GrantsMagic U

Getting Through the Grants Finals: 3 Big Things We Can’t Control … and Everything We Can!

Once we push “submit” and our proposal disappears into The Grantmaker’s Black Box, it’s literally out of our hands. It’s in the finals round now, and we have no control over what happens to it. Our darling is on its own. We’re no longer in charge. But getting to the finals in the first place? That’s a whole different story.


In last week’s post we unpacked The Grantsmanship Game – GrantsMagic U’s “roadmap” of the landscape we traverse as grantseekers, with a deep dive into the 5 Rules that help us navigate that landscape with confidence and success.

(If you haven’t done so yet you can check out “Winning the Grantsmanship Game” here and download your PDF of The Grantsmanship Gameboard.)

But here’s the thing, my friend – and let’s be clear:

The Grantsmanship Gameboard is what the grantseeker’s game looks like. It’s not the grantmaker’s game.

What do I mean?

Inside the gap

Take a close look at our Grantsmanship Game roadmap and you’ll see there’s a really critical little section right down in the bottom left-hand corner. See these two boxes?

  • Step 20. Submit qualified request by deadline.
  • Step 21. Get funded – thank the funder!

And do you see the gap between those two boxes – between Step 20 and Step 21? Between “Submit qualified request by deadline” and “Get funded – thank the funder”?

Do you think there might just be something going on in that little gap?

You bet there is.

What that gap represents is the grantmakers´ game. This is where the grantmakers’ game kicks in for us, the grantseeker. In the grantmaker’s world, it’s where their whole game happens.

I like to call this The Grantmaker’s Black Box, because virtually everything that happens inside it is invisible to us on the outside. We push “submit,” our proposal vanishes into The Grantmaker’s Black Box, we wait, we can’t see inside, something is happening but we don’t know what … and finally, weeks later, maybe months, something pops out again, a notification – yes (yay!) or no (boo!).

What’s going on in there, anyway?

If you’re like a lot of people, the idea of this Black Box with lots going on inside that you can’t see makes you a bit nervous. There’s a sense – and maybe you relate to this – of, “Oh my gosh, how can we control what’s going on in there if we can’t see it?” Successful grantseeking seems to be so much about control. We want to know what buttons to push, what levers to pull. We want to fight for every single point, to put our nonprofit, our project, our proposal in the best possible light. We want to win! And now we discover there something going on inside The Grantmaker’s Black Box that we’re not sure we can control.

Well, the fact is … we can’t.

Half the wisdom of being successful in the grants world, I think, is deeply understanding there’s a whole lot going on that we, as grantseekers, simply cannot control.

Once we push “submit” and our proposal disappears into The Black Box, it’s literally out of our hands. We have no control over what happens to it. Our lovingly crafted proposal, addressing a real need and submitted by our very credible organization, now becomes one of many (many!) similarly lovingly crafted proposals addressing real needs and submitted by organizations every bit as credible. Our darling is on its own now. We’re no longer in charge.

So while we’re hanging around outside The Black Box , what precisely is it that we can’t control about what’s happening inside?  In short, practically everything.

Here are the three biggies.

1. We can’t control anything about the decision-makers.

We can’t control who’s reading the proposals. We can’t control their level of experience, their backgrounds, their personalities, quirks and preferences. We can’t control what they know or don’t know, or what they think they know but really don’t.

We can’t control who’s in a good mood or bad mood … who didn’t get much sleep last night or is fighting off a stomach bug … who’s distracted by worry about a sick child or daydreaming about a long-anticipated upcoming vacation.

We can’t control who’s put off by typos or whips out the calculator to re-add all our budget numbers.

We can’t control how many proposals the readers need to plow through before they get to ours, how much mental energy they had to expend in the process, how much mental energy (if any) they have left to decode and absorb the great ideas and brilliant plans we’re proposing.

2. We can’t control anything about the other proposals.

We can’t control where the other proposals came from: Are there proposals from organizations in our geographic region? Proposals addressing similar issues in similar ways? Overlapping focuses can force a grant decision-maker to choose between two highly-qualified proposals.

We can’t control whether another proposal asks for more funding than we do, or asks for less.

We can’t control how strong another proposal’s collaboration plan might be compared with ours.

And while we’re on the subject, we can’t control the quality of other proposals in the mix in this funding round. Maybe this time all the other proposals – like yours – rate a stellar A+. Or maybe – unlike yours – the others all come in at a “meh” B-.

There’s no predicting – and nothing about the other proposals that we can control.

3. And we can’t control the dynamics of the review and decision-making process.

In any given funding process, the mix of people and the mix of proposals come together to create dynamics that are unique to that specific funding round. These dynamics are organic to the particular mix, are completely unpredictable, and often are outside any specific rules or guidelines set out for the decision-making.

What happens when two review team members discover a fundamental disagreement based on their very different life experiences?

What happens when three high-scoring proposals show up with radically different perspectives on a similar issue?

What happens when decision-makers realize a lower-scoring proposal offers a unique and exciting opportunity to serve a new population in a new way?

What happens when Reader A scores a proposal 98 out of 100, and Reader B scores the same proposal 60?

If we can’t control The Black Box, what can we control?

Maybe you see it as bad news that we can’t control everything. I just see this as reality. Here’s why.

Let’s go back to the Grantsmanship Gameboard and take another look at that little gap in the lower left corner – the one between “Submit qualified proposal” and “Get funded – thank the funder!”

We’ve been talking about this gap as The Grantmaker’s Black Box into which our proposal mysteriously vanishes.

But there’s another way to think of the space between Step 20 and Step 21, and that’s as the finals round in the Grantsmanship Game. The finals round! (Think: America’s Got Talent.) And everything else up until now has been about making it successfully through all the preliminaries and into the finals.

What exactly are the preliminary rounds? The Five Rules of the Grantsmanship Game. You remember:

  • Rule 1: Know Yourself – Connecting Purpose and Planning
  • Rule 2: Build True Partnerships – Collaborating for Success
  • Rule 3: Plan, Plan, Plan – Plan! – Building Your Master Blueprint
  • Rule 4: Know Your Funder – Research and Relationships
  • Rule 5: Create an A+ Proposal – Putting It All Together, On Paper or Online

And how do we make it successfully through all the preliminaries? Here’s how:

By making sure we do an A+ job on absolutely everything we can control.

  • We can do an A+ job in terms of being rock-solid in our mission-first perspective – that’s Rule 1.
  • We can do an A+ job with our strong, authentic, mutually beneficial partnerships in the community – that’s Rule 2.
  • We can do an A+ job with thoughtfully and conscientiously planning the project we intend to present – that’s Rule 3.
  • We can do an A+ job in our grants research, our due diligence, and our relationships with our grantmaking partners – that’s Rule 4.
  • And we can do an A+ job in terms of pulling together a stellar grant proposal that hits all the marks and reflects the very best we have to offer – that’s Rule 5.

If we do this – if we invest our efforts in turning in an A+ performance in all the preliminary rounds of The Grantsmanship Game – then we are investing in what we can control.  This investment will get us into the finals round – and give our proposal the best chance of coming out a winner.

And that, my friend, is very good news indeed.

If you enjoyed this post, please share! For more great grants tips and training from GrantsMagic U, please visit us at  And if you’re new to grantseeking and could use a getting-started boost, be sure to check out GrantsMagic U’s free Quick-Start Guide to the One-Page Grant Proposal – a simple, powerful proposal planning tool plus three-part video training to get you on your way to success! 

Leave a Comment