“Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer.”
That was the assessment of Ted Williams, the Red Sox outfielder universally regarded as one of the greatest hitters of all time, if not the greatest outright. Over 19 seasons, Williams compiled more than 2,600 hits, more than 520 home runs, and a career .344 batting average. He was also the last major leaguer to succeed four times out of ten in a season, hitting .406 in 1941.
In most highly-skilled undertakings, failure walks hand-in-hand with success. So much so that it might be more accurate to describe the lack of success not as a “failure” but as an “at-bat”—though I doubt that will catch on. Other examples from beyond the world of baseball:
- Henry Ford went bankrupt twice before successfully launching the Ford Motor Company.
- Walt Disney was fired from his job at the Kansas City Star because he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas.”
- Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts, had every one his cartoon submissions snubbed by the staff of his high school yearbook.
- James Dyson created more than 5,000 prototypes before successfully creating his bagless vacuum cleaner.
- The first installment of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was rejected twelve times before it finally found a publisher.
Submitting a successful grant isn’t as hard as hitting a major league fastball, starting a car company, writing a bestselling book, or changing the world through invention, animation, or cartooning. And I don’t mention these examples to discourage you. Quite the opposite. I’m saying that if your organization begins to regularly submit grants, you are bound to start receiving rejection letters. But with the right mindset, it’s possible to minimize the discouragement you feel, and even transform these rejections into opportunities.
For the rest of this post, I’m going to talk about the three primary reasons you’ll never bat a thousand, as well as the five things you can do to improve your chances to hit a home run (or at least a solid single) during your next at-bat.
First, the three reasons it’s nearly impossible to achieve a perfect grant writing record.
1. There is too much you don’t know
Competitive grants are just that: competitive. Grantmakers often receive stacks of requests amounting to two or three times the total grant funds available. When you submit a grant, you rarely know which other organizations have applied, or how many. These applicants might have stronger proposals than yours. They might have an approach that is a better fit for the current philosophy and priorities of the funder. You do your research ahead of time, of course, but there’s an extent to which each submission is a step into the unknown.
2. There is too much you can’t control
There are people, not algorithms, on the other end of the grant submission. Your application will be evaluated by program officers, a board of trustees, volunteer grant readers, review panels, etc. You have little-to-no control over who reads your grant, how they read it, or when. For example, the grant reviewer may have heard negative things about your organization or its leadership. Your application may be read first—when the reviewers’ minds are presumably the sharpest—or forty-first, when they are exhausted.
Applicants are given a set of guidelines to follow (sometimes called a Request for Proposals, or RFPs). Sometimes you’re even given a copy of the rubric that will be used to score your application. But just remember that despite the RFPs and rubrics, grant seeking is still a fundamentally human enterprise.
3. No one is perfect
You’re going to make mistakes. You just will. And sometimes the choices we make with a grant application, even those made with care, turn out to not be the best ones. Here are a few of the most common reasons grant proposals are rejected:
- Your organization and/or your project weren’t a good match with the grantmaker to begin with.
- You missed the deadline. Make sure you have the deadline correct and aim to submit at least a day early, if not a week.
- You didn’t precisely follow the grantmaker’s directions on what to write, what to submit, or how to submit.
- The grantmaker judged your proposal to be unrealistic. This may be true of the program or project itself, how you planned to pay for it, or both.
- You weren’t clear on how you were going to measure the effectiveness of your program or project.
- Your proposal wasn’t as clear and compelling as it could have been.
- The grantmaker didn’t think your organization is ready to manage a grant…or at least a grant the size you were looking for.
You put your best foot forward, followed the rules, and submitted a great application. But eight weeks later you received a letter that includes a sentence that begins with “We regret to inform you…”
But that rejection letter doesn’t have to be the end of the journey. Here are five ways you can improve your chances next time around. Think of this as a major league slugger studying film in-between games.
1. Make sure you really are a good fit for the funder
Are the grantmaker’s priorities a genuine match for yours? Who have they previously funded? Do they give grants substantially larger or smaller than what you are requesting? Does their funding timeline match yours?
2. Develop relationships
In my opinion, grantseeking and grant making are too often approached as transactions rather than as mutually beneficial relationships. Without being pushy, try to develop connections with grantmakers in your sphere. Here are some tips:
- Go to “meet the funder” events.
- Whenever possible, send a short email to, or schedule a quick phone call with, a program officer before writing your grant. Ask questions about what the funder is passionate about now. Get feedback on your proposed program if you can.
- If your proposal is declined, send a quick email thanking the organization for taking the time to consider it.
- Even more importantly, if your grant is funded, make sure you follow through on what you said you would do (including submitting required reports), and keep the funder abreast of any proposed major changes.
3. Always be learning
The best athletes—whether they play baseball, tennis, golf, etc.—still have coaches. World-class athletes are always trying to learn new skills, break bad habits, simplify their swing, etc. Take a similar approach with grant writing. Learn from experience, making note of what worked and what didn’t. Ask for readers’ notes, if they are available. Read successful grant proposals. Find smart people who can offer encouragement and make useful suggestions on how to improve your proposal.
4. Assume the best
This is true both for the potential funder and for yourself. I can count on one finger the number of times in my 14-year grant writing career when I know a grant reader rejected my proposal due to his own personal bias against the community I served. In every other instance, my proposals have been read with care and generosity. Don’t hold a rejection against the grantmaker. And don’t hold it against yourself either. We’re all learning, we are all in process. Be disappointed, yes, but try not to be too discouraged. Which leads me to my final piece of advice…
5. Keep stepping up to the plate
This is how you get better. This how you find success.
Question: Has there even been a time when you turned a temporary setback into eventual success? What do you do to keep disappointment from slipping into discouragement?
The Grant Writing Process: 11 Basic Steps (PDF & Checklist)
Writing grants for your organization is an adventure.
You wouldn't set out on an epic hike without at least a general understanding of the terrain ahead. So why would you set out on your grantseeking journey without an overview of what lies in store?
This eight-page PDF and checklist are the perfect place to start.