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Facing the FAQs: Debunking 5 Myths About Winning Grants

When it comes to winning grant money, there are plenty of misconceptions floating around. Here are 5 questions I am frequently asked by grant seekers, along with my myth-busting responses:

1. “Can’t we just start the project once they grant us money?”

While there are some funders who focus on supporting startups, most grant funders want to see that you’ve already secured buy-in from other sources before you approach them. They want assurance that your program will exist with or without their partnership, and that their funding will strengthen your project rather than make or break it. This myth is especially common among nonprofits looking to fund capital projects, but many grant funders expect you to raise 40-60% of funding from other sources before seeking their grants.

2. “Is my concept enough to win a grant?”

I’ve met many passionate directors with bold ideas who think they are ready to apply for a grant based on the meaningful project they’ve conceptualized. But what they sometimes lack are feasible and time-bound plans; just as a venture capitalist wouldn’t invest in a business without a strong strategic plan to launch and sustain their concept, a grant investor won’t consider you a wise investment if you don’t have certain ducks in a row. Before applying, make sure you’ve ironed out an evidence-based program model, a detailed budget, a timeline that corresponds with the required funding period, measurable outcomes with a reliable tracking system, and a sustainability plan to show how you'll continue the program after their funding expires.

3. “Can anybody write a grant?”

This is often asked by new grant seekers who are nervous to spend money on a professional grant writer. My response to them is always the same: “Representing yourself in a grant proposal is a lot like representing yourself in court rather than hiring an attorney; of course you can do it, but your odds of getting a ruling in your favor are much higher with someone who knows exactly what to say and what not to say.” Theoretically, you don’t need a special license to apply for a grant, but that doesn’t mean that anyone can be successful in winning them. Grants are highly competitive, and your proposal may be competing with dozens to thousands of others for consideration. For that reason, your best chance at success is by hiring a grant writer who understands sales, persuasive communication, investment principles, and how to create a clear, concise pitch that makes an airtight case for funding your project.

4. “Shouldn’t we expect to win every grant if we hire a professional writer?”

While a qualified grant writer will undoubtedly increase your odds of funding, the misconception here is that funding success depends solely on the grant writer. Even with the world’s best writer on your team, there are many variables outside of the writer’s control that contribute to grant rejections. Red flags in the organization’s financial statements, inconsistent program outcomes, and geographic or demographic restrictions are common factors that can get a proposal scrapped regardless of what your writer pitches. For example, I once secured a client's spot as a finalist for a highly competitive, multi-year grant where there would only be one winner in the entire state. My application knocked it out of the park, beating out hundreds if not thousands of applicants. However, my client ultimately wasn’t funded because the funder had a strict minimum number of a certain demographic that the grant had to serve, and my client’s program could only reach about 25% of their requirement. Because of cases like this, it’s important to look at the big picture of wins and losses with your hired grant writer to evaluate their success for you, rather than evaluating their skills based on individual rejections.

5. “Is time spent on rejected grants a total waste?”

It always pains me when I see an organization give up on grants after one rejection. Seasoned nonprofit leaders understand that even great grant writers get rejected frequently, as grants are highly competitive and decisions are based on a myriad of variables that can change from year to year. It often takes multiple attempts for a funder to award your appeals, so it’s important not to give up after one or even two rejection letters. What’s more, there are many benefits beyond funding that the grant process facilitates. Grant applications ask tough questions that can help you craft your message, identify areas for growth, and discover trends in your outcomes, finances, and donor engagement that weren’t on your radar. These lessons can help you improve your practices so that in subsequent years, you can have a greater shot to rake in the big bucks with stronger applications.

Letting go of these myths and keeping a realistic view of your big-picture grant strategy will help you write stronger proposals and yield a higher long-term ROI.

About Heather Macaulay:

First and foremost I am a proud wife and mom of 3 growing souls who I have miraculously kept alive despite killing every plant I’ve ever owned. I was born and raised in Orange County, California, and while I will always be a California girl at heart, North Carolina is where the Macaulay family has called home since 2015. I cannot say enough about what this wonderful community has offered us. I have been writing grants and copy since 2010 and have had projects funded by a variety of funders from family foundations to major corporations, Ivy League universities, and international rock stars. My passions include cooking, travel, and studying history, languages, psychology, and philosophy. I also have an unhealthy addiction to true crime shows and Nutella.

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