What Are the Odds?

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One request for a grant, one lottery ticket: which has a better chance of winning? A false equivalence, for sure, because there’s a lot you can do to improve your odds with a proposal—even a single request. But with lottery tickets, all you can do is buy more and more of them in the hope that one might hit it big.


Still, it’s on the minds of most who write and submit proposals. Given what most foundations say in most rejection letters (“due to the extraordinary number of proposals we received, we are unable to make an award”) it’s no wonder that grants people wonder about the odds.


How many players? There are about 1.5 million nonprofits in the U.S. (though not all of them submit grant requests). There are about 87,000 grant-making foundations so the line at almost every foundation door is very long.


But those odds are nothing compared to lotteries where (e.g.) picking six winning numbers out of 49 possibilities, where you’ve got a 1 in 14 million chance to score the jackpot.


Some say that one out of 10 proposals are funded. The Federal grants hit rate is said to be a little better, or about 20 percent. Let’s speculate that a robust proposal process generates two or three grant requests per month. That’s about 30 a year. Does this mean you’ll get three or four of them funded? No guarantees, but yes, the percentages suggest that kind of success rate.


A lot of factors go into the odds for or against your proposal’s success. If your nonprofit is the only one addressing a critical problem in your community, (a) that’s pretty unlikely but (b) that’s a good thing. If you’ve been invited to submit by a program officer or other foundation executive, that moves you toward the front of the line. If you’re the last nonprofit out of more than 100 to submit, a few hours before the deadline, you’re probably pushing a boulder up a very steep hill.


Successful proposals are not lottery tickets. Even so, it’s natural to ponder the possibilities and consider the odds.


Thomas Boyd is Chief Editorial Consultant for The Grantsmanship Center
and an independent consultant to nonprofit organizations.

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