Updated: Jul 20
Success rates. If you spend five minutes in grant writing, you've heard someone talk about success rates.
A success rate is the percentage of success over the course of a number of attempts. In short, the percentage of awarded grant applications you have submitted over your career.
While this sounds like a level playing field to assess grant writers and their abilities, it's actually completely unfair. Anyone who has written more than one grant proposal will tell you that a success rate is not the measuring stick a nonprofit should use to assess the effectiveness and value of a grant writer. And, in actuality, could set your nonprofit up for failure.
Here are 5 reasons to stop using success rate and new approaches to help you know you're working with the best grant writer:
1. A grant writer can only be as good as the nonprofit he or she represents. Grant-makers have certain expectations when it comes to nonprofits they will support with awards. If your nonprofit isn't ready to compete for grant awards with other organizations that are, there is very little even the best, most effective grant writers can do to win awards on your behalf. (Click here to learn more about grant-readiness.) Grant writers are not miracle workers. If you don't have a budget, a strategic plan, or audited financial statements, in many cases, even the most perfectly written grant application will be rejected.
What can you do instead? Instead of investing in grant writing right now, invest in developing your nonprofit and its programs. Track data, collect client stories, effectively manage your finances and have them reviewed by an external party, have diverse revenue streams, fully developed programs, and a strong appeal. Then hire a grant writer.
2. The national success rate 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, ask a nonprofit professional outside of grant writing what they would estimate to be the average percentage rate, and I can almost promise you most would say the opposite: 80%.
What can you do instead? Ask a grant writer to supply writing samples, particularly if they have experience in your nonprofit sector. If they also share references, call and talk to the contact about their experience working with that grant writer, if he or she felt as though they received a return on their investment working with that grant writer, and if they'd hire him/her again.
3. Grant writing is extremely competitive. Think about it... there are millions of grant requests submitted for consideration every year. According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics' latest report, there were more than 1.54 million nonprofit organizations registered in the U.S. in 2016. There were 141,108 private foundations in the United States in 2021. Each of those foundations would have to award 11 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 pretty steady, increasing only slightly from year-to-year. To make a long story short, grant writing is fiercely competitive and getting fiercer with each passing year as more nonprofits are launched.
What can you do instead? Build relationships and be realistic. Educate yourself about the funding climate. Identify funding opportunities that make sense for your organization. Invest the time in cultivating and building relationships with those grant-makers to create long-term funding partnerships.
4. 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 nonprofit grant writer. During our interview, you ask me about 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? I'd rather hire a grant writer who has submitted hundreds of requests with years of experience and a 10% 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 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 details of the request. 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.
What can you do instead? Look at the full picture. Review a grant writer's resume, call references, ask for writing samples, interview candidates, and ask about the highlights of their career and the growth opportunities. What professional development have they completed or what certifications do they hold?
5. 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 leadership. Although this is not the best approach for the nonprofit, it directly affects the grant writer when it comes to success rates.
What can you do instead? Ask a grant writer to talk to you about the process they use to identify potential funding opportunities. What does their research and cultivation process involve? How do they assess which opportunities may turn into grants and which may be a future opportunity?
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 of these elements and still have many requests go unfunded. Understanding how grant writing works and how to make the best use of your time and resources invested in this fundraising revenue stream will lead to more success for your nonprofit and a better working relationship with any grant writer.
Ready to save time, spend less, and raise more? At Just Write Grants, our grant writers have worked across nonprofit sectors to secure grant funds either in a full-time capacity or consultant role. We don't ask about success rates because we know that doesn't paint the best picture of their abilities. With decades of experience, they consistently write competitive and appealing grant requests, and our clients benefit. Contact us to learn more about our grant writing subscriptions and receive 30 minutes of free grant research.