One of the disappointing realities of grant writing is that you can submit a brilliant application and still not secure funding.
A lot of people want to believe that if you can just submit a good enough application, then you will get the money. That’s why some grant writers like to promote their “success rate” – and why clients who are new to grant writing ask about it. But honestly? If someone has a high “success rate”, they’re probably a) still pretty new at grant writing and haven’t done a lot of submissions yet, b) only applying to funds with low (or no!) competition, or c) somehow very lucky.
All organisations that apply for grant funding from a wide range of sources get knocked back sometimes. That’s just part of it.
And as a grant assessor, let me tell you – it’s HARD when you have two brilliant applications in front of you, and only enough money to fund one of them. You know you’ll have to let down one of them, despite their brilliant application.
Still, it’s always interesting when you see some of the numbers behind these anecdotes.
The Perpetual IMPACT philanthropy application program is a large annual Australian grant round that collects and publishes some really interesting data and insights on their applicants. I’m currently preparing for a 2023 submission (opening soon), and so I’m looking through last year’s documentation.
According to their 2022 FAQ, in 2021 Perpetual funded about 20% of the 1500-odd applications they received. But that’s not the part I find most interesting.
This grant round is a little bit different than most, because the team running it aren’t actually the funders. Perpetual facilitates grants from a couple of hundred private trusts and endowments – they receive grant applications, rank them for funding suitability, then match them to their clients who are interested in those project areas. And, being private philanthropy, they have a lot of discretion in their decision-making.
What this means is that the quality of the application really isn’t the only thing that affects whether you get funded or not.
In fact, I found this graph in the FAQ:
As you can see, of the 1500-odd applications received, Perpetual rated over 600 “Excellent – funding highly recommended.” Yet only about 200 of these were actually funded. That leaves nearly 400 applications that met the threshold for “excellent – funding highly recommended” who were not funded.
What differentiated those 200 funded applicants from the 400 who didn’t get funding? It’s hard to say – they were all rated “excellent”, so it wasn’t the quality of their application. It’ll likely be a combination of how well the proposed project aligned to the funding interests of each individual trust or endowment, as well as personal relationships, and, well, luck.
You’ll also notice that something like 15% of applicants that were rated only “fair” also received funding, as well as a fraction of those rated “funding not recommended”. That’s far less than the third of “excellent” rated applicants who were funded, but it’s still a good chunk. Again, that speaks to the importance of relationships, alignment, and the flexibility of human decision-making.
Is it the same with other funders? Yes and no. Philanthropists have a lot of discretion in their decision-making, so I expect that the trends at Perpetual would be similar across the board – great applications definitely get noticed, but there’s a lot of great applications, and more to the decision than that. For government, I suspect it’s less stark, but still happens. I’ve seen great applications go unfunded because of limited funds, and there are a range of reasons why some lower ranked applications would sometimes get funded. (*cough* colour-coded spreadsheets anyone??) It’s not the norm, but it happens.
So what do we do with this knowledge?
It’s important to remember that just because your application wasn’t successful, doesn’t mean it wasn’t a great application. Take heart – if you’ve done a really good job, there’s lot of other reasons why someone else was picked on the day.
But does this mean it’s all just out of your hands, and you shouldn’t even bother with putting the effort into a good application? No! The Perpetual numbers show that a LOT more “excellent” applications were selected, and putting your organisation in front of funders does make a difference.
Perpetual and most other large funders don’t give feedback. (It’s a volume thing – imagine how much work it is to do useful feedback on 1500 applications.) But that doesn’t mean you can’t get feedback. It’s useful to know if you’re likely to have been one of the “excellent – but not funded” applications, or if there’s room to improve your applications so that you’re more likely to get funded next time.
One way to do that is to book in a grant review session with a grant writer like myself, and do a bit of a debrief – how does your application stack up? What could you improve on next time? Doing this without the pressure of needing to get the application in by the deadline can be really valuable – it can give you space to grow and learn, and put up a better proposal next time.
Or, you might just need to take heart – keep up with the great applications, keep refining how you explain your value proposition, and keep finding the next opportunity. We can’t all be successful every time when funding is limited – but we can find the next right opportunity.
If you’d like to book in a grant review session or just have a chat about your next project, drop me a line at hello at martinadonkers.com. Or hit the “email me now” button. 🙂
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