The Importance of Critical Thinking


In the grant field, critical thinking is absolutely necessary. The caveat here is to take nothing for granted. I would like to point out several areas where grant writers should think critically. These are just examples and it is incumbent upon the grant writer to use this type of big picture thinking in all aspects of their work. These examples are as follows:


  • Do not assume that what has worked in another place will work in yours.  It is necessary to consider how the geographic location of that project affected the results.  If that is the case, then it might not be completely transferable to your area.
  • Do not assume that intangibles do not count in a project. Not everything can be measured in a scientific and mathematical way. Most projects do not take into account how individual will (or lack thereof) can affect the results. This is particularly true in projects having a social services component. An after-school program may not take into account students who are unusually ambitious and dedicated.
  • Do not assume that the staff of your agency necessarily has the capacity to carry out a particular project. It is necessary for the grant writer to mentally put herself and her colleagues into the picture of the new project and try to visualize the various pitfalls as well as strengths there might be in a given situation.
  • Do not assume that commonly accepted remedies to problems are always the best way to go. One of the best examples of this is working to create new jobs in a community and not being selective about what types of companies come in. Always putting the creation of new jobs ahead of environmental considerations will, in the long run, be detrimental to the community.


Reasons for Rejection of an Application

There are many and various reasons for rejection of an application.  Some of these are as follows:


  • The grant proposal is poorly written.
  • The project is a poor fit with the need and will not do much to alleviate that need.
  • The proposed activities are not clearly thought out and do not seem feasible.
  • The competition from other applications is overwhelming.
  • The application is good and the need is great, but other projects will serve even needier populations.
  • The funding agency does not have confidence that the applicant has the capacity to successfully carry out the project.
  • The applicant has had problems in administering other grants.

Part of the problem is getting to the real root of the rejection.  This can sometimes be difficult.

A debriefing is a discussion with the funding agency as to why the application was not funded.  Many governmental agencies will be happy to discuss the reasons for rejection.  However, I would urge the grant writer to listen to the debriefings with a bit of caution.  Feedback is sometimes given by staff members who were not actually reviewers and were not charged with the responsibility of assigning points to the application.  When this is the case, something can sometimes get lost in the translation.

Overall, however, it is an excellent idea to request a debriefing.  This information can be invaluable in developing the proposal for a re-submittal or for a submittal to a different agency.  This is especially true for beginning grant writers.  As one gains more and more experience, it will be easy to see the weaknesses in your proposal even prior to submittal.  I would definitely recommend that a proposal still be re-submitted even though there are minor flaws in it.  Sometimes these can be worked out with the funding agency.  Sometimes they are so insignificant as not to matter.  It is important to take to heart the information received in a debriefing and attempt to remedy the problems identified.

Training vs. Experience

My purpose in writing Getting Your Share of the Pie-The Complete Guide to Finding Grants was to disseminate a complete “how to” guide to the grant world.  The reference component of the book gives the reader additional resources to consult as their grant writing career proceeds.  This will ensure that the serious student is given the tools to keep up with the most current information in the field.  I began with the very most basic element of receiving a grant-identifying the true need-and concluded with steps to be taken if the grant application is not approved.  In the pages in between, I advised the reader on how to develop a fundable project, find the most promising grant sources, develop a strategy for which sources to approach, and write a successful proposal.

However, as in my own experience, time spent on the job is critically important.  There are, as in any other profession, various nuances and subtleties which show themselves as one actually begins to work.  No book can cover all of those situations.  We all know how various judgment points are different at different parts of one’s career.  The seasoned veteran will obviously think of the proper questions to ask and look behind the scenes to see what is not obvious, whereas a novice might tend to take the situation at face value.

One example of how experience is just as important as knowledge is my policy of looking for “deal breakers” in the very beginning of an assignment.  I examine the project closely and consult the funding agency if there is any doubt as to project eligibility.  This may sound like common sense, but the novice has a tendency to want to think that the project is fundable under a particular program regardless of any issues which may be a potential problem.  He may not want to think that this potential source, which may have been very hard to find, may not be the right choice.  I highly recommend that the grant writer minutely examine the program guidelines at least twice in order to ensure that the project is eligible for funding.

