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Ten Tips From a Grant Insider.

October 28, 2009

Perusing the Craigslist job ads is a bit of a hobby of mine, though I can’t exactly explain why. I do lots of freelance stuff and currently work as a grant consultant for a firm in DC. Every so often I look at the listing for grant writers and usually I shake my head.

It seems the work of grant writers is misunderstood and often under appreciated, based on what many listing demand of their grant writers. Okay, so here are some tips for non profit orgs looking to hire a grant professional.

1. Do your research before attempting to hire a grant writer
When I say “research” that’s exactly what I mean. Research everything. The agencies in your area who are doing similar work, the funders you wish to attract and of course, the rates of grant writers in your area. If you want an experienced grant professional, you will need to pay the market rate. Some of us take on pro-bono work, but it’s the exception and not generally the rule. If you think you’re going to need the services of a grant professional, then start budgeting for it. If you can’t afford the going rates for an experienced grant professional, then try out a newbie. Everyone has to start somewhere, and unfortunately, in this very trying economy fundraisers with a proven track record can expect to get the top rate for their services.

2. Grant Writers are paid for services, NOT outcomes.
This is very important. So often I am approached about writing a grant for an organization and they offer to pay me a commission based on the grant award. This is a major NO NO. Not only does it devalue the work of quality grant writers, it also tells funders that you do not keep your word. When you request money for programming you are signing the contract with the donor that you will use the money ONLY for the requested purpose. Grant writing is not a part of the programming any more than the stamps, ink and paper used to write the grant are. If a grant writer agrees to this kind of arrangement they have marked themselves as an amateur at best and unethical at worst. Just as you pay a surgeon for their services regardless of the outcome of the surgery, so it is with a grant writing professional.

3. There are lots of reasons why your proposal didn’t get funded and this is usually NOT the fault of the grant writer.

Even the most compelling proposals don’t get funded. That’s just the way it goes. There can be many things going on behind the scenes. Sometimes it is as simple as the donor not being interested in funding another community garden or at-risk-youth after school program. Or it could be the donor did a cursory search of other agencies in your area doing similar work and didn’t find your need compelling or urgent. Or they just didn’t like your project or your org. That happens more than most people realize. But hopefully, if you’re doing thorough research you’re not running into too many donors who don’t like your ideas.

4. If you have ever messed up a grant good luck trying to get another program funded.

If you fudged a report, forgot to show up for a donor’s pancake breakfast or used the money to pay your grant writer it doesn’t matter how amazing your grant professional is in all likelihood you won’t get funding. Donors talk. Believe me, THEY TALK. Again, this isn’t the fault of the grant writer.

5. Money chasing programming is always a mistake
This happens a lot. An org will see there is a 250k grant for some program they don’t have, but they could really use the money. They quickly try to put together some slapdash program and chase the money only to be annoyed when their proposal ends up in the circular file. Donors almost always can spot this. Don’t do it.

6. Grant proposals are really simple documents if one reads the directions.

It is amazing how many people do not read the submission instructions. They see money they want and to hell with things like requirements and qualifications. Your Executive Director must be a person of color? Who cares, we want that 150k grant. Your org must have a board of directors comprised solely of peers. What? And so forth. Follow the directions. If the directions say the proposal must be written in yellow crayon, you better get yourself a stack of them. Everything is there for a reason. Ignore it at your own peril.

7. Sometimes the only person who cares about your project is you.

The reality is some programs/projects are sexier than others. If your org’s operation model is in the stone age you better get 2.0 if you want anyone’s cash. Cutting edge, timely and sustainable programming is what gets funded. If your agency hasn’t done a needs assessment since it was founded, you better start drafting one.

8. Your agency’s reputation among the population it serves is more important than the skill of your grant writer.

The first thing I do when I consult with an agency is talk to folks receiving services. If the bulk of the feedback is negative, I report my findings and wish them the best in their search for another grant writer. If the population you serve doesn’t believe in your work, funders aren’t going to either. It’s as simple as that.

9. Funding searches are a lot easier when you’re in the zone.

Everyone loves a winner! When your agency has great press, is doing engaging and progressive work and meeting the needs of the population it serves, everyone’s going to want to come to your dance parties. Nobody wants to deal with some agency on its way down, which of course is the time when many frantically send out machine gun funding requests. Do amazing work; meet the needs of your population and the money will flow. It’s kind of like dating.

10. Send your donors hand written thank you notes.

In the age of email, text and all that chow chow, the art of a hand written note is nearly lost. Donors LOVE these. Send them when you do actually score a grant. Send them updates every month. Send them pictures of you spending their money judiciously. Send them cupcakes baked by the grateful population you serve. Whatever. Show gratitude to the people who fund your programs. That goes a long way to building lasting relationships with engaged donors.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. redlami permalink*
    October 29, 2009 7:12 am

    I’ve worked for a few grant-supported and federally-funded organizations that were successful because they managed to get money to extend existing capabilities. Taking on something brand new means you have to hire or train and put new systems into place. And nobody wants to fund you to keep doing what you’re already doing.

    So the trick seems to be putting a “new and improved” spin on what might be a modest offshoot into a new realm that makes use of your existing staff and infrastructure.

  2. October 29, 2009 11:26 am

    One of the best models I have observed is the “expanded program” model. When folks are doing aggressive needs assessments and actively incorporating feedback from the populations they serve, they naturally expand useful programming and discard or consolidate ineffective programs.

    I think there is space to create brand new programming, but again, this requires extensive planning and creative repurposing of existing resources. Put the new programming in place, let it thrive and then seek out funding.

  3. October 31, 2009 3:54 pm

    My #1 tip for folks who want to ‘get into the grantwriting game’ (as it’s been phrased to me *eyeroll*) is Read the Directions, then, read the directions, and finally, read the directions. The ones who don’t get it get miffed because they think I’m keeping some great grantwriting secret from them.

    And I’m totally pen and cool writing pad obsessed myself. I think we might have been seperated at birth.

  4. October 31, 2009 3:54 pm

    Argh! Separated, not…oh hell.

  5. October 31, 2009 6:29 pm

    Girl, you ain’t never lied!


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