I learned a lot of lessons the hard way as a rookie grantseeker. And, Dear Newbie, you will too. The learning curve is steep. But good news! You can profit from my mistakes – and I hope you will. Here are two things I did wrong early on – two big rookie mistakes that slowed down my grants success.
Story time: The first grant I ever wrote was awarded.
That might seem like good news – and really, it was. Mostly.
But my friend, I didn’t get the second grant I wrote. Or even, as I painfully recall, the third. That’s when I realized how lucky I’d been to get that first one.
In fact, I can honestly say that getting that first grant taught me nothing – I repeat, nothing! – about what it takes to get a grant.
Let me say that again:
Succeeding the first time taught me nothing about what it took to succeed. It wasn’t until I failed – until a proposal I wrote didn’t get funded (and, ahem, the next one too) – that I realized I had to buckle down and try to really, truly, figure this “grant thing” out.
I learned a lot of lessons the hard way over the next months (you’ll hear more about that in future posts). And, Dear Newbie, you will too. The learning curve is steep. But you can also profit from my mistakes – and I hope you will.
Here are two big things I was wrong about early on – two big rookie mistakes that slowed me down.
Mistake #1: Chasing the mythical “perfect proposal.”
There’s no such thing as a perfect proposal. There never will be. Not possible. It’s as simple as that.
It’s a hard truth for rookies to hear, and one a lot of seasoned (and successful) grantwriters struggle with too.
Because my first proposal was a winner, I figured it must have been an A+ proposal. All I had to do was keep on writing A+ proposals, and they’d all get funded. Easy, right?
Then the second proposal missed the mark – and so did the third.
I couldn’t understand it. The two losing proposals were just as strong as the winner, the writing equally solid, the programs equally compelling and necessary. Why on earth didn’t they also win? If everything I poured into Proposal #1 worked the first time, why didn’t it work just as well for the next two proposals? What was I doing wrong?
(Alternate thought-gremlin: What the heck was wrong with those people??!)
And what did I need to do differently to get that A+ every time – to get the grant?
The Day Everything Changed
Everything changed when we asked for the Federal review scores and comments for Proposal #3 – one we didn’t win.
What I saw was shocking.
Three reviewers had read and scored the proposal. Out of 100 possible points, two awarded total scores of 93 and 95. The third scored the proposal 60 points. 60 – out of 100!! What?? (Again: What the heck was wrong with those people??!)
I fussed and fumed (as we do). Then I dug deeper into their comments for clues behind the disparity in the scores. Here’s just one example of what I found, from the “Management Plan” section.
- Reviewer 1: Score = 10. “One of the strongest management plans I’ve seen. High degree of confidence that this organization will have the support it needs for a successful project.”
- Reviewer 2: Score = 10. “Strong and solid. Well-done. No points deducted.”
- Reviewer 3: Score = 4. “Little evidence that any thought at all was given to developing a reasonable management plan. Unlikely the project will succeed at meeting its goals.”
See what I mean?
It’s Not a Math Test – or an Olympic Race
Once I recovered from the shock, those review notes actually taught me a lot. But the biggest lesson I learned – and it was a whopper! – was simply this:
There’s no such thing as a “perfect” proposal.
There’s no such thing as a guaranteed winner – a proposal that scores an automatic A+ (and gets funded) no matter who’s reviewing it. Why? Because proposal review is not an objective process. Never was, never will be. It’s a lot less like scoring a math test, where the answers are either right or wrong – and a lot more like scoring an essay. It’s less like an Olympic running race with clear winners, and a lot more like an audition, where everyone shows up with the best they’ve got and the judges do their judging.
Should we always aspire to do the best we can? Yes. And should we always ask for feedback on our proposals? Also yes.
But it’s a fool’s errand – and a waste of precious time – to stress over every last lost point, from every reviewer. Because each pair of eyes that looks at a proposal sees it through a unique lens and will evaluate it in a unique way. No one is right and no one is wrong. And it’s not about fair or unfair. It’s simply the way it is.
In a future blog I’ll unpack more about what happens in the review process – inside what I call “The Grantmaker’s Black Box.” (There’s also a wrong way and a right way to ask for review feedback – and I’ll share those as well.)
