Why is it so hard to win grants?

Few things are as discouraging as persistently low success rates with grants. Many factors are outside a grant fundraiser’s control, and grant writing can be challenging work even in the best of times. Thankfully we can be better prepared by understanding the factors that contribute to low success rates, and plan accordingly.

Consider the bigger picture. First, success rates for grants are directly related to the strength of the applicant.

Reviewers generally look for:

  • Good financial position and overall fiscal health
  • Stability of operations
  • Alignment of your mission and project goals with their funding priorities
  • Evidence of inclusive practices by the applicant’s board and executive staff in designing projects, programs, and initiatives
  • Good donor stewardship practices
  • Prior history with that grantmaker and others in their network
  • Successful history of managing grant awards (generally)
  • Viability and sustainability of the proposed project
  • Funds already committed, especially by the applicant and community supporters.

Also important on the funder’s side:

  • Type of grant written (foundation and federal grants are highly competitive)
  • Level of competition in that funding round (other applicants)
  • Availability of funds to give; some years are leaner than others.

Organizational health and mission-focused operations are the most basic requirements for organizations to be successful at grant fundraising. High-functioning organizations win grants. 

Serious organizational issues will decrease an applicant’s likelihood of success. These include:

  • Prior federal disbarment, suspension or the forced return of donor or grantmaker funds
  • A poor reputation with the funder based on an applicants’ prior behavior and/or lack of compliance
  • Recurring budget deficits (2+ years) that are not tied to long-term investments
  • Too little (or no) strategic planning
  • Lack of a grant pipeline (asking for emergency funds regularly, asking too frequently)
  • Poor staff engagement in the proposal development process (as reflected by low-quality proposals)
  • Turnover for key staff and/or principal programs
  • A disengaged board (rubber stamp board, not meeting its bylaw requirements, etc.)
  • Public relations issues (related to client harm, lawsuits, embezzlement)

Clearly, these concerns extend well beyond any one employee into the structural and practical matters of finance, development, leadership, governance and operations.

The time available to prepare the application or proposal is an important factor. So is the availability and capacity of program and admin. staff to support the application process. These cannot be understated.

How do we define success? More than 1 in 2 requests submitted are awarded – 50% success rates.

(In other words, even the most talented grant fundraisers and strongest organizations don’t win ‘em all.)

These unforced errors will sink most applications, and the blame usually falls on the grant writer / project manager:

  • Copy and paste sections where it is obvious language was meant for a different funder
  • No strategic alignment between the organization’s project and funding partner’s goals and priorities
  • Submitting an incomplete application – any required elements are missing
  • Submitting an application after the deadline
  • Weak budgets that don’t tie logically to the narrative and/or work plan
  • Not addressing all the technical requirements in applications and RFPs
  • Failing to incorporate staff members’ edits into the final application
  • Poor management of time, which leads to rushed reviews and lack of input from key staff
  • Neglecting to ask for help when it becomes overwhelming. This can lead to catastrophe.


In managing grants effectively, organizations can…

  1. Invest adequate time, planning and skill in developing grant proposals. Attempting to write too many grants with too few staff resources is a common mistake we see nonprofits make. Some don’t understand (or believe) how much time is required to plan and write solid proposals, and complete 2-4 rounds of revision. How Much Time Does it Take to Write Grants?

Planning = 1/3 of the process for well-written proposals

Research, budgeting, packaging, and other = 1/3

Writing and editing is only 1/3 of the process.

  1. Train grant writers effectively. Dedicate more resources to training than expected, and develop a robust plan with external trainers and different channels that is completed over a period of weeks and months. There are at least 10 skill sets to learn in becoming a strong grant writer.

Don’t rush this stage. It takes time to learn an organization at any depth, and every funder is different (foundations, local or state contracts, federal offices). With time, a grant professional will develop their toolbox, gain comfort with aligning their organization’s strengths with the priorities of funders, and build a network of community partners that supports this specialized work.

Teach and model best practices at every opportunity.

  1. Track all grant efforts in a spreadsheet or database. We organize files by funder (top level) then drill down by year (calendar or fiscal) to store applications. Digitize and centralize records so key staff can access them without going through the grant writer. Review progress reports at least quarterly.

Then you can analyze data on every stage of the grant application process with a different report:

Research → Not Proceeding → Declined Applications → Active Proposals → Future (Planned) Proposals

 As well as grant awards and contracts:

Active Grant Awards and Contracts → Reports Due

Effective tracking tools make end-of year analysis more feasible, while supporting annual budgeting and the creation of development plans with informed projections for grant funding.

 In Closing

Greater success with grant applications and proposals is achieved when we build strong organizations with excellent systems run by qualified, well-supported employees. Recruiting and retaining grant staff with specialized skills – while paying a fair wage for their efforts – is a key to lasting success for this revenue channel.

Structural work at the organizational level is also required, and in fact has a greater impact than all the work individuals can do to follow best practices in grant fundraising. After all, it’s trusting that the applicant and proposed project will have a meaningful community impact that wins over a grantmaker.

No wonder it’s so much work!  Although doing it right means the difference in 70% and 20% success rates.

Isn’t that worth it to your organization?

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