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Monthly Archives: June 2016

Myth: Getting a grant is all about who you know.

Reality: Whom you know is seldom all that matters.


Myth of Relationships


One of the most potent myths in grant seeking surrounds the indispensability of interpersonal relationships between grant seekers and grant makers in determining who wins grant awards. Underlying the Myth of Relationships is the misapprehension that the only way to be sure to get a grant is to know and befriend those who decide who gets one. It appears as ‘Winning a grant all depends on who you know and how well you know them.’ Like some other myths in grant seeking, this one contains elements of truth, but not all of it.


Relationships Myth Graphic


In reality, positive interpersonal relationships always can be useful assets; however, they usually play a far more formidable role in deciding which applicants win grants from private sources than they do in deciding which ones win grants from public sources. The fundraising specialty of foundation and corporate relations, for example, exists to cultivate and steward interpersonal and cross-institutional relationships that yield grant awards (among other revenue types); in such contexts, those relationships are more often decisive.


In the public arena, however, grant seekers’ relationships with grant-making agencies and program officers, particularly at the federal level, play a far lesser role in securing grants. Such relationships at times may play a somewhat greater role, after initial funding, in positioning the grant recipients to renew multiyear grants year after year, but this is not the same phenomenon as that of winning a grant in the first place. It’s not that positive interpersonal relationships with public grant makers don’t matter, but only that peer reviewers don’t use them as criteria in reviewing and scoring applications or in recommending recipients of competitively awarded grants.


Interpersonal relationships are sometimes decisive in determining which applicants win grant awards – and in specific contexts they may be often decisive – but they are not always decisive.


The next post in this series on Myths in Grant Seeking will address the Myth of Scarcity.


Myth: A perfect funding track record is usual.

Reality: No one is perfect.


Myth of Omnipotence


Beyond the Myth of Substitutability, another myth related to who can write competitive grant proposals pertains to how consistently those proposals can or should win grants. In its variants, this myth appears as: ‘Expect no less than a 100% success rate’ or as ‘We can guarantee that this proposal will win a grant.’ This is the Myth of Omnipotence. It reflects an applicant’s unreasonable expectation of a favorable funding outcome for every proposal it submits.


Omnipotence Myth Graphic


In reality, in some public and private direct services grant programs, success rates as low as 10% to 30% may be much closer to the norm. For seekers of research grants, rather than direct services grants, the typical success rate in a given competitive program may be as low as 5%, even for experienced applicants.


The Myth of Omnipotence also appears as: ‘Anyone who gets any fewer than all proposals funded is incompetent.’ In this variant, the myth represents a misapprehension about the exclusivity and predominance of the role of writing (and all that goes into that writing) in getting proposals funded. It takes more than excellent writing skills to win competitively awarded grants – not the least of which are organizational capacity and grant readiness.


In a third variant, the Myth of Omnipotence is reframed as: ‘Professional grant writers can win any kind of grant available.’ Adherents of this particular variant of the myth may prove to be as misguided as those grant seekers who fall for unsubstantiated marketing hype about an individual’s or firm’s perfect success rates.


In reality, in the same way that a grant writer’s past performance does not predict future results, past success in one sphere of grant seeking does not predict future success in the same sphere of grant seeking – let alone in all spheres.


The spheres of human knowledge and enterprise have become numerous and intensively specialized. Even the most generalist among grant writers cannot hope ever to write enough proposals to prove their universal competence in all spheres where grant awards are made. Instead of being universal, grant writers tend to specialize in ways that mirror the special focuses of certain aggregations of grant seekers, grant makers, and funding programs. In the ecology of grant seeking, all grant writers (and all grant seekers) occupy niches. And they must constantly readapt to their niches if they are to win grants.


The next post in this series on Myths in Grant Seeking will address the Myth of Deferability.

Myth: Anyone can write a proposal.

Reality: Grant writing is a species of technical writing.


Myth of Substitutability


Not only do myths surround who can request a grant, they also surround who can write proposals that win grants. The idea that anyone at all can write fundable proposals is based upon the Myth of Substitutability. In one variant, this myth appears as: ‘Anyone can become a successful grant writer after taking a training course.’ In a related variant, it occurs as: ‘Anyone on our staff can write a winning proposal, and at far less cost to us than a professional grant writer.’


Substitutability Myth Graphic


Both variants of the Myth of Substitutability reflect a widely held misperception that the skill-sets of successful grant writers are no different from anyone else’s. They also reflect a misperception that retaining the services of an individual or firm that specializes in writing competitive grant proposals is often or always a poor investment of limited local resources.


The reality is that any writer’s persuasive and expository skills are a necessary but insufficient condition for winning a grant. The reality is also that using a skilful consultant or specialist to develop a grant proposal is always only one factor that improves the likelihood of winning a grant – not the only factor.


