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The 3-point revolution in basketball: a lesson for grant seekers and grant writers

I’m old enough to remember the time (not that long ago) when the most important player on most basketball teams was the low-post man, often a back-to-basket center, like George Mikan (the original), Kareem, Wilt, Shaq, etc. That was upended a few years ago with the 3-point shot revolution pioneered by the Golden State Warriors (think Seth Curry, Klay Thompson, etc.). The 3-point shot was added in 1979, but it took basketball experts almost 40 years to figure out that it’s more efficient for players to take more 3-point shots than 2-point shots, even if the shooting percentage for 3-pointers is lower. Maybe humans are less rational than the classical model suggests, if it took so long for teams to optimize for a change, even in a relatively small, controlled environment like pro basketball.

Greater efficiency is achieved by 3-point shooting even if fewer balls technically go through the hoop: we can apply a similar idea or set of ideas to grant writing. It’s more efficient for a nonprofit to submit more proposals rather than spending too much time and resources polishing a smaller number of proposals. We’ve been through many client-induced “polishing” and extensive “editing” exercises with proposals, and they typically generate diminishing returns. Imagine the Lakers rebounding at the Jazz basket and having to take a shot at their end within the 24 second shot clock: the point guard could spend 22 seconds working the ball into a low-post player, who (hopefully) takes a high percentage shot, or the point guard could quickly dribble to the 3-point line, hand off to the shooting guard who takes a 3-point shot at the 6 second mark. While the completion percentage is much lower, this results in many more possessions and opportunities to shoot and score.

In grant seeking, a nonprofit could have its grant writer work tirelessly to polish one grant proposal or have the grant writer do a credible, but maybe not perfect, job on three proposals during the same “grant writing shot clock.” The second approach is likely to produce more funded grants than the first approach, largely because you’re taking more shots on goal. As hockey GOAT Wayne Gretzky famously put it, “I missed 100% of the shots I didn’t take.” Moreover, there’s a lot of noise in the grant evaluation process, just as there is in dating, jobs, and many other human endeavors. The people who succeed most in dating or jobs typically try a lot of different things, knowing that many possible romantic prospects will not like them, for whatever internal reason, and the same is true of employers.

In grant writing terms, and as we periodically blog about, “many shots” means avoiding the perils of perfectionism. It doesn’t matter how perfect the proposal is if you miss the deadline. Also, it’s best to understand that grant reviewers will not study your proposal like the Talmud. At most, the reviewers, who are likely reading dozens of proposals, might spend a half hour reviewing your 40-page opus. As long as the proposal is technically correct and tells a compelling story, it’s probably good enough, since funding decisions go well beyond the proposal itself, including such unknowable considerations as location (urban vs. rural), target population, ethnicity, number of similar applicants, and, the old standby, politics.* There’s likely a pin map in the Under Assistant Secretary’s office to figure out which high scoring proposals will actually be funded (too many in red state Texas, then let’s move a couple to purple state Arizona in anticipation of the 2022 midterms).

Like NBA players who practice long hours to improve their 3-point shooting, your grant writer should be able to get better and faster at writing proposals. Writing proposals, though, is a job that’s hard and drives many grant writers or prospective grant writers mad, or encourages them to leave the business—which is why we have the business we do.


  • At least with federal programs, and large state programs, this is almost never any RFPs of the “let me give you $10,000 in unmarked bills, or bitcoin” variety, but rather of the “Texas is getting five grants, and California zero? That needs to be better balanced” variety.
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