Another very obvious skill which the aspiring grant writer can only pick up with experience is making contacts within the various funding agencies.  In my case, this has been carefully developed over the years. I am proud to say that the funding agencies I work with know me as an individual who lives up to her promises, meets deadlines without exception, and understands the restrictions under which that agency is working.  I would advise the novice grant writer to deal with funding agencies with the utmost honesty.  One of the worst things anyone can do is leave the impression that you are trying to “pull the wool over their eyes”. Most of the agencies can pick this up in a heartbeat. Needless to say, this leaves a very bad impression of the grant writer which can linger for years.

Private Funding

Private Funding

Private funding is supplied by wealthy individuals, corporations, banks and foundations. A “foundation” is a non-profit organization with a board of directors and trustees which provide funds for various charitable causes. Most foundations have been organized under federal or state charters. Others have been organized under trust agreements. The following generalities in regard to private foundation funding apply pretty much across the board:


  • Most foundations will accept a brief letter of inquiry as the initial contact, where- as, with government sources, letters of inquiry are never used.  The applicant will submit either a pre-application or an application. The pre-application can sometimes be as lengthy as an application.
  • Many foundations accept inquiries throughout the year.  This is also true of some governmental sources.  However, governmental sources are more likely to have a specific period of time when they will accept applications.  In many cases, this is done once a year.
  • Private foundations are less likely to have specific, concrete rating and ranking systems with points assigned to various factors.  Most government sources of funds spell out very precisely how they will rate and rank an application.
  • Private foundations are more prone to making decisions based on personal factors.  This could include having personal knowledge of the applying organization or being personally acquainted with one of its staff members.
  • Most foundations tend to have less complex requirements for grant administration.  In some cases, a final report may be required. Nearly all federal and state funding agencies require some sort of formalized reporting procedure and may have other administrative requirements which must be followed
  • In line with the idea that foundations are freer to choose their grantees without benefit of a formal rating system, some only give grants to pre-selected organizations. The family or individuals funding the foundation may have an interest in certain subject matter and wish to support only that particular cause.
  • Most foundations are not able to make large grants and, in general, support smaller projects.
  • Foundations are not under the same scrutiny as state and local government funding programs, and thus are freer to utilize their own rules and regulations.  Federal and state funding sources must abide by the laws governing their grant programs as well as the regulations which have been developed to ensure that those laws are followed.  This gives private foundations a much greater degree of internal control.  Governmental agencies are bound by the strictures put into place by Congress and the various state legislatures.


Searching for Grant Funds

Fortunately, the grant seeker will find a plethora of search resources.  This is due in part to the pervasive availability of electronic information.  We are in the enviable position of having to spend a significant amount of time weeding out grant search tools and potential funding agencies, rather than having to work hard to ferret out this information.  It is a matter of learning to work efficiently and utilizing those search tools which will give the most “bang for the buck”. This could also be expressed as “learning to work smarter, not harder”.  Of course, the beginning grant writer will need to take time to learn which search tools provide the most reliable and easy-to-access information.  Learning the art of discrimination in this area does take time.  Do not be discouraged if you feel at first as if your energy is being scattered in a dozen directions.  With patience and diligent work, the grant writer will learn how to make the most effective use of time when doing a grant search.”

Fortunately, the grant seeker has a number of free sources to choose from in searching for federal government grants.  In my opinion, and the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance (CFDA) are two of the more useful search tools, although there are others which I utilize from time to time. One of the most effective methods for determining whether a particular federal program is a good fit is by taking note of the total amount of funding available and the number of awards which will be made. This will allow the grant seeker to determine how intense the competition will be.

All of the individual states offer a wide array of grant programs in such areas as water and sewer, transportation, parks and recreation, economic development, historic preservation, law enforcement, and fire fighting.  States award grants to municipalities and counties as well as nonprofit organizations.  Some states will also offer assistance to for-profit entities in support of economic development. If your organization is a non-profit, get to know your local elected officials. It is quite possible that they will be able to supplement your list of potential funding sources by making suggestions from among the state programs with which they are familiar. I always search for state sources of funding first.  The state programs are easier to access than federal programs due to the fact that the applicant is competing only on the state level and not against other applicants around the entire country.