"I’VE JUST SWITCHED JOBS. I’m desperate for an iPad and a smartphone but I’m a little short on cash. Hey, I have an idea. Can I get a grant to tide me over?"


"My mother has always longed to travel. Can she get a grant to pay for a trip to the Grand Canyon? It would be very educational."


"I love, love, LOVE to cook. Can I get a grant to study the cuisines of France . . . in Paris?"


"My car was totaled."

"I have a deviated septum."

"My dog needs dental surgery."

No. No. No.

Now, more than ever, the word "grant" is tossed into more conversations than "reality TV" and "Twitter" combined. Grants are hot. Just attend a grant-writing workshop anywhere and see the room fill with people from every profession. Grants are exciting— money usually is—and completely misunderstood. Mostly, we hear about grants that have been won, not about grants that have been lost. And we rarely hear how time-consuming the grant proposal was to develop and write. Instead, we (think we) hear that someone dashed off a grant proposal, mailed it out, and miraculously got a whopping big check by return mail.

Recent years have seen a huge increase in applications for nonprofit status, apparently because many people believe that all you need to do to get grant money—or get a paid job for something you’re doing as a volunteer—is to incorporate as a not-for-profit organization and that there’s plenty of money out there for the asking. It seems as if these applicants haven’t been listening to the news. We don’t want to be discouraging, but if you are one of these new applicants, we urge you to take a step back and look at who you are, when and why you should look for grants, and from whom you should look for grants before you decide to invest the time, energy, and money that it takes to incorporate, get your nonprofit status, and write your first proposal.

Notice that we said write your proposal. We didn’t say win a grant. Excellent proposals and programs often do not get funded (and awful ones occasionally do) for a variety of different reasons —politics of all sorts, for instance; or the kinds of natural and man-made disasters we’ve been experiencing, which force some grant makers to reallocate their resources; or the impact of stock market movement on the portfolios of foundation grant makers, as occurred during the Great Recession. Or they just don’t get funded because resources are limited in proportion to the number of applicants. For example, one huge foundation recently received some 40,000 proposals; it awarded 1,400 grants. But the proposal has to be excellent in order to have half a chance of winning any money. And even if you don’t win a grant at first, the proposal lets the reviewers form an impression of you and your organization that could help you (or hurt you) when you apply the next time.

Like the lottery, you have to be in it to win it. But unlike the lottery, in the world of grants it is not enough just to be in it. Your application has to be strong; it should represent you and your organization in the best possible light. If you can’t do that— because you don’t have enough time or enough help to put the proposal together—then do not apply, at least not now. Waiting until next year, or next month, is sometimes the smartest thing you can do. Submitting a poorly thought-out, poorly developed, poorly written proposal is sometimes the most damaging thing you can do to your long-term prospects.