "While we are still determining" or "We hope to be able to…" as they can undermine your credibility and readiness. Similarly, steer clear of overly ambitious or grandiose claims like "Eliminate," "Achieve 100%," or "Completely…" as they may be perceived as unrealistic or overconfident. Strike a balance by expressing confidence in your abilities while setting realistic expectations.

Imagine a scenario where a funder is presented with two grant applications – one filled with uncertainty and the other with grandiose promises. The former may raise doubts about the organization's preparedness, while the latter may be perceived as overly ambitious or dishonest. 

Grant writing requires a balance between confidence and realism. On one hand, uncertainty undermines your credibility and raises doubts about your readiness to execute the project. On the other hand, overconfidence leads to unrealistic promises that may be perceived as unfeasible or overly ambitious. The sweet spot lies in striking a balance between these two extremes. Express confidence in your abilities and the project's potential impact, but ground your claims in realistic expectations. 


In grant applications, the smallest mistake can make a big difference. Your words matter, and how you frame your narrative can make all the difference in your grant-seeking journey. Writing a successful grant application requires a delicate balance of showcasing competence, urgency, and realism without crossing into desperation, suspicion, uncertainty, or overconfidence. Avoiding the pitfalls in this blog post can present your NGO or startup more effectively and increase your chances of securing funding. 

In addition to avoiding the no-nos in this blog post, here are additional resources to help you scale your chances of success. Ways to scale funding barriers, powerful tips to win grants, and how to overcome the sting of grant rejections

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