Skip to content

Why you shouldn’t use “success rate” to hire a grant writer

In my Facebook Group, The Freelance Grant Writers’ Network, we recently had a question about how to address the question of “success rates”.

I was pleased to see that most grant writers who responded said that they aren’t often asked about their success rate.

But it does come up sometimes. I’ve been asked about my success rate occasionally, especially by clients who are looking to work with a freelance grant writer for the first time. And I still see some grant writers talk about their success rate, especially newbies.

But overall, I think success rate is actually a pretty rubbish way to gauge the quality of a grant writer. Here’s why.

First, what do we mean by success rate? It’s pretty blunt. A grant writer’s “success rate” is the number of applications that they’ve prepared which won funding, against the total number of applications they’ve prepared, usually expressed as a percentage. So if a grant writer had prepared 10 grant applications and 8 of them secured funding, their success rate is 80%.

Like I said, it’s pretty blunt – partly because it assumes that the only way for a grant application to be “successful” is for it to secure funding. (More on that later.)

The thing is – success rate assumes that the ONLY thing standing between a grant applicant and the grant they want is the quality of their own grant application. And that’s just not true.

Some grants are non-competitive, like the R+D tax incentive. Yes, for those grants, as long as you do a good quality application and meet the criteria, you’ll get the grant.

But most grants are competitive, especially in the non-profit sector. That means that there are multiple things affecting whether you’re awarded funding:

  1. The quality of your own grant application
  2. The quality of other applicants
  3. The total pool of funding available
  4. The whims of the decision-maker, including political issues.

Let’s consider other applicants first.

To win a competitive grant, you have to have a great project idea backed up by a strong application that clearly demonstrates how your proposal meets the grant goals.

You also have to be better than the other applicants.

Your proposal needs to be the best way (or one of the best ways) to spend that grant maker’s money to achieve the outcome they’re seeking. And look – sometimes, other applicants are going to be better.

You might have an incredible application. But the other applicant might simply have more experience than you. Or connections to more relevant community groups. Or already be delivering another program which can interact with the new proposal in a way that enhances both. Or be able to do it cheaper.

Just like with job applications, sometimes you’re a perfect candidate but still not the BEST candidate – sometimes you just get pipped at the post by someone with more experience.

If a grant writer wants to keep their “success rate” high, they need to only work with clients who are extremely likely to be the best applicant in every case. And yeah, grant writers shouldn’t be taking on clients trying to apply for grants they’re not likely to win. But still – sometimes wins come from unexpected places. Clients of mine have definitely won grants that I wasn’t totally confident in.

And look, even those clients that are perfectly suited aren’t going to be the best applicant every time. Someone else will sometimes have a better idea. Someone else will sometimes be better placed in the ecosystem. It’s normal.

Not only that – some funders deliberately don’t fund applicants on their first application. They wait and see who applies again – it shows commitment.

So let’s consider the total funding pool.

We all know grant money is limited – that’s the whole point of the grant process. This means that there’s not enough money to fund all great applications.

When I was working in grants administration early in my career, we had a program where we were awarding a single grant in each geographical region that the program operated in. Some regions had multiple exemplar candidates, but even in those regions, we could only fund one applicant. This meant that sometimes we really struggled to figure out which application was the best one – each had different strengths, and ultimately, we could only fund one.

That meant some really excellent applications went un-funded.

This is really common. Perpetual Impact published details of their funding rounds, including how they rated applications, and how many they funded. They only fund about a third of their top-rated applications. That’s a lot of great quality applications going un-funded, or “unsuccessful”.

Grant funding is limited. You can’t be the winner every time.

So let’s talk about the decision-maker.

Different people have different ideas about what needs to be done to solve problems, and what are the features of a great project.

We’ve all encountered someone who just doesn’t “get it”,  no matter how clear a need or a solution seems. And sometimes the person who doesn’t get it is the grant assessor.

Last time I was assessing grant applications for the federal government, I came across a brilliant application that was very different from all the others. They showed such a clear understanding of the issue and proposed a really innovative way to address it. I scored it very high. The other person who assessed it (there’s usually at least 2) scored it very low.

We had a conversation to reconcile our different scores. And you know what? He just didn’t get the application. He couldn’t see how the innovative way of addressing the problem made sense – he could only see that the proposal wasn’t like the others we had, and he saw that as a negative. I talked him around and we went with my higher score, but I’m assertive – if a different grant assessor had looked at that one, the application might not have progressed to the next stage of assessment.

The same grant idea can speak to one funder and be rejected by another, citing the same features. People have different ideas about what makes an idea “good”.

And, sometimes, there’s political interference in the decision-making process. Colour-coded spreadsheets help to make decisions based on pollical expedience rather than application quality. And as a grant writer, there’s nothing you can do about that. In the Sports Rorts saga, one grant application scored 98/100 (that’s super, super high) and was rejected based on the political priorities of the ministers of the day.

Every capable freelance grant writer who works on competitive grants is rejected some of the time.

But – as I said above – “success” doesn’t have to be defined in terms of winning funding.

I mean, yeah, ok, winning funding is definitely the best outcome for everyone. But it’s not the only benefit that you get from a great grant application. And you can still derive benefits from applications that don’t secure funding.

Going through the grant application process forces clients to do some of the strategic work that never quite gets to the top of the list. Grants have deadlines – so you HAVE to do that strategic work and actually figure things out. The process pushes them to get much clearer on what their project actually is, why it’s a good idea, who needs to be involved, what needs to happen, how it strategically fits into the project, etc. Doing that work is a benefit – and honestly, doing that work well in a way that helps the client should be a marker of a “successful” project.

Also, applicants can re-use ideas developed through the grant process, now that their thinking is clearer. They can use it for reporting, or strategic documentation, or even other proposals.

Case study – I wrote two innovation grant applications for my client. Just a little grant, under $100k. One was funded – yay! – the other wasn’t. My client took the work we had done on the un-funded project, and re-purposed it into a government budget submission. They ended up getting a few million dollars for that project – so if that’s not “successful”, I don’t know what is!! And they wouldn’t have been able to do that without the work we did on the un-funded grant application.

Overall, I think “success rate” is pretty useless. I don’t keep track of mine, and I don’t recommend anyone use success rate to judge a grant writer. There’s too many other variables at play.

So what should you use instead?

You need to talk to your prospective grant writer.

Talk to them about what made some of their projects a success. Talk to them about their process, their understanding of the issues, their approach to collaborating on delivery. Talk to them about what they value, how they deliver great work, and what a great application really looks like.

That’s a much better way to look at things.