Not the least of the other factors in winning competitively awarded grants are attributes of the applicant itself, particularly its organizational capacity. Among the specific functions at play in determining an applicant’s organizational capacity are:

  • Project planning
  • Project management
  • Data collection
  • Data analysis
  • Program accountability
  • Budget development
  • Fiscal management
  • Fiscal accountability
  • Staff recruitment
  • Staff retention
  • Professional development
  • Public engagement
  • Partnership building
  • Resource leveraging


Beyond the grant writer’s and the applicant’s attributes, still other factors in winning a grant award reflect the specific competitive grant opportunity. Among such factors are:

  • Competitive priorities
  • Degree of competitiveness
  • Geographic distribution
  • Applicant type distribution
  • Total available funding


Handling many, most, or all of these factors in a grant proposal requires skill and acumen, and benefits as well from planning and experience.


The next post in this series on Myths in Grant Seeking will address the Myth of Omnipotence.

Myth: Anyone can get a grant.

Reality: Grant makers require evidence of eligibility.


Myth of Universal Eligibility


Some applicants pursue grants under the influence of the Myth of Universal Eligibility. This myth resembles the Myth of Automaticity, except that it has to do with who can get a grant rather than how readily grant awards are made.


Universal Eligibility Myth Graphic


Under the Myth of Universal Eligibility, any individual or organization is eligible for any grant — as if an applicant’s specific legal status played no role in whether it can get one. Among the variants of this myth are: ‘Anyone can request a grant,’ ‘All we have to do is just ask for a grant, no matter what kind of applicant we are,’ and ‘All we have to do is tell the grant maker how big a grant we need.’ The Myth of Universal Eligibility reflects the peculiar notion that all any organization has to do is to ask for a grant in order to get a grant.


Applicants whose headlong pursuit of grants reflects the Myth of Universal Eligibility ignore public and private grant makers’ nearly ubiquitous requirement that applicants prove their legal status as part of establishing their eligibility for a grant. Private foundations require copies of formal letters conferring nonprofit status; public agencies require signed certifications of an applicant’s legal status. Exceptions to such requirements may exist, but they’re far too few to be the rule in grant seeking.


Beyond an applicant’s legal status, another significant eligibility criterion is its history as a recipient of past grant awards. If an applicant has proven to be a responsible steward of a funder’s past grant awards, it is more likely to win a future grant award from that funder. If an applicant is a novice grant seeker, it may or may not be a competitive priority as a future grant recipient, depending upon the specific grant maker and its specific grant programs.


The consideration of a grant seeker’s legal status as an applicant, its track record as a steward of grant awards, and its status as a first-time applicant are three of the many factors in winning future grant awards that commonly fall outside a grant writer’s control. All of these factors — and others — serve to limit the organizations that can apply for a specific grant. Such factors thus serve to limit the eligibility of grant seekers to something far less than universal.


The next post in this series on Myths in Grant Seeking will address the Myth of Substitutability.

Myth: Grant awards are almost automatic.

Reality: Competitively awarded grants are never automatic.


Myth of Automaticity


Some grant seekers fall under the sway of the Myth of Automaticity, which is that grant makers award grants automatically after they receive a completed application. One variant of the myth surfaces as: ‘All it takes is to be a nonprofit to get a grant.’  A second variant appears as: ‘Most applicants will get a grant so long as they follow the instructions.’  And a third variant occurs as: ‘Government agencies are required by law to award us a grant.’


Automaticity Myth Graphic


Adherents to variants of the Myth of Automaticity regard competitive grants as being even more certain of being awarded than ones a funder may make by applying a formula to data furnished in a formal application. In effect, they wish away or disregard the competitiveness of competitive grant making.


At times, if an applicant requests a formula-based grant, its award may seem nearly automatic, but even then it isn’t perfectly thus. Subscribers to the Myth of Automaticity interpret the receipt of a grant as compulsory and available simply for the asking. They regard the situation as one where if they do apply, then they will get a grant in the amount that they seek.


Subscribers to variants of the Myth of Automaticity operate under one or more of several misconceptions. First, that the legal status of an applicant guarantees that it will win a grant, when in fact it does not if its proposal itself proves deficient. Second, that compliance with guidelines is sufficient to win a grant, when in fact it is not if there aren’t enough funds available to make a grant to every equally compliant applicant. And third, that government grant makers must award all available appropriated funds in every competition, when in fact they will not do so if too few proposals are of high enough quality to merit grant awards.


The basic premise underlying the Myth of Automaticity is that if an applicant requests a grant then it will get a grant. In reality, the former action doesn’t always lead to the latter result.


The next post in this series on Myths in Grant Seeking will address the Myth of Universal Eligibility.




Myth: It’s just too hard to win a grant.

Reality: It’s easier if one’s reach doesn’t exceed one’s grasp.


Myth of Needless Complexity


Many potential grant seekers share a perception that it’s almost impossible to win a grant because grant makers impose too many obstacles in the paths of grant seekers. This is the Myth of Needless Complexity. One variant occurs as: ‘The process of writing a successful grant proposal is too difficult.’  A second variant appears as: ‘The selection criteria for grant proposals are too numerous and too complex.’


