Several years ago, I worked with an individual who insisted there was no such thing as the “grant police.” He went on to state that once a grantee received grant funds, it could pretty much do whatever it wanted with the money–as long as its use of funds related somehow to the proposed project.

Of course, he was absolutely wrong–and, of course, I tried my hardest to inform him that there are, indeed, “grant police.” If you’re caught in violation of the grant, you risk losing funding–current and future–and often must pay back grant monies that already have been spent.

I recently read an article in the Spring 2004 edition of The Grantsmanship Center Magazine that caught my eye. According to the article, titled “No Mercy from the Margin Police,” there appears to be a separate division of the “grant police” that bears paying attention to: the “margin police.”

Consider the following story the article’s author, Susan Compo, tells. On-Track Inc. is a drug and alcohol counseling organization located in Medford, Ore., which applied for a $600,000 grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSA) of the federal Department of Health and Human Services to fund two programs. The group’s proposal was rejected because the margins on the pages of its proposal were “judged too narrow–by approximately two typewriter letters.”

On-Track received comments from reviewer Diane McMenamin, who wrote that the application had been examined and “was judged to be non-conforming for the following reason: (1) Your application does not conform to the instructions for format as stated in Part II of the [application form], in that applications have ‘conventional border margins of one inch.'”

After getting the rejection, On-Track received support from Oregon’s two senators, Democrat Ron Wyden and Republican Gordon Smith, who asked SAMSA to review the application based on “its merits rather than its margins.” Despite the intercession of these two senators, it is doubtful that Secretary Tommy Thompson will intervene and reverse the decision, according to Mark Weber, the associate communications administrator of SAMSA.

Understandably, staff and board members of On-Track are sad and amazed that their proposal was not even considered for funding.

On-Track states that the group “will apply again” and will follow the instructions to the letter. And, according to the article, SAMSA plans to “feature an instruction sheet in the next round of the grant competition prominently highlighted–on hot pink paper.”

This story points out important lessons for all grant writers. First, it’s obvious that the instructions for applicants are a vital section of the request for proposals that must be read carefully and followed to the letter. Remember, these instructions are not suggestions for an applicant’s consideration–they are hard and fast rules that must be followed if you want your proposal to be reviewed for possible funding. Second, do not assume that the intercession of government officials will mean that a decision about funding will be reversed in the applicant’s favor. One of the hard rules veteran grantwriters know is that, except in rare cases, all funding decisions are final.

So, set your sights on the next competition and submit a proposal that will be reviewed. Check and double-check the formatting instructions before submitting a proposal, and follow the instructions to the letter!

See this related link:

The Grantsmanship Center Magazine

Deborah Ward, CFRE, is an independent grant writing consultant. She welcomes questions at (717) 295-9437 or