These days, all of us are inundated with conflicting information that makes it difficult to discern fact from myth. While there is some evidence to suggest that a distortion of the truth is normal, even evolutionary, holding onto myths can be dangerous, especially when you’re trying to make strategic decisions.
As a grant writer and analyst, I have seen strong grant applicants fail because they subscribed to “common wisdom” that was actually not all that wise. To prevent student success leaders from making the same mistakes, I went on a fact-finding mission to bust three common myths about higher education grant searching and application strategy:
Myth #1: “Only grant-writing experts win awards.”
College leaders tend to believe that to win a sizable grant award, they must enlist the services of an outside expert.
EAB interviews reveal that this myth persists for two main reasons:
- Few members of the faculty and staff are willing to write grants.
- There is an enormous amount of pressure to “get the application right,” driving leaders to outsource the job.
Be cautious: The cost of expert services ($125 per hour on average, often with a flat fee minimum) and the time required to bring outside experts up to speed can easily outweigh the benefits. Moreover, most grants are ultimately awarded based on the institution’s attributes, not those of the grant writer. Whoever crafts your proposal must have the ability to articulate how your institution can accomplish the desired outcomes.
As the old saying goes, “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” Approach grants the same way: Build your in-house grant writing expertise and cultivate relationships with funders.
Here are a few steps your institution can take now:
- Identify staff who will lead institutional grant efforts (based on current or expanded role)
- Prioritize grants that address strategic college priorities
- Incentivize faculty and staff to write and submit grants on behalf of the college
- Create cross-departmental grant workgroups to encourage large-scale collaboration
- Offer ongoing grants trainings, workshops, and conferences for dedicated faculty and staff
Myth #2: “New applicants are at a disadvantage in grant competitions.”
The hard truth is that competition is heating up for many grants, within and beyond the student success space. At foundations across the United States, typically only 10% of proposals make it through the first review round. Department of Education awards are extremely competitive—the last Title III awards went to 45 institutions out of thousands of applicants.
But new grantees aren’t necessarily at a disadvantage in a field of thousands of fellow competitors—average and unsuitable proposals are.
According to the Grants.gov Community Blog Series, the top reasons grants are denied are missed technical requirements (page length, missing information, etc.) and little overlap between the institution’s goals and the funder’s priorities. Avoid rookie mistakes and make sure every part of your application demonstrates your institution’s preparedness to advance the funder’s priorities.
Far from being disadvantaged, novice grant applicants can actually get a leg up on the competition in some cases. In an effort to broaden and diversify its pool of applicants, the Department of Education gives special consideration to new applicants. Thoroughly read announcements in the Federal Register to catch these exclusive notifications.
Myth #3: “Whenever you need money, apply for a grant.”
Grants should never be part of a last-ditch effort to save a college program. Some college leaders who are removed from the intricacies of the grant application process may think that grant competitions are an easy way to secure additional institutional funds, but the reality is considerably less rosy. Regardless of the pressures leaders feel from constituents, it is important to remember that grants are not a stop-gap. Instead, their purpose is to further institutional strategic goals.
Before deciding to apply for grant funding, determine your college’s readiness for grant funding by posing these questions internally:
- Do we have the internal resources (staff, finances, and time) to execute a successful and realistic project that aligns with the priorities outlined in the grant announcement?
- Do we have the right staff and technology in place to manage the funded grant project?
- Can we provide timely reports and updates to funders?
If your answers are anything other than “yes,” pause before moving forward with a grant application. Even if your institution manages to win funding, there will be headaches when it comes time to report on outcomes, and you risk your institution’s reputation.
Be your own grant mythbuster
The single most important question to ask when forming a grant application strategy is “Why?”
- Why are we contracting an external grant writer?
- Why do we feel pessimistic about our chances of winning?
- Why are we applying for this grant?
These questions will help you move beyond myths and start thinking of ways to improve your “how.” We challenge you to think strategically, empathetically, and unapologetically about how to create a grant development strategy that will support ambitious projects at your college and, ultimately, the students you serve.