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Grant Writing and Success Rates: Putting Lipstick on a Pig?

by David Lipten on January 28, 2013
Are grant writing win rates like lipstick on a pig?

I have recently been following a number of discussions on the provision of performance statistics in order to demonstrate a positive return on investment for potential clients. Success would seem to be a relatively reasonable thing for a client to wish to consider when deciding whether or not to hire a grant professional and, particularly, whether or not to spend precious dollars on them. In fact, the demand for such metrics is becoming the norm, especially as individuals with backgrounds in other, for-profit disciplines are increasingly coming to dominate nonprofit boards of directors and as budgets become even tighter. But, are grant professionals responding by, essentially, putting lipstick on a pig? My guess is that, while there are useful data that can be provided to a potential client for them to evaluate the quality of a grant writer’s work, much of the data that is provided consist, largely, of misrepresentations, especially that which pertains to success rate percentages.

I don’t mean to imply by this that grant professionals set out to lie. But, in response to the often direct demand for dollar figures and success rate percentages that will lend credence to a decision by someone to hire an outside professional to do what has largely been done in-house in the past (and, likely, poorly), we are tempted to stretch the truth by claiming what I can only assume are success rate percentages that only the wholly uninformed would believe.

I have seen advertised success rates hovering at or above 90%. It may even be possible for a grant writer to make such claims in cases where all the legwork has already been done, including being invited to submit a proposal after having done all of the research (i.e., matching of client needs to funding source priorities, solicitation of the client, etc.), as well as writing and submitting the grant and having it reviewed by an audience (who should already be positively predisposed to funding the submitted proposal).

Just how does one quantify all that work? For example, how can a grant writer demonstrate success in prospect research or in making contact with funders or in writing letters of inquiry, etc.?

But, aren’t we also asking to be paid for all the services that lead up to that point? Just how does one quantify all that work? For example, how can a grant writer demonstrate success in prospect research or in making contact with funders or in writing letters of inquiry, etc.? If, after doing all of that, a grant professional were asked to submit only one or two grants and they were funded, they would have a perfect success rate. But, what about all of the entreaties made to foundations or government sources that were either rejected or ignored? What about all the time it took to receive notifications of these efforts being less than successful? These essential activities are not the kinds of things that either lend themselves to or are reflected in success rate percentages.

Conversely, what if a grant writer’s efforts lead to a great number of invitations to submit proposals? Given the extremely competitive nature of the process, most in this situation would likely wind up with many more rejected proposals that those that were funded. Again, what would providing a percentage demonstrate? I would even assume that someone in the latter, frustrating situation would be more than a little tempted to paint a rosier picture than would otherwise be possible.

So, what kind of data are useful (and truthful) for clients to consider when they are trying to decide whether to engage the services of a grant writer? Some of the ideas I’ve seen included providing the status of proposals, including those that have been planned or pending, as well as whether they’ve been funded or denied. I’ve also seen a suggestion to measure the percentage of applications reviewed against awards made, though grant writers are not often privy to such information. I often advise potential clients to consider the costs of not applying versus doing so, both in terms of the bottom line and in terms of fulfilling their missions, among a number of other things. As an old advertisement for the NY State lottery used to say, “You gotta be in it to win it.” But, what else do you suggest? I’m all ears (if not lips).

About the Author


David Lipten, Ph.D., has written winning federal grant proposals on behalf of a number of electric utilities, garnering nearly $40 million in U.S. Department of Energy grants, among other successes. He is based in Tallahassee, FL.

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