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Tag Archives: grant myths

Myth: A grant can solve any problem.

Reality: Grants are not panaceas.


Myth of Singularity


Some organizations pursue grants on the premise that if they only had more funding then all of their problems would be solved. When they chase grants without first closely examining their needs and building a plan to resolve them, they are adhering to the Myth of Singularity. One variant of this myth turns up as: ‘We have money problems so we need a grant.’  A second variant surfaces as: ‘If we only had a grant, it would solve all of our money problems.’


In reality, a lack of funding may signal other needs, such as a need to diversify funding sources or a need to intensify efforts to obtain them. The same lack of funding may signal a need to organize the applicant on a more formal basis, a need for a strategic plan, a need for improved governance or leadership, a need for more extensive public engagement, or a need for better financial management. All of these needs, in turn, may indicate a more general lack of grant readiness.


Singularity Myth Graphic


Adherence to the Myth of Singularity imperils an applicant’s long-term viability. Applicants that rely heavily or exclusively on grants for funding may implode or fail entirely when grant funding periods end or when funders change priorities or cease to award grants.


Grants serve applicants better if they form only one part of a blend of several funding types and are not the sole type of support. Other types of support may include fees for service, gifts, endowments, investments, and volunteer support, among many others. Grants are more apt to help in solving an organization’s problems if they advance its vision and strategic plan than if they are sought reactively in panic over a looming crisis in finances.


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


Myth: Grant writers should create proposals for free.

Reality: If it’s worth having, it’s worth paying for it.


Myth of Deferability


The Myth of Deferability reflects durable misapprehensions among grant seekers about what are acceptable arrangements for compensating individuals or firms that develop competitive grant proposals. Among its most persistent variants are: ‘Paying a grant writer on a commission basis is good practice’ and ‘Applicants can pay grant writers on a contingency basis.’


Deferability Myth Graphic


The reality is that the codes of ethics of several professional associations consistently prohibit grant writers and other members from contracting to be paid based either on a fraction of the amount of a grant award (commission) or on a positive funding outcome (contingency). Among such codes of ethics are those of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), the American Grant Writer’s Association (AGWA), and the Grant Professionals Association (GPA).


There are many compelling reasons for such prohibitions. One reason is that the final proposal, as a work product delivered to the applicant, has value for the applicant’s future funding pursuits. The work product retains such value regardless of its immediate funding outcome.


A third variant of the Myth of Deferability occurs as: ‘Applicants can pay grant writers out of their grant awards.’  This variant holds a grain of truth. Federal regulations permit pre-award cost recovery for proposal development if a specific agency indicates it will do so in a specific proposal solicitation. The rules for the same kind of cost recovery for nonprofits differ — in significant ways — from those for units of state and local government. In the private sector, most foundations in fact prohibit post-award recovery of an applicant’s pre-award costs for proposal development, thus giving wings to the Myth of Deferability as a myth.


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

Myth: No one is making grants anymore.

Reality: Historical trends favor more grants not fewer.


The Myth of Scarcity


Most grant seekers recoil at the prospect that the grant well ever will run dry. Underlying the Myth of Scarcity are grant seekers’ anxieties and misperceptions about the degree to which grants will continue to be available when they want to seek them. One variant of the myth appears as: ‘Since the markets soured no one is making grants anymore.’  A second variant occurs as: ‘Since the government’s budget was cut back, it’s pointless to try to win a grant.’


Scarcity Myth Graphic


The Myth of Scarcity obscures several realities in grant seeking.


One reality relates to the year-over-year total value and growth trends of foundation assets. In any given year, lesser total amounts of grants may be awarded if the preceding year’s returns on the investment of foundation assets shrink or if donors contribute less to the many grant-making foundations. Both phenomena commonly occur during economic downturns.


A second reality relates to legislation. Grants become harder to find if local, state, or national legislators zero-fund or rescind particular grant programs. A zero-funded program is one that a law authorizes but for which legislators appropriate no funds. A rescinded program is one that an earlier law has authorized but a later law has ended its authorization. Finally, grants also become harder to find if legislators simply cease to authorize new grant programs.


Private foundations will continue to make grants each year for so long as they wish to operate as such and to maintain their status as nonprofit philanthropies. And governments will continue to make grants for so long as legislators appropriate funds for grant-making programs.


The next post in this series on Myths in Grant Seeking will address the flip side of the Myth of Scarcity, which is the Myth of Abundance.

Myth: Only grant brokers know where all the grants are.

Reality: Information about grants is available to anyone.


Myth of Abundance


The Myth of Abundance, like its sororal twin, the Myth of Scarcity, reflects grant seekers’ anxieties and misperceptions about the degree to which grants will continue to be available when they want to seek them. Its adherents adopt an overly optimistic stance, while adherents of its twin, the Myth of Scarcity, adopt an overly pessimistic one.


Abundance Myth Graphic


One variant of the Myth of Abundance surfaces as: ‘Every year billions upon billions of dollars of grants go unclaimed.’  A second variant turns up as: ‘We can get you a grant for anything you want to do.’  In such variants, marketers of products and services for potential grant seekers pretend to have an inside track to getting grants from grant makers.


In reality, information about public and private grant opportunities – and their requirements – is widely available to grant seekers and the general public. Access to it does not require the use of third-party information brokers.


Through its reliance on hyperbole, the Myth of Abundance obscures several grains of truth. Among such grains are long-term trend data that confirm that there are more private foundations than ever before, that they are awarding more grants than ever before, and that the total value of their grant awards is at or near its recent historic highs. In addition, long-term trend data confirm that the total value of grants made by federal agencies is much higher than in the past, even though grant-making program options may be fewer.


Historical trends for both public- and private-origin grants do not perfectly predict the future availability of funding from either source. Grant seekers extrapolate the historical trends indefinitely into the future only at their potential peril.


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

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

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