When a Win Looks Like a Loss

*Note from Diane: Today’s post from Nicole is the second in our series talking about grant seeking success. Did you miss Briana’s post Celebrating Grant Success from last week? Catch up here.


When it comes to grants, it seems that “success” and “failure” is a binary distinction. Winning the money equates success. Not winning the money equates failure. Seems simple enough.

It isn’t.

With experience comes wisdom, and after several hundred applications, one truth that has become evident – sometimes, winning a grant can be the worst thing that can happen to an organization, while losing a grant can be the best. After being on the front lines of both experiences, here are two stories that show that your win can be your loss (or vice versa):

When reality comes crashing down-Several years ago, I lead a team that earned a hefty six figure award to significantly expand their services. After years of saying they needed more resources to help a growing population, they had it all-money for new staff, equipment, offices, even gas for their cars. Now it was time to roll up their sleeves and start changing the world.

Except they didn’t. They didn’t do any of it. New staff was never hired, new equipment was never purchased, and new clients were never served. When this organization created the grant application, they failed to take into account their actual ability to accomplish the goals they promised. No staff were assigned to specific program tasks and no leadership was put into place to ensure that they were meeting their contractual requirements. After six months of no activity, the grantor demanded to know why they had failed to meet the goals that they themselves had created. The truth was that they knew they would never be able to meet their goals and were more interested in the “win” than the program. Unsurprisingly, they have yet to receive any more funding from the grantor.

The gift of no-Now take into account another team. They had, after years of providing educational services to a very distinct population, come to the realize that some of their activities could be seen as an arts program. For the first time in their 30 years of existence, they sought arts education funding from several major sources. They created their first program budget, developed new evaluation methodology, and even restructured their curriculum to include best arts education practices. They put in countless hours of examination, program development, and budget creation for three grant applications. They didn’t win a dime. Each loss motivated them to further refine their program, and funders took notice. They became so impressed by their new initiatives that, the next fiscal year, they received not three grant awards for their art program, but six.

The above stories come down to one thing-Preparing for success. Grant readiness is not a concept or an impediment to winning, it is the foundation on which your entire grant program should be built. Grant awards are not checks, they are contracts, binding legal agreements to provide the services that you promised. So many times, an organization will make promises they can’t keep. (“Of course we can serve 1,000 more people annually!”) Often, they believe they truly can keep that promise, even though it is completely unrealistic given their infrastructure and abilities.

Grantors don’t care about your best intentions, they care about your results. When they see an organization seeking to better themselves and striving to be the best, it is almost guaranteed that they will reward them eventually. Conversely, when they see an organization more interested in getting the money then getting results, that win will be very short lived.


The legendary speed skater Bonnie Blair once said, “Winning doesn’t always mean being first. Winning means you’re doing better than you’ve ever done before.” A winning grant program is so much more than dollars earned; it is the pursuit of perfection, of constantly challenging your organization to do better, work smarter, and change the world. That is the ultimate success.


  1. Greg October 26, 2017at9:25 am

    Thanks Nicole! I had this very discussion earlier this week with a younger grant writer. I had prepared some foundation grant applications for a support organization for injured military and first responders. When it came time to submit, I was unable to obtain some of the easiest pieces of information (990, budget, financials). I had to advise that client (which I was helping at no charge) that they were not ready for the grant world, since getting a grant would be the worst thing that could happen if they couldn’t deliver on their promises. Eventually it comes down to an ethical decision that affects your own credibility, which is critical for any grant writer.

  2. Anon October 26, 2017at9:59 am

    This is a great post and definitely aligns with my experience.
    One thing that’s tricky, though: as development professionals, we are often not in charge of hiring or other personnel decisions. At a certain point, accountability for following through with the grant deliverables has to rest with senior management and the executive director.


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