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Gauging the Success of a Grant Writer:
Eight Key Indicators

by Robert P. Stewart

As a non-profit grant consultant, I'm often asked, "What is your success rate?" People want to know my ratio of grant proposals submitted to grants funded - either by number submitted or by total amount requested. It's a natural to want to gauge a grant writer's success, but this question really doesn't get at the information needed to assess a grant consultant's performance.

It's also tempting to ask how much money has been secured. For one client, my consulting company wrote grant applications to local foundations in the first half of 2008 that resulted in definite commitments of over $2.5 million. Grant requests prepared in the same period for a second client resulted in over $1 million in commitments from local foundations. For another seeking grants for the first time, so far $60,000 has been committed. Of the eight grants received by Dallas area organizations between 2001-2007 by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, I prepared all aspects of four of the successful grant applications, for a total of $7.62 million in funding - 64.4% of all SAMHSA funding in Dallas during these years. Between January and May 2008, we prepared four Federal grant requests ranging in size from $1.2 million to $9 million over the grant period.

So yes, we've been able to help a number of organizations secure large grants. However, appropriately addressing the "success rate" question requires a more comprehensive response. Grant funding is highly competitive. "Success" in obtaining a grant is a function of the degree to which a grant request matches the particular interests and objectives of a particular foundation at a particular point in time. The persuasiveness of the fit is much more important than the language and attractiveness of the grant application.

But the definition of grant funding success is not the same for all non-profits. The mission or purpose of some organizations is simply more compelling to the public and to funders. The focus of interests of a foundation may shift significantly over time and even from one year to the next. So the more fundamental question to ask would be, "Is the non-profit organization attuned to the funding interests of foundations and is it developing its grant pursuit plan accordingly?"

Success must be defined for each organization individually, in part by considering how appealing its organizational mission is by current public or foundation standards. More importantly, success is measured by whether or not the organization is building relationships and program credibility with funders and achieving incremental increases in grant funding revenues. Since we do not charge by the foundation grant application or by the hour, the rate (ratio of funding to requests submitted) is almost irrelevant; increased funding and relationship building is the true measure of success.

There are eight key indicators in achieving success in this more robust sense:

  1. Timing, Fit, and Public Interest

    Because timing, fit and public interest profoundly influence foundation response, the organization must stay abreast of trends and adjust its grant funding strategies and approaches accordingly.

  2. Annual Review

    The grant pursuit strategy should include annual identification and review of the complete set of prospective corporate and private foundations, emphasizing discovery of new foundations and increasing the scope of grant pursuit.

  3. Advance Contact

    When feasible, advance personal contact with foundation staff helps to determine degree of interest in the particular funding need, improve the targeting of the grant request, and enhance receptivity to the application.

  4. Existing Relationships

    It is important to maximize existing personal relationships between the organization's staff or Board members and foundation staff or Trustees. Such relationships can pave the way for informal contacts in support of the request.

  5. Request the Right Amount

    Determining just the right dollar amount for the "ask" is important: most non-profits underestimate how much they should request. Foundations never give more than you request.

  6. Continuous Improvement

    Evidence of ongoing efforts to improve program effectiveness, particularly as demonstrated by objective outcomes, is indispensable for program credibility and fundability.

  7. Staff Visibility

    Visibility of key organization staff in the community builds recognition.

  8. Compelling, Clear Case

    The grant request must be written with clarity, in the format required by the foundation, and make a compelling case that sets the application apart from that of others competing for scarce grant funds.

So the next time you want to ask a grant writer the question, "what is your success rate?" resist the temptation and instead ask, "can you give me an example of how you have helped an organization develop and pursue a grant funding plan attuned to foundation funding interests?" The answer will reveal whether the grant writer just writes grant proposals or helps organizations realize their grant funding potential.

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About the Author:

Robert P. Stewart is President of Community Service Builders in Dallas, Texas. Community Service Builders enhances the capacity of non-profit organizations to serve the community through strategic grant pursuit planning and management utilizing the FunderFitTM grant research database and expert grant writing services.

Bob can be reached at Please visit the website at

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