I’ve written about the foolishness of trying to use self-esteem as a metric (“Self-Esteem—What is it good for?“), as well as the impossible question, “Who gets funded?” (“Rock Chalk, Jayhawk—Basketball for Grant Writers“). Now “If at First You Don’t Succeed, You’re in Excellent Company” blends both subjects; the author, Melinda Beck, relates how Julie Andrews was “not photogenic enough for film,” publishers rejected J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter novel multiple times, and—my favorite—Decca Records passed on the Beatles.
The common thread in these tales of success arising out of initial failures is a concept psychologists call “self-efficacy,” meaning that one has a strong belief in one’s capabilities to do specific things (e.g. Lennon and McCartney had a pretty good idea that could write and play great pop songs, but probably not become professional soccer players), as opposed to the generalized feelings of self-worth that are typical of those with high self-esteem. Moreover, a person works to incorporate feedback and develop their skills, rather than assuming that one’s skills and abilities are fixed. RFPs often reference building “self-esteem” among, say, at-risk youth, but I have never seen a reference to self-efficacy or its cousin resilience, which seem more important as metrics of societal success.
Grant writers should use self-efficacy instead of self-esteem in program models. Let’s consider Project DARN (Dubuque Action and Referral Network), which provides after school enrichment for teens. Instead of trying to get the participants to feel good about themselves by somehow increasing their self-esteem, the project will help each youth find something they’re good at and foster that skill so they actually have a reason to feel positive beyond simply existing. As the WSJ article states, “‘It’s easy to have high self-esteem — just aim low,’ says Prof. Bandura, who is still teaching at Stanford at age 82.” For example, if Joe likes playing computer games, a project staff person could see if he has a knack for programming, and if so, find a mentor from a local software company. This might set Joe on a path to a living wage job, as opposed to having him chant, “we’re all special” in a group. This could help differentiate the Project DARN model from others, and it may actually help your participants.
Self-efficacy isn’t just useful for participants—it’s also a key trait for grant writers trying to get their program funded. If you believe in the organization and the services it provides and have or will develop the skills to write compelling proposals, you should keep trying. The key thing you should do is learn from failure, as Michael Jordan has said: “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. That’s why I succeed.” Eventually, if you find the right RFPs or foundations, work diligently at improving your writing skills, and tailor your proposals and programs to available funding sources, your program will be funded.
It’s not enough just to want the money—you also have to want to change and improve your proposals or programs, which too many organizations seem unwilling to do, as the innumerable schools with great mission statements and high dropout rates show. Or, better yet, those districts have ironically named “successful school guides” even as their students fail almost every ability test imaginable.