The Grant Competition: Swim with the Sharks

Before you apply for a grant, you must ask yourself if you are in it to win it. Since the average success rate for government grants is less than 20 percent, you have to be ready to swim with the sharks. Ask yourself how thoroughly you have studied the playing field, how well equipped you are with grant writing skills, and how often you have practiced the game. Just like any good debater or athlete, you need to focus on what you are doing while keeping the attention of your reviewers to receive favorable scores.

What you say and how you say it will determine how effectively you keep pace with or surpass your competition. Demonstrating the extent of the problem through examples, statistics, and expert opinion, and following these up with effects, causes, and solutions will be your first step. Your second – and just as important – task will be to write in eloquent prose and clear language. Preparation for the competition will include three important tasks: your research, your vision, and your writing. To accomplish these, you will need to begin with the following:


Having more knowledge, data, background, and creativity will always give you the upper hand over other proposal writers. To find out who will be competing, you should examine all the awards of the previous competition and see how you compare to them. Then, contact previous awardees and speak with them about their projects and to what they would attribute their success. Ask the program officer what the reviewers get enthusiastic about in the review process. Finally, you should know about your reviewers and their backgrounds (e.g. publications, experience, etc.). Studying your competition and the judges will give you the edge on how you approach your proposal, both in content and language.


Build up the skills necessary to achieve excellence in your grant writing. This can include taking a grant training course, reading superior sample proposals, speaking with your peers who have been successful, and seeking professional reviews and editing of your project. Once you have gained this experience and developed the skills needed to write a successful grant for the donor, chances are that you will be ready to effectively swim with the sharks.


Many superior athletes contribute their success to practice. For example, Tiger Woods was interviewed on the Golf Channel and was asked what he thought was the key to his success. His answer: practice. For proposal writers, practice does not mean applying and reapplying to various donors. Instead, it means analyzing how you will meet the goal of your research or project. Rigorously combing through your process will allow you to remove bad patterns in every step.

Play the Game in Your Head First

Having studied, developed, and practiced, you are now ready to play the game. Just like preparing for a debate, an important phone call, or an important meeting, running through the event in your own head is critical to success. As a proposal writer, you are trying to persuade others. To achieve this goal, you must reach your audience through logic and when necessary, emotion. You will need to convince them that you have a solution to a specific problem, and then you must maintain their attention so they score in your favor. To be effective, you first need to play the scenario in your head over and over again, ensuring that each objective or aim is doable, focused, and achievable. What will the scenario look like when you are funded? How will you begin? How will you execute each step? What obstacles will you need to solve? The more of these questions you can answer, the closer you will come to success.

Increase your odds in the competition first and foremost with the understanding that you are playing to win. You will be swimming with the sharks knowing that your life may depend on victory. This is the case for many grant writers who need their grants for tenure and promotion, as well as for others who need to sustain their jobs and salaries. You should not enter the competition merely hoping to win, but doing everything you can to prepare yourself for success. You are now in it to win it.

Mathilda Harris

Over the past 18 years, she has written grants, conducted capital campaigns, developed strategic plans for grant procurement, and assisted individuals and institutions to write winning proposals for various donors.

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