Like most facets of fundraising, hiring a full-time grant writer or a consultant requires an investment. We’ve all heard the saying before: “You have to spend money to make money.” This rule is as true in nonprofit development as it is in business. But money that is spent on consultants for colleges and universities is money not spent serving students. Higher education leaders need to feel confident in a return on investment. So how does a college determine if a grant writer is a worthy investment?
Often, development staff will ask a grant writer for his or her success rate. On the surface, this question seems completely appropriate. But anyone who has written more than one grant proposal will tell you that a success rate is not an accurate measuring stick to assess the effectiveness and value of a grant writer.
Here are 6 reasons you shouldn’t ask for a grant writer’s success rate:
1. The national average is surprisingly low.
Nationally, grant writing success rates range from 10–30% industry-wide. There is no standardized scoring entity; but depending on where you do your research, you’ll find sources stating that 1 in 10 applications are approved for funding, 20% of federal grants are approved, or up to 30% of grant requests receive a favorable response. With this range, one could consider a grant writer with a 20% rate to be rather successful. With this statistic, a successful grant writer gets a favorable response to only 20 out of every 100 applications submitted. Of course, some grant writers receive fewer positive responses and some more. But in our experience most of the higher education and nonprofit professionals we work with who aren’t experienced in grant writing assume that the majority of requests are funded.
2. Grant writing is extremely competitive.
Think about it … Millions of grant requests are submitted for consideration every year. According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, there are more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations registered in the U.S., an increase of over 10% between 2005 and 2015. There were 86,203 grant-making foundations in the U.S. in 2015. Each of those foundations would have to award 17 grants for all nonprofits in the United States to receive only one award. And while the number of nonprofits has increased, the number of grant-making foundations and the number of grants they awarded have remained relatively steady, increasing only slightly from year to year. Clearly, grant writing is fiercely competitive and getting fiercer with each passing year as more nonprofits are launched.
3. Success rates are often inflated or misrepresented.
Let’s say I’m a brand-new grant writer. I struck gold with the first and only application I ever submitted. I’m feeling bulletproof, so I strike out to make a name for myself and land a full-time job as a higher education grant writer. During our interview, you ask me my success rate, and I proudly announce that my rate is 100%. You are amazed and impressed, right? But would someone with such little experience be the ideal candidate? Wouldn’t you rather hire a grant writer who has submitted hundreds of requests with years of experience and a 15–20% success rate?
Typically grant writers can’t prove their past successes. He or she could tell you they applied for and were granted a particular request to a grant-maker. You could verify that the request was funded by doing some digging through the grant-maker’s IRS Form 990s, but you can only prove the name of the organization and the amount awarded. They aren’t going to list who wrote the request. And the organization that applied for the grant is unlikely to share a copy with you or discuss the authorship details. And while this leaves the door open for less truthful grant writers to inflate their rates, it also makes it hard for honest grant writers to prove their skills result in awards.
4. Many elements of grant writing are out of the control of the grant writer.
A few years ago, I was working at a college, feverishly submitting requests for our annual campaign. I contacted a local family foundation to discuss our need for scholarships and was told unequivocally to apply. The grant administrator reassured me that the review committee was especially interested in funding scholarships for small, private, Christian colleges that year, and she told me the exact wording to use and how much to request. I felt confident we had a win on the horizon. I submitted the application weeks ahead of the deadline, confirmed receipt, and waited patiently.
A few weeks later, we received a rejection letter. I was dumbfounded. I’d done everything right. I met all the requirements, submitted a polished narrative with the perfect balance of data and stories, and requested the recommended amount. What happened? I called the grant administrator. She apologized. “The board determined they were only going to fund the first 10 applications I compiled for them to review. Your request was number 11.”
Although this is a true story, it is an extreme case. Nevertheless, it paints the perfect picture of just how much of grant writing is out of the control of a grant writer. At that point, I had years of experience and had been very successful with previous requests. While this one took the wind out of my sails for a while, it helped me understand that a grant writer can be only so confident. At the end of the day, we’re making requests, not demands. The decision rests with the foundation, and there is no way to guarantee a successful grant proposal.
5. The college may not be grant-ready.
A grant writer is only as good as the mission and programs of the college. If the organization is not grant-ready, it is not going to be competitive for grant awards regardless of the abilities of the grant writer. It’s really that simple.
Often, grant writers (particularly consultants) are required to submit proposals to specific grant-makers, which can negatively impact their success rates. The grant writer may know the request has a very low likelihood of success but must still draft and submit the proposal as directed by college leadership. Although this is not the best approach for the college either, it more directly affects the grant writer when it comes to success rates.
In reality, a grant writer’s success rate is not a clear indication of his or her ability to research and assess grant opportunities, draft high quality requests, build long-term relationships with grant-makers, steward those relationships with effective and succinct reporting and appealing story-telling, and manage grants on a programmatic level. A grant writer could be exceptional at all these elements and still have a majority of requests go unfunded.
So if you shouldn’t ask a grant writer’s success rate, how should you assess a grant writer’s expertise and past accomplishments?
- Request references from past clients or employers. Call and ask if he or she was pleased with the grant writer’s skills and overall productivity.
- Ask the grant writer for his or her average grant award amount during a certain time period or position held.
- Review writing samples from winning requests, but successful grant writing is more than just writing well.
- Ask for an explanation of his or her process for researching grant-makers, drafting grant proposals, submitting requests, following up, and tracking submissions.
- Ask for a history of experience with Christian higher education.