In grant writing, you don’t have to be great; you only have to be better than the other guy

You don’t need to submit the perfect grant application (assuming the “perfect application” even exists); you just need to be better than the other guy.

A story: Years ago we we wrote a string of funded grants for a majority-minority California city. The city was not particularly well run and some of its workers were indicted for corruption. But the feds kept pouring money into the city because, while it was messed up, it was still better run than other majority-minority cities at that time. The city wasn’t going to win any good government awards, but it was less corrupt than the alternatives. So the proposals we wrote got funded because the feds wanted to fund a majority-minority city somewhere west of the Mississippi and there weren’t (and still aren’t) many choices.

This pattern repeats itself. A couple years ago we wrote a funded HRSA Service Area Competition (SAC) proposal for a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) in a medium-sized city.* In and of itself this isn’t interesting, because we write lots of funded HRSA proposals. This FQHC client, however, failed to tell us that, as we wrote the first draft, some of their officers were being indicted on corruption charges. Our FQHC client had competition from another large, local nonprofit, which applied for the same SAC grant.

Given our client’s legal problems, we figured they’d never get their SAC grant renewed. We were wrong.

We later discovered why HRSA funded our client: The other SAC applicant was facing corruption charges too, and it had a big federal grant pulled. Our HRSA client kept getting funded because, it was probably the lesser of two evils, and HRSA had to fund someone. Without a SAC grantee in the city, at least 15,000 Medicaid patients would’ve had nowhere to go for primary care.

What makes this story even more fun is the the second nonprofit was also a former client, albeit for a non-HRSA grant. And, of course, the second client also didn’t tell us about their corruption woes when we were writing their proposal.

One sees this general principle in other areas. Tech workers, for example, are now increasingly fleeing Silicon Valley. San Francisco’s draconian land-control policies mean that expanding housing supply is almost impossible. Restricting supply in the face of rising demand causes prices to rise. Silicon Valley’s situation is uniquely insane on the national stage, as this article describes.

Seattle—while not exactly a paragon of good, fast local governance—is allowing more housing units to be built than San Francisco, and it’s even building underground light rail services that are getting done on-time and under-budget. Light rail construction is going so well that residents want more transit tunneling. There is also no income tax in Washington State, which makes Seattle a much less expensive place to live than the Bay Area. Consequently, tech companies and tech workers are leaving California for Seattle—not because Seattle is perfect, but because it’s better and more functional than its southern neighbor. Even highly paid tech workers are voting with their wallets and feet.

Analogies to dating are so obvious that I won’t belabor them here, although I will say that Briefly noted: Date-onomics: How Dating Became a Lopsided Numbers Game is an excellent take on the subject.

Potential clients often ask us whether they should apply for a particular grant. We can never tell them definitively, but we do say that if they don’t apply, they definitely won’t get funded. We’ve seen numerous apparent underdogs get funded because they applied and the presumed favorites didn’t, or because they applied and the presumed favorites messed up their application, or because they applied and the funder was sick of the presumed favorite. To get funded, you don’t necessarily have to be the “best,” whatever that may mean. You only have to be better than the other guy.


* At least one Section 330 SAC grant is available for virtually every geographic area in the United States; those grants are used to fund primary healthcare services for predominantly low-income people. Without them, many large FQHCs would not be able to operate. Funded FQHCs must compete to keep their Section 330 funding about every three years when HRSA issues a new SAC RFP for their area.

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