Needless Complexity Myth Graphic


Both variants have elements of truth. Some grant programs are in fact quite complex; however, their levels of complexity often necessarily reflect the amounts of funding at stake, the nature and magnitude of the problems to be solved, and/or the scopes of work and desired impacts involved. Due to their complexity, some proposals may test an applicant’s mettle at times.


An applicant should forego grant options that are beyond its grasp. Some options will exceed an organization’s capacity to address all of the program selection criteria or to deliver desired results on time and within budget; however, not every grant option presents numerous or complex criteria. Some options are elegant both in their simplicity and in their limited scopes.


Less complex proposals tend to be those that seek smaller amounts of funding and those that are sent to smaller private foundations or smaller corporate foundations. More complex proposals tend to be those that seek larger amounts of funding and those that are sent to government agencies, to larger private foundations, or to larger corporate foundations. Proposals for multiyear funding tend to be more complex than those for single year funding. Proposals that involve multi-agency partnerships tend to be more complex than those that involve single agencies.


The complexity of some funding programs, and consequently of some grant proposals, poses real challenges to the commitment, persistence, and ingenuity of grant seekers. If a proposal’s level of complexity is beyond an applicant’s current organizational capacity, it should consider pursuing other grant options or eschewing grants altogether as a source of funding.


A high degree of complexity is intrinsic to some competitive grant programs. Those who rail against it often also rail against having to compete for grants in the first place.


The next post in this series on Myths in Grant Seeking will address the Myth of Automaticity.a

Myth: One size fits all.

Reality: A custom fit is the best fit.


Myth of Uniformity


The Myth of Uniformity relates to differentiation among proposals and, consequently, to the ultimate number of proposals one needs to create in pursuing competitive grants. One variant surfaces as: ‘All it takes to create a grant proposal is to fill out some forms.’  A second variant appears as: ‘All it takes is to create one application to submit for dozens and dozens of grants.’


Uniformity Myth Graphic


Both variants of the Myth of Uniformity reflect the same misapprehension — that using a template or a boilerplate approach is sufficient to win myriad grants from multiple funders. They minimize the investments commonly required to create proposals that win grants.


In reality, an applicant’s responses in a template proposal are invariably generic. They are unresponsive to the details in and among the selection criteria that differentiate one proposal solicitation from another, one funding program from another, and one funder from another.


If an applicant is to prove successful, it must respond to the specific selection criteria that govern each specific funding opportunity. Across available funding opportunities, such selection criteria will differ from each other in ways that will be more or less subtle, more or less profound. An applicant’s competitive grant proposals need to resonate with these differences.


An applicant’s proposal also must respond to all of the selection criteria, not merely to some or a few of them. Use of a single template is seldom sufficient to respond adequately to all of the specific criteria that govern every specific available grant opportunity of interest to an applicant. The degree of an applicant’s responsiveness to each criterion contributes to the success or failure of its competitive grant proposals.


The applicant for a competitively awarded grant improves its likelihood of funding by customizing every proposal to match the particulars of every specific funder.


The next post in this series on Myths in Grant Seeking will address the Myth of Needless Complexity.


Myth: It all should be done in no time.

Reality: The required time varies.


Myth of Instantaneity


The Myth of Instantaneity relates to how long a client (or an employer), as an applicant, should expect a grant writer to take to write a fundable competitive grant proposal. It appears as: ‘Writing a grant proposal shouldn’t take a lot of time.’ If it does not take a lot of time to prepare a winning proposal, then it also should not cost a lot in fees or salaries to prepare one. This reasoning leads to a corollary myth, which commonly occurs as: ‘It shouldn’t cost a lot to create a winning grant proposal.’


Instantaneity Myth Graphic


Like many persistent myths in grant seeking, the Myth of Instantaneity greatly oversimplifies the realities of writing proposals that win grants. If those writing a proposal are experienced, it should take them less time to do it than if they are inexperienced. If those writing a proposal are familiar with the grant maker and the funding program, it should take them less time to do it than if they are unfamiliar with either or both of them. If a proposal under consideration is as short as a typical letter of inquiry, it should take less time to create it than would a 300-page full proposal with an itemized and justified budget and a suite of supporting appendices.


In contrast to the expectations underlying the Myth of Instantaneity, a more reasonable expectation is that it may take considerable time (and expense) to develop a competitive grant proposal. Just how much time it takes ultimately will depend upon the specific grant writer and on what needs to be submitted.


In general, the time it takes to prepare a competitive grant proposal will reflect several factors. Among such factors are:

  • The grant writer’s level of experience
  • The grant writer’s familiarity with the grant maker and its funding program
  • The applicant’s degree of readiness
  • The applicant’s pre-submission proposal review and approval processes
  • The required proposal length
  • The amount of funding requested (and the budget’s required level of detail)
  • The number of organizations involved as partners in a proposal
  • The number of persons and organizations contributing information to a proposal


In turn, each of these factors impacts the actual costs of creating competitive grant proposals and the time needed to create them. Each factor thus contributes to the proposals’ lack of instantaneity.


The next post in this series on Myths in Grant Seeking will address the Myth of Uniformity.

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