Why bother writing grant proposals? 

Writing grants is a tiresome, thankless task.  I’ve never known overall success rates on grant schemes to be more than 50%, and even that is only one scheme I came across in nearly 20 years of seeking research funding.  Somewhere between 10-25% seems to be typical, from my experience. Perhaps that’s because if overall success rates were higher, the funding agency might feel they are not getting enough choice. Whereas if it drops significantly below 10% (and potential applicants know that it has) then the number of applicants probably starts to dwindle.  In terms of the success rates of individuals, the literature typically seems to suggest that a success rate of 40% to be the boundary between high and low performers. That is, to be considered as a “high performer” in terms of winning grants, you would be winning more than 2 out of every 5 of grants that you submit.

It is safe to say, then, that most of the time, whoever you are, your grant writing will mostly be in vain, and doubly frustrating if your chance of success is random and steered by a group who aren’t really experts in grant selection.  It shouldn’t be considered a complete waste of time, though, as material can be recycled and the process of writing a grant application often helps formulate better ideas.   So, what I propose here is that you spend just a little bit of time thinking through why you actually want to write a grant! I don’t want to talk you out of it, but it’s important that you are motivated.  There is much to be done, in preparation as well as execution, so you need to decide whether you want to invest the time doing it as well as you possibly can (with a view to doing it less often, as your success rate increases), or that you are happy with your current success rates, and that is fine for your purposes, whatever they may be.

So, ask yourself, “What am I trying to achieve by getting a successful grant application?”

Some people write grants because they believe they need it for promotion. If you are one of those people, ask yourself this question: how much do I need to bring in, on average, ever year, in grant income in order to make a good case for promotion.  Take that number and divide by your success rate. (If you don’t know your average success rate, take 20% as a reasonable ballpark figure, so you divide your number by 0.2).  This is how much money you need to be applying for every year, in total, to meet your target.   And even if you are successful, you still need to apply for this amount every year (otherwise you need to multiply by the number of years your projects last).  For example, if you think you need to bring in £100,000 per year, on average, and your success rate is 20%, then you need to apply for grants totally £500,000 every year.

Perhaps you simply have a great idea and just want to see it happen?   Then focus on choosing the right funding source, and work hard, using the tips in the book.  If that doesn’t work, and you really want to see your idea happen, then get a better team behind you. The track record of the team is the one thing that is sure to improve your chances (although not guaranteed to get you funding). The risk to you is that someone else takes the lead and gets all the credit when it finally happens, but that shouldn’t be a problem if you consider it more important to see the idea being funded than you getting the glory. If you prefer the glory, then go back to the beginning and work doubly hard.

So, do you know why you are putting in all that effort into proposal writing?


If grant selection were random, could you tell?

(This post is based on an excerpt from one of the “Tips for Managers” sections in  Win More Grants eBook now available on Amazon and iBooks.)


The randomness of grant success is potentially a very touchy subject given that academia typically rewards those staff who bring in lots of grant funding by giving them promotion. W. Edwards Demming wrote substantially on this topic and specifically in his classic book, Out of the Crisis.  In it he warns of the problems associated with merit systems that are simply lotteries. Here is an extract, where he quotes from The Face of Battle, by John Keegan.

As to the influence and genius of great generals – there is a story that Enrico Fermi once asked General Leslie Groves how many generals might be called ‘great’. Groves said about three out of every 100. Fermi asked how a general qualified for the adjective and Groves replied that any general who had won five major battles in a row might safely be called great. This was in the middle of World War II. Well, then, said Fermi, considering that the opposing forces in most theatres of operation are roughly equal, the odds are one of two that a general will win a battle, one of four that he will win two battles in a row, one of eight for three, one of sixteen for four, one of thirty-two for five. “So, you are right, General, about three out of every 100. Mathematical probability, not genius”.

We can apply the same logic to grant applications. Let us consider thirty equally clever, equally qualified, equally creative academics and ask them to apply for a grant-funding round that has a success rate of one in five (20%) that is offered once a year.  After five years, that is five applications each, we would actually expect one third not to have had a grant awarded. That is, ten out the thirty would still not have had a successful grant application, even after five applications. In a competitive academic environment this would seem disheartening and entirely depressing to the individual and their self-esteem. On top of that, a typical management regime would consider this to be underperformance and they certainly wouldn’t be looking at these individuals for promotion. Instead, management will be considering putting forward for promotion the two staff members that managed to get three or more grants, and perhaps thinking about it for the six who won two of the five. This is a merit system that works on a lottery.

Of course, this is contentious and perhaps it is not quite as simple as that, but it is certainly worth discussion. Managers and senior staff will tend to disagree wholeheartedly with the notion, but that is to be expected – they will not want to acknowledge any flaw in a system in which they have been rewarded on their “merit”. And while people who are frustrated by their lack of success will find solace in such mathematics, they shouldn’t use this as an excuse not to look for possible other reasons why they are not being successful.

But here is one final thought. There is no evidence that quality is the determinant of grant success (that is not to say it is not, simply that there is no evidence that it is) but there is evidence that track record (i.e. previous success) is correlated with success. Early winners of grants (by luck) are more likely to win subsequent grants, and whether by luck or not, they have set themselves on a good career path.

So, as managers, what should you take from this? Firstly, don’t be fooled by the statistics of grant success. Staff who win more grants are not necessarily producing work of any better quality than those who don’t. Secondly, nothing succeeds like success. If you put a great deal of time and effort into supporting staff onto the first rung of the “winning” ladder, this is likely to be the most effective way of improving their chances of further success.

(Read more, buy the eBook:  Win More Grants.)