How to Be a Better Grantwriter, Part 1: Failure

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to be a better grantwriter as I teach a master’s level course on the topic this semester.  While these are not the “only” things you need, I think having what I call the “4 Fs” will inevitably make you a better grantwriter than you otherwise would be and will lead to the 5th F.  Today we look at the first requirement of becoming a better grantwriter:

Failure concept.


While this may seem an unusual prerequisite to becoming a better grantwriter it is absolutely essential.

Failure, in this case, means you didn’t get the money.  Your proposal was rejected.  Maybe you were close or maybe you were not anywhere close to being funded.  It doesn’t matter.  The key aspect is that you put in a lot of work–hours and hours of time–and your net result is zero.

Failure, in this case, helps clarify where you stand.  YOU may think you’re pretty good at your job.  And you are probably correct.  Odds are, you’re the best grantwriter in your organization.  But lets’ face it–facts are facts.  You didn’t get funded this time.

The key question here is how you react.

If you crumple into a ball, sobbing on the floor, for more than a couple of minutes, being a grantwriting professional may not be the wisest career choice.

We all fail sometimes by not getting that proposal funded.  That’s not the big deal.  Looking failure in the face and figuring out what to do better next time is the big deal.  If you can learn something from the experience you’ve taken potential failure and turned into a lesson and a way to become better.

Learning something from the experience is what YOU must do.  Some people say that you shouldn’t write federal grants to start with because they are so difficult.  But I think the opposite.  I think you should write as many federal grants as possible because the reviews are worth their weight in (future) gold.  Those reviewers (and I am one) don’t pull any punches.

  • If your grammar and writing are not top notch, you’ll hear about it.
  • If you leave sections out, you’ll have points deducted.
  • If your logic model doesn’t make sense, you won’t receive any slack.
  • If your proposal isn’t one of the top ones submitted, you won’t get funded.

Who else do you know who gives you that kind of feedback?  Who else do you know who COULD give you that kind of feedback?  Probably not very many people if anyone at all.

Federal grants, while grueling, are the best post-graduate course in grantwriting you can get.

Failure without feedback, however, is futile.

This is why some foundation grant processes may not be worth the effort.  These are the foundations that either send a check or a rejection letter but not much in the way of feedback.  YOu may as well go to Vegas and put your salary into the slot machine–the outcome is about as randomly selected.  Or maybe blackjack is a better analogy–there is some skill involved to see if you win or not, but the deck is always stacked in favor of the house.

Without feedback, it is much more difficult to learn from failure.  So you must seek out commentary from decision-makers whenever possible.

But suppose you can’t get beyond the decision-maker’s door?  In that case, the feedback has to come from within.  After you’ve picked yourself up, and dusted yourself off, look in the proverbial mirror and read the proposal with fresh eyes.  Stop thinking the world is just set against you–figure out what could be improved for next time.  Here are some questions that might be helpful in your self-review.

  • Compare the original request for proposals with your submission.  Is anything missing?  Did you address all the components?
  • How’s your writing and punctuation?  If there are numerous errors, you’ve undercut your credibility right away.
  • Have you written the need or problem statement as something that we all can agree is a problem?  Hint:  if the words “lack of” something appear in your need statement, you probably are on the wrong track.
  • Does the solution you propose actually have a chance of alleviating the need you uncovered?
  • How good is your evaluation plan?  Will you learn anything from the data collected?
  • Is your budget really reasonable and justified?
  • Have you explained how you can sustain the program after funding ends?

Pretend you’re the reviewer or a competitor, looking to knock your proposal out of the running.  How would you cut down your own work?

Look, failure in grantwriting is inevitable.  No one I’ve ever heard of has a 100% acceptance rate, particularly for federal grants.  But it only STAYS a failure if you don’t learn something from it.

Failure, particularly when you’re new in the field, is a valuable opportunity to become a better grantwriter.  Don’t pass up the chance to do so.

Thanks for all you do!


PS.  If you’d like to work with me personally to improve your grantwriting skills, email me at  While I don’t currently have time to write grants for many agencies , I can do a few coaching calls and proposal reviews.  We can have a quick phone call to see if it would be a good match for both of us.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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5 thoughts on “How to Be a Better Grantwriter, Part 1: Failure

  1. Spot on advice. And comforting as well. Even as a seasoned writer of many federal grants, it still stings when you get the “thin letter” or your organizations’s name doesn’t appear on the short list of awardees. I would add that following the review panel’s thinking on a rewrite/resubmission of a federal grant can still be a little dicey because you will get an entirely new panel of readers on your next application. If you completely disagree with a reviewer’s subjective comment about your proposal, and revising it would cause your program design to diverge in a way that takes you away from your mission, stick to your guns. Or find another grant to write that better aligns with your program goals.

  2. Lisa; Thank for the comment and added points. As a reviewer, I know that some of my colleagues have had firm ideas that i thought were off-base, but couldn’t do much about. Not usually, but now and then. That’s part of the process that doesn’t always get things right. So, in some ways, it is good to remember that “failure” is really “failure with this group of reviewers”.

  3. In the case of foundation grants, a no can also mean not right now, or not this particular project. If your submission was good (covered all the bases in your self review above), and you’re certain that your request was both within the foundation’s giving focus, and that the amount was reasonable based on the foundation’s giving history, and you still received a rejection letter, try seeing the rejection letter as an open door for a conversation. Sometimes a no can be turned into a yes with the right cultivation.