Grant writing is a specialty. And, as with any specialized profession, it is filled with people who have strong skills and poor skills, niche skills and generalized skills, experience and lack of experience. How could such a specialized field include people with such a range of abilities and skills? Think of it this way. Your family doctor is a specialist in the field of medicine. But she may be highly experienced in or brand new to the field of medicine, have a particular interest in geriatric or family medicine, be highly knowledgeable about or have no knowledge whatever of alternative treatments. In the same way, grant writers may have vast experience in writing large foundation grants for universities, but know nothing at all about the fundraising process. Alternatively, they may be experts in writing community grants for small non-profits, but have little knowledge of how to develop or craft major proposals. There are grant writers who are freelancers, full time employees and contract writers. Some work at a distance, some are on-site, and some come in for occasional meetings.
Before hiring a grant writer, therefore, there are a series of questions you’ll need to ask yourself – either through an internal process or in collaboration with your board.
Questions to Ask Yourself
1. Are we looking for a grant writer who will be a full time employee, a one-time freelancer, or a long-term contractor?
2. Do we know which funders are good prospects for our proposals, or do we need help in determining where the proposals should be sent?
3. Do we have a detailed understanding of the projects we’d like to fund, or do we need help in developing not just the proposal but also the projects themselves?
4. In order to write our proposals, does a writer need specific technical knowledge? For example, a grant writer who typically works with community organizations may not have the technical knowledge to write a credible proposal to fund equipment for a chemistry lab at a university.
5. Do we have internal staff who can manage the grant writer’s work, or must he/she be able to hit the ground running, put together a plan of action and carry out and/or manage the process?
6. Do we have the internal staff to manage the technical aspects of grant preparation: putting together forms and resumes, registering with the granting organization, submitting the proposal correctly, following up with any reports or record keeping?
7. How much money do we have available to pay a grant writer?
Once you’ve answered these questions, you’ll be better able to start your search for the right person to fill your needs.
For example, if you’ve determined that you have $500 to pay a grant writer who will complete a one-time project involving the development of a $10,000 proposal to a funder who has already expressed interest in your work, you are probably looking for a younger, less experienced writer who need not have knowledge of the fundraising cycle or prospect research.
On the other hand, if you’re seeking a long-term relationship with an experienced fundraiser who can do prospect research, develop a grant writing schedule, develop and prepare grants, and help you to set up a record-keeping and reporting schedule, you’re probably looking for a more seasoned individual who has solid knowledge of the fundraising process and has managed fundraising for an organization similar to yours.
Qualities to Look for in Grant Writers
Most good writers can write grant proposals, but grant writing is a fairly technical form of writing. The most important qualities of a good grant include:
- Experience. If a writer is brand new to grant preparation, he or she is learning skills on your nickel. If you anticipate a long relationship with the writer, then this may be okay; otherwise, it’s not. Ideally, you want a writer who has written proposals that are very similar to those you need to have written. In other words, if you’re an arts organization in Canada, you’ll find it tough to work with a grant writer who specializes in writing federal grant proposals for research studies in the United States.
- Good listening skills. A grant writer who has a “system” for writing proposals and is not listening to your particular story, ideas, or intentions is unlikely to write a compelling case for support or a clear plan or action.
- Solid writing skills. Grant writers do not have to be the next Hemingway. They do, however, need a very reliable ability to write grammatically and clearly, and to organize information appropriately. They need experience with writing within very strict parameters: some grant makers actually provide a word count; all provide a page count. They also need an ability to tell your story in a manner which, while compelling, is neither saccharin sweet nor misleading.
- Excellent time management skills. A good grant proposal delivered on time has a good chance of winning a grant. An excellent grant proposal delivered one day late has absolutely no chance whatever of winning a grant. Late is not acceptable.
- Flexibility. Every grant writing process is different. A grant writer who has a template and must fill it in the same way every time will have a tough time representing you
- Imagination. While grant proposals are technical documents, a good grant writer has the imagination to think through your project with you, develop a compelling case for support, and use language and examples that engage the reviewer. The goal of the proposal is to make the reviewer think “what a terrific project – and it sounds like this organization really knows what they’re doing.”