For now, let’s move on to my Rookie Mistake #2. Ready? Here you go.
Mistake #2: Playing RFP Whack-A-Mole.
In my organization, getting a Request for Proposals announcement was like a checkered flag dropping. It was our “go” signal, kicking us into deadline-driven action.
Whatever the RFP told us the Feds wanted, we figured out a way to do it.
Whatever the RFP said should go into our proposal, we put it into our proposal.
We didn’t start planning anything unless we had an RFP – and a deadline – to kick things into motion.
Now in fairness, this wasn’t just me, it was a part of my organization’s culture. We were what you might call “RFP-driven,” sometimes even a little bit “dollars-driven.”
My job was to scour weekly funding opportunity notices to find any that roughly fit our mission. Then the team would scramble to figure out what we could put together to get those dollars. Sometimes we had as much as three weeks to cobble up a proposal (to do something that wasn’t even on our radar before the RFP showed up!). Usually the deadline was even tighter.
Whack-A-Mole? Sorry, It’s Already Too Late
Somehow we managed to get in a lot of RFP-driven proposals – and some of them we won. But running a grants program that reacts to opportunities, instead of creating them, isn’t healthy. And in the long run it isn’t sustainable.
It’s a bit like trying to win at Whack-A-Mole: If you wait to see what pops up before you make your move, it’s already too late.
Organizations in Whack-A-Mole mode tend to run on fumes.
Whack-A-Mole proposals aren’t as strong as they could be – partly because they’re rushed and partly because RFPs are simply not good frameworks for project planning.
And because Whack-A-Mole proposals come in reaction to an external RFP instead of growing authentically from the organization’s strategic priorities, a Whack-A-Mole organization can start to look a bit like a Frankenstein monster, cobbled together from bits and pieces of lots of different funding priorities and not holding together all that well at the center.
I didn’t truly understand this, though, until I’d lit out on my own as an independent grant consultant. That’s when I began to see this “RFP-first” Whack-A-Mole game as a serious issue for the health and sustainability of the nonprofits I worked with.
Over time, my partners and I began to focus on helping clients turn their grantseeking around and put “mission first.” In other words:
- The organization’s mission drives its planning.
- We start by clearly identifying what we want to do in order to fulfill our mission.
- Then and only then do we look for funders to partner with us in putting that mission-driven plan into motion.
“Mission-First”: A Mindset for Long-Term Success
A mindset of “Mission-first” isn’t easy, that’s for sure. When we operate inside a reality that always looks like funding is limited, it’s easy to want to grab what we can and try to make something useful out of it. I get that.
And our “mission-first” commitment actually lost a few big clients.
One apocryphal story involved a meeting with a community college around a Federal funding opportunity due in five days. The required work was outside their wheelhouse, and called for a significant community partnership. There was also a seven-figure award on the table. And guess what: They’d just found the RFP two days before and had absolutely no plan in place to work from.
I balked and said they needed to take a pass, and start planning now for the next time this RFP came around. They pushed back and offered to pay me more. I said it wasn’t about the money, it was about the good of the organization.
They said – and this is the part I’ll never forget – “That’s not your concern. We’re hiring you to just go close yourself up in a room for three days, make something up, and come back with a proposal. That’s what we pay you for.”
I said something along the order of “Ta-ta then, see you” and left.
Two weeks later they called and asked me to lead them in a planning process … for next year’s funding round. This time I said yes. And this time we did get a seven-figure grant for a program that was so successful it’s still running 12 years later.
That’s my definition of “long-term success.”
Chasing the mythical “perfect proposal.”
Playing RFP Whack-A-Mole.
Out of all the rookie mistakes I made in my grants career, these two stand out now as the biggest no-no’s I had to learn to clear the way for long-term, sustainable success.
Honestly, rookie grantwriters aren’t the only ones who fall into these two tricky traps: Seasoned veterans get stuck in them too, without realizing how their grants success is being slowed down.
You’ll make mistakes of your own – guaranteed. That’s how we learn and get better, right? But now that you know what to watch for, Dear Newbie, you won’t get sidelined, slowed down, or stalled out by these two biggies – which means more grants success, more quickly.
Happy grantseeking, my friend!
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