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The Grant Process: Collaborative Learning Through Failure

Gene Wilder, in the classic movie Young Frankenstein, said, “If science teaches us anything, it teaches us to accept our failures, as well as our successes, with quiet dignity and grace.” Although I haven't fully accepted grant failures in this way, I always learn from them. Science and the grant process share numerous similarities. In particular, the biggest mistake we make is failing to learn through the process.

I recently participated in a phone conference with Derek Runberg, the Curriculum Curator from Sparkfun, a company selling engineering components that cater to Maker classrooms. The Maker Movement in education involves learning by doing and science activities such as robotics and coding. Many of the things Derek, a former middle school teacher, said reminded me of the grant planning process.

Engineers work toward failure point, and Maker classroom students learn through failure.Teachers don't want their students to fail and are motivated, like engineers, to fix any issues. As grant professionals, we take rejected proposals, stare them down, and improve them for another grant round. This labor of love involves artistry, science, engineering, and lots of determination. Grants are not funded for a multitude of reasons: poor writing, unrealistic budgets, past history, etc. Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed, I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.” What can we do differently next time as grant writers?

Scientists and engineers understand the value of learning through failure, and so should grant professionals, especially in their planning and prioritizing processes.Love those Google doodles? Google artists and engineers collaborate to “show the human behind the machine” and give us a 30-second spark to our days ( They have many ideas to choose from but must focus on the idea that appeals to the majority of Google patrons worldwide. Similarly, successful grant writers plan their project narratives based on their best understanding of reviewers and must make the product jump off the page to capture both experts in the field and lay people. They also must narrow down a multitude of project ideas into the strongest one and prioritize planning activities. For instance, it is best to have a project plan before searching for applicable grants.

Teachers need to craft an ecology of tools and materials in their classroom; they must also visibly practice their skills.They should do the same activities as their students and learn along with them. Tools need to be personal and buildable. Which grant readiness and project planning tools work best for you as a grant professional, and how do you help clients or staff learn along with you?

The Maker classroom should not exist in a vacuum.Likewise, whether a solo or team grant writer, we must work with other professionals of all stripes to create the best proposal possible using research-based tools. Even if you think you work in isolation, you don't. A successful grant involves finance, human resources, business, researchers, and other experts to bring it together. In the end, usually someone else needs to put the grant-funded project into action and make it breathe. That team needs to work together, like engineers.

Don't overthink making; it's a mindset, not a curriculum.Depending on our personality, many grant professionals spend too much time planning and not creating. Use your skills, dig into the process, and find a way that works. You can always change those words in future drafts or projects.

Billie Jean King said, "For me, losing a tennis match isn't failure, it's research." Perfect! Research is one of my favorite parts of the grant process.