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Rock Chalk, Jayhawk, KU! — Lessons from Basketball for Grant Writers

My daughter will graduate from the William Allen White School of Journalism & Mass Communications at the University of Kansas in May. Although I’m not much of a sports fan, over the past four years, I’ve learned to love Jayhawks basketball and was delighted to see the Jayhwawks come back from a double digit deficit last year to defeat Memphis at the storied Allen Fieldhouse, one of America’s true basketball shrines.

Last night, I watched with over 100 crazed KU alumni at a Seattle sports bar as “Super Mario” Chalmers sank a wild 3 pointer at the end of regulation play to send the Jayhawks into overtime against the Memphis Tigers in the NCAA championship game. This was an improbable feat, since KU was down 60-51 with 2:12 to go. KU went on to win, bringing the championship back to KU for the third time and sending thousands of delirious fans to celebrate on Massachusetts Street in Downtown Lawrence.

KU’s spectacular comeback and victory got me to thinking about how basketball relates to grant writing. Perhaps the most frequent questions I am asked are along the lines of, “What are my chances of getting a grant?” and “Who gets funded?” To the first, I invariably answer, “I’m a grant writer, not a fortune teller. Contact Miss Cleo.” My answer to the second is more complex, as it goes to the bedrock of people’s souls. Nonprofits are only as successful as their founders, board members and staff. So asking who gets funded is like asking which high school student will get into an Ivy League school, which college grad will get into medical school and which team will win a close basketball game. The answer, of course, is that whoever wants whatever “it” is most, will likely achieve it, while the rest will be left to wonder why.

Now, to get ready to win a NCAA Basketball championship, it helps to have a squad of McDonald’s All Americans and a great coach, just as having a chance to get into an Ivy or med school requires a 4.0 GPA and ultra high test scores. Similarly, merely “wanting” a grant is necessary but not sufficient for nonprofits. The organization must have a 501(c)3 Letter of Determination from the IRS, a clear charitable purpose that meets an identified need, be believable at delivering the service, have the necessary management and administrative infrastructure to manage the grant, be capable of identifying appropriate funding sources, and, of course, be able to write compelling and technically correct proposals that are submitted on time. In other words, want is just the start of the process: tenacity combined with an ability to understand what makes a compelling proposal and organization are also necessary to get proposals funded. As Randy Pausch said in his last lecture (available via YouTube or a Wall Street Journal article), “Brick walls are there for a reason. They let us prove how badly we want things.” He was talking about scientific achievement and life goals, but he could just as easily been talking about grants or basketball.

At just over two minutes to go last night, tens of thousands of KU faithful and I, felt another NCAA tournament slipping away. It seemed like Memphis wanted the title more than Kansas, but during the next seven minutes, including overtime, the Jayhawks stormed back and snatched the championship from Memphis. A scriptwriter could not have framed the turnaround better. During the four years I have followed the Jayhawks, they have always fielded great times, but lost before getting to the Final Four. They never gave up believing in their dream, and last night simply wanted the championship more than Memphis. If you believe in your organization and the services it provides, and the need is clear, keep trying. Eventually, like the Jayhawks, you will succeed. In the words of the wonderfully named Tub Thumping, by a one hit wonder band named Chumbawamba, “I get knocked down / But I get up again, / You’re never going to keep me down.”

So, when the Department of Education, SAMSHA or the Dubuque Community Foundation summarily rejects your proposal, get up, dust yourself off, polish the proposal and find another funder. Like the Jayhawks, it may take some time. Like the Jayhawks, you’ll have to work hard if you want to win—almost no one last night saw the countless hours each player spends in the gym. In keeping with the rock theme, and to quote the Rolling Stones, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes well you just might find, you get what you need.” The Jayhawks wanted and needed a NCAA championship and got it. If you want funding for your organization, keep trying, develop a compelling game plan, and you may just get the funding you need.

In the meantime, chant Rock Chalk, Jayhawk, KU five times before you submit every proposal and it will be just like being in Allen Fieldhouse before a Mizzou game.

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