5 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Writing an Executive Summary (and How to Fix Them)

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May 19, 2022

Last Updated:

July 14, 2022

Have you ever struggled to write an executive summary? Maybe you are wondering what an executive summary is and how to write one well.

We are going to walk you through a few common executive summary mistakes to help you learn what to avoid and why. Continue reading to gain understanding of what an executive summary is and how to best capture the attention of potential funders with one.

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What is an Executive Summary?

Before we dive into common executive summary mistakes, it is important to explain what an executive summary is. The executive summary is a brief snapshot of your overall grant proposal.

The grantmaker will read the executive summary first as a way of gaining insight into the basics of your grant proposal. While it is a summary, it is important to not get too wordy and to not copy the exact same language from your grant proposal.

The goal is to use the executive summary to pique the grantmaker’s interest so that they want to read more. You should include enough detail that they understand the overview of the project, but keep things brief as they will get details from your full proposal.

Not all funders require an executive summary, but it can be a valuable tool to gain buy-in from reviewers before they review the full grant proposal. The executive summary is your chance to help the grantmaker(s) understand why they should invest in your project and make them want to continue to learn more.

The Most Common Mistakes When Writing Executive Summaries

Similar to any aspect of grant writing, there are many mistakes that can be made when writing executive summaries.

We chose to focus on 5 of the most common executive summary mistakes to help you grow in your grant writing skills. If you’re interested in how to improve your executive summary, avoiding these mistakes will help.

Mistake #1 - Writing Too Much

Your executive summary needs to be concise. While you want to introduce your project and help capture the attention of reviewers, you do not want to write too much and lose their focus.

The general rule of thumb is to keep the executive summary to 10% or less of the total length of your proposal.

Mistake #2 - Supplying an Unrealistic Budget

One thing that should be included in part of your executive summary is your overall project budget. It is important to make sure that you do not ask for too much money. You want to make sure that your funding request accurately aligns with the needs of your project.

An unrealistic budget will indicate to the funder that you do not truly understand your project and its associated expenses.

The detailed budget explanation will come within your grant proposal, but the information included in the executive summary should seem logical. You do not want to shock reviewers as they will be able to tell if what you are asking for seems unreasonable.

Mistake #3 - Not Including Credentials

Another piece of information that should be introduced in your executive summary is staff credentials. The grantmaker will want to see that your nonprofit has people capable of completing your proposed project.

You will expand on these credentials later in your proposal, but it is important to bring this up in the executive summary to “sell” your project and demonstrate that your nonprofit is worthy of the grantmaker’s funds.

Mistake #4 - Focusing on the What Rather Than the Why

While you will use the executive summary to introduce the basics of your proposed project to the grantmaker, funders are more concerned with the why of the proposal than the what.

Keep in mind that you want the grantmaker to understand why your nonprofit and your specific project deserve to be funded. Grantmakers like to see data that supports the need for your project. The data could come from previous work similar to your proposed project or could even include demographics about the community you serve.

Ultimately, the funder wants to understand the impact that their dollars will have on those that you serve.

Explaining the why also helps create buy-in from the funder; they choose to invest because they care about making an impact.

Mistake #5 - Making Writing Errors

While avoiding writing errors is a tip for any type of writing, it is especially important in grant writing. In terms of your executive summary specifically, writing errors are a major turn-off.

The executive summary is usually the first thing that the grantmaker will read and therefore it is important to make a good impression. Grammatical and other writing errors are an easy way to make the reviewers lose interest.

If there are enough writing errors, they may not even continue reading the rest of your proposal. One great way to avoid these errors is to have others within your organization review the document before submission.

It may even be helpful to have someone outside of your nonprofit (or at least less familiar with your project) edit your executive summary as well. An outside editor will have a similar perspective to the grant reviewers based on their lack of knowledge of your project and organization.

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How to Make Sure Your Executive Summary is Mistake-Free: 3 Tips

Now that we have summarized 5 common executive summary mistakes, we are sharing a few tips to help you write a mistake-free executive summary. These tips will help you learn how to write the best executive summary.

1. Review Examples

Similar to when you are writing a grant proposal, reviewing examples of executive summaries is always helpful.

If the funder that you are applying to has executive summary information from previously funded projects available, these will be the best to review as you will know what they are looking for.

If that funder does not provide this information, you can also review executive summary examples from other funders or from other nonprofits.

This can be a great opportunity to reach out to partner nonprofits and see if they are willing to share information from successful proposals.

Reviewing examples will help you better understand how to format the executive summary and what information to include. Of course also keep in mind the importance of following the guidelines provided by the grantmaker.

You can check out this executive summary example to better understand what goes into an executive summary for a grant proposal. You can also check out our previous blog post on how to write executive summaries for more insights and examples.

2. Keep Things Aligned

Keep information from your executive summary and the full grant proposal aligned without repeating things word for word. It will be obvious to those reviewing your proposal if the information presented does not match.

Keeping things aligned does not mean repeating the exact same information, but simply making sure that your executive summary covers what will be in your proposal.

You also want to make sure that you do not introduce something completely new within the full proposal that does not tie-in with the executive summary.

3. Write the Executive Summary Last

Even though the executive summary will be read first, it helps to write it last.

If you write the executive summary after your proposal is complete, then you will know exactly what to include and can make sure that things fit together. You can also avoid executive summary mistakes by already having the information you need in front of you.

Wrapping Up: Writing Better Executive Summaries

We have provided information about 5 common executive summary mistakes that grant writers make. We also added some tips for making your executive summary error-free. Whether you are new to writing grants and executive summaries, or looking to improve on these skills, we hope you found some helpful information.

Writing an error-free executive summary is similar to writing an error-free grant proposal, and editing is a key part of the process. If you avoid some of these common mistakes and edit your work well, you will likely write a quality executive summary and have a more successful grant application.

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