Grant me this one question.
June 8, 2005 10:03 PM   Subscribe

So I have some questions about grant writing. I recently became curious in earning some extra cash by writing grants, and I am interested to hear any tips/advice/warnings or otherwise from you all...

I have a friend who has many contacts with non-profits in the area, and she suggested I volunteer my services to learn the fundamentals and get some experience. Having just begun to explore this possibility, and knowing there are plenty of web resources out there for me to digest, I thought I would get some straight up advice from those of you with experience in grant writing as a part or full time job.

Is it incredibly tedious? Is there viscious competition? What's to be expected in terms of compensation compared with the number of hours necessary to complete a standard grant request?

Any sort of guidance you have would be much appreciated.
posted by brheavy to Writing & Language (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Very competitive, very difficult to break into (at least here in Portland), and very insular. One good book is here. Larissa was one of the development consultants at a non-profit I worked for and set us up to write in house grant applications pretty well.

Also check to see if there is a Development Association (non-profit fundraisers are usually called "Developmet" directors) that you can join or attend meetings. That is where you'll get 90% of the work and contacts. Hard, long work but can be lucrative once you get a good track record.
posted by karmaville at 10:32 PM on June 8, 2005

I worked in non-profit development (public radio) for 3 years.

There are lots of successful freelancers in grant writing but I don't recall that I ever met one who didn't start out writing grants as a full-time employee. Without experience your chances of breaking into the field are very slim. I doubt many non-profits would let an unexperienced writer work on a grant even as a volunteer, but honestly I never saw the situation come up. The majority of freelancers I worked with also had specialized education in grant writing.

As work goes it is a lot like other technical or academic writing. It is pretty dry and restricted in form, tone and content. Not terrible, but it wasn't what I would call fun. It is competitive. The kinds of people who end up working for non-profits just seem to have a higher than usual percentage of people who pine to be their own bosses. The freelancers I worked with charged hourly rates, which varied widely, depending primarily on their experience/track record.
posted by nanojath at 10:59 PM on June 8, 2005

I write grants for my agency.. It requires a deep knowledge of the mission of the agency, a knowledge of available funding sources, and an ability to match the mission to the possible funding source .

I would never have a "volunteer" write grants unless they had a proven track record (as nanojath said), too much is at stake. I don't want someone sending out something under our letterhead that doesn't represent the agency well and may hinder my chances down the road with that funding source

It took me years to learn how to do this well (under the mentorship of someone who had done it for 15 years or so and pretty much re-wrote everything I did for the first 5 years).
And, YES it is very competitive, and more so every single day!

And, often consultant grant writers are paid on a commission basis, only if they produce.... I manage about a 75% average on grants I know well (renewal of funding, local entities that know the agency, etc), about 10% on grants that are new and/or unknown funding sources (if they are local, more like about 1% if they are statewide or national funding sources). It is unlikely that someone would pay you by the hour for this.

I wouldn't recommend it unless you're going to pursue this as a full time profession.
posted by HuronBob at 5:35 AM on June 9, 2005

I also write grants as part of my work with a non-profit. The only volunteers that participate in grant writing are those that are long-time and very responsible, or Board members, for the reasons that HuronBob mentions. The only way I would consider having a new or outside volunteer participate in grantwriting for us would be if they had a particularly good set of connections with the grant review teams or the program managers of the various funding agencies I would be applying to. Otherwise, no way - too much is on the line to risk closing off potential funding avenues.

It is tedious, but most of the work comes from doing your research, and designing an application or project proposal that both meets your organization's mission/vision/values and meets the grantor's funding priorities. Everything follows from that, and designing detailed workplans and budgets are always time consuming. Large granting organizations that I have applied to sometimes have application processes that take upwards of 40 or 50 person hours to complete. This doesn't strike me as an area that lends itself well to freelance work (in the sense of picking up a few hours here or there). The only consultants I know that do this do it full-time, and they have to be excellent at what they do to make even a hard living at it.
posted by Cyrie at 5:56 AM on June 9, 2005

I'm a grant writer in Minneapolis... I don't have experience freelancing grants, though I think if you can find a way to make it work with a organization, go for it. When I was applying, most orgs wanted proven experience fundraising--I finally broke in because I have experience writing persuasively (marketing) and they were willing to teach me. MPLS has a Council on Foundations that sponsors a Grantseeking for Beginners conference that was hugely valuable when I was starting. A similar course and lots of background reading would really help.

Knowing the organization's history, mission, vision, programs, future, challenges etc is imperative, as is a very clear sense of what your funders want--we depend on frequent contact with foundation staff allies as their interests and responsibilities to their boards change. Would you be meeting with funders yourself, or would program staff conduct these meetings? Writing grants for funders with established ties to the org, or seeking new sources of funding? Large government grants or tiny project grants from community or family trusts? Do you have a database to track deadlines and reports? Would you also be writing reports on work completed due to funders? In charge of follow up and relationship-building with funders?

It's also important to keep in mind that no foundation or funder will allow you write the costs of grantseeking into the proposal, meaning you're SOL for your time if the grant isn't awarded. Making sure you get paid by the proposal completed, not by projects awarded, is key, particularly because funders don't often grant the total amount requested. Requesting a percentage of a $100,000 grant can get ugly fast if the fdn grants you a quarter of the request.
posted by hamster at 9:21 AM on June 9, 2005

I write Teaching American History grants both for my own college and as a consultant for other universities. It is indeed very competitive for these million dollar grants, and only after I successfully wrote two for my own school did the calls to consult start coming in. This year I am involved in four.

All that said, it isn't rocket science either. If you are a compelling writer and a close student of what has worked in the past you can do it. When you have located a grant you want to pursue, you contact the granting agency and ask for copies of past successful proposals. They will almost always gladly comply, they want to give away their money. Read the proposals carefully, and see if you can make yours sound similar. Grant writing is not some arcane dark art, and it isn't compiling bullshit either, it is basic composition coupled with an understanding of the parties involved.

The trick is writing those first few. If you are involved in any sort of community or non-profit groups right now, consider their needs and strengths. Then start googling about and find smaller grant opportunities that might be useful (and yet not vital, for the reasons other posters have given) for them.

My email is in the profile if you have other questions.
posted by LarryC at 10:13 AM on June 9, 2005

Response by poster: Thank you all. I appreciate your thoughtful responses to my questions.
posted by brheavy at 1:10 PM on June 9, 2005

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