In addition, depending upon your specific needs, you may need someone who can:
- Manage the data collection and submission process
- Develop a budget
- Conduct any necessary research
Where to Look for a Grant Writer
Most organizations find their grant writers through one of these approaches:
- Ask around. Where did other local organizations find their grant writers? If the writer is a freelancer, you may be able to tap into the same person’s skills. If not, there may be local professional groups who can recommend someone to you.
- Go to your national or international organization. Whether you are a museum, a Y, an arts organization or a hospital, you are probably part of a national or international organization that caters specifically to organizations which share your mission. Virtually all national organizations have websites and marketplaces where professionals advertise their services or post job openings. Tap into those resources to find grant writers who have specific interest in and experience with your type of organization.
- Post an ad. Depending upon the level of expertise and experience you’re looking for, you can post ads in your local newspaper, publications that serve your particular type of organization, non-profit websites, or general job sites. You can also consider posting to specialized job-search websites such as idealist.org, which cater to professionals in the non-profit world.
- Tap into professional fundraising groups. The American Grant Writers Association and the Association of Fundraising Professionals are both large, specialized non-profits which offer services and job boards for grant writers and non-profits in need of grant writing professionals.
Questions to Ask and Avoid Asking a Prospective Grant Writer
When interviewing a prospective grant writer, there are certain questions that are well worth asking – and others that are actually counter-productive.
Always, without fail, ask for writing samples and references. And make sure you check the references.
Ask These Open-Ended Questions:
- What kinds of organizations have you written for in the past?
- How familiar are you with the type of projects we do?
- Tell me about a winning grant proposal that you wrote.
- What kind of process do you usually use for writing grant proposals?
- How would you go about creating a timeline for writing a grant proposal?
- How do you ensure that a grant proposal will be submitted on time, with all Is dotted a Ts crossed?
- Outside of your writing skills, what other fundraising skills or experience do you bring to the table?
- How do you charge for your work?
Avoid Asking These Problematic Questions:
- What’s your track record for winning grants? While it’s tempting to assume that a grant writer’s track record is a good way to ensure a win, the reality is that the quality of writing plays only a small part in the grant winning process. The writer has no control over the project, the staff, the non-profit’s track record or finances – all critical elements in winning a grant.
- Will you work on commission? Inexperienced non-profits often believe that it is possible to pay a grant writer out of the proceeds from a grant once it’s awarded. In fact, however, such practices are unethical and may, in some cases, lead to the retraction of the grant award. That’s because money granted to a non-profit is intended to be used only for the project described in the budget, and not for other purposes such as paying the grant writer. In addition, as mentioned before, the grant writer has very little control over the outcome of a proposal. As a professional writer, the grant writer should be paid for his work based on the effort he put out.
What to Pay a Grant Writer
The answer to this question depends entirely upon your situation. An inexperienced writer may make only $20 per hour to craft a small, local grant proposal, while a highly experienced grant writing professional may charge up to $10,000 to develop, write, and submit a major foundation proposal. In order to determine an appropriate rate, consider these issues:
- What are you asking of the grant writer? If the writer need have no particular experience or knowledge except an ability to put words on paper in a timely manner, she will certainly make less than an expert who can guide a complex process over multiple months.
- How much money will the grant proposal request? While it’s just as easy, in some ways, to ask for $1,000,000 as $1,000, the reality is that a grant proposal that wins $1,000,000 will be much more competitive and complex than a two-page letter asking for $1,000 from a local bank. You’ll need an experienced expert to pull it off successfully.
- What is the going rate in your area or field? Grant writers based in Manhattan are likely to charge less than grant writers based in Boise. Similarly, grant writers working for small, local non-profits are likely to charge less than those who consistently work for major hospitals or universities.
In the long run, your choice of a grant writer will be very personal, based on a variety of factors that are unique to your situation. Once you find the right person, however, you will be well on your way to building a solid fundraising function within your non-profit.