Ethics. It’s a subject that makes some people squeamish, but it’s also an incredibly important one. Yes, even for grant writing.
See, grant writing has its own guiding set of principles and ethics and those who want to engage in grant writing as a professional (or as part of their job duties) would do well to be aware of some do’s and don’ts. After all, this particular set of knowledge could keep your organization and yourself out of some pretty hot water!
Read on for the top 6 things I think you need to know in order to be an ethical grant writer:
1. Make sure the information you present is accurate
This first tip extends to everything you write in a grant, from the proposed activities and mission all the way down to nitty gritty details like evaluation plans, budgets, and even bios for key staff. If you present your program, your organization, or its finances in a less than truthful light, it could lead to your grant funding being revoked once the grantmaker learns the truth (and they will).
What’s worse is that you will likely have ruined your chances of ever getting another grant from that funder, and you can bet that word will spread within the grants community. This tip is #1 because it’s consequences can be quite far-reaching.
In other words: don’t fudge things. It’s not worth it. Make absolutely sure that the information you include in your proposals is truthful, accurate, and true to the spirit of your organization.
2. Obey the Law (and other rules & regulations)
I can practically hear you groaning at me through the computer screen. Yes, telling you to obey the law is a no-brainer. But you’d be surprised how many nonprofits unwittingly get themselves into trouble on this one.
You should always make sure you are aware of any applicable state and federal laws that could affect how you implement a program, manage finances, or collect data. This is especially true in the case of state or federal grants. For example, if your arts organization intends to partner with local nursing homes to deliver arts classes to Alzheimer’s patients, you better make sure that your data collection tools don’t violate HIPPA (the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act which governs patient privacy).
But actual state and federal laws are not the only thing to make yourself aware of. Regulations and rules set out by the grantmaker, other organizations you partner with, or local municipalities could also apply. As with many things in life, make sure you do your due diligence by reading all the grant application instructions, educating yourself about any local regulations that might come into play, and asking thoughtful questions of partners, lawmakers, and other relevant officials.
3. Do what you said you would do
If you write a grant and receive an award it is absolutely vital that you do exactly what you said you would do in your proposal. If you said you intend to give out 500 free tickets to a performance, then you need to do that. If you said you want to evaluate the effectiveness of an afterschool arts program by tracking the students’ grades and other outcome markers, then by gosh you better actually track those things!
As with my first tip, if you say one thing and do another chances are good that the grantmaker will find out and you could be at risk for losing those grant funds or being required to pay them back. And it’s a reputation destroyer.
At this point you may be thinking “ok, but sometimes things don’t go as planned.” You’re right. Any number of things can throw a monkey wrench into your plans. If this happens to you, you should communicate as early as possible with your grantmaker. Contact them and tell them exactly what the situation is. They can help you brainstorm solutions and if something needs to be significantly altered from the original plan, they can approve it.
Being honest and using your funder as a partner is always the best solution to dilemmas like these.
4. Don’t miss reporting deadlines
Most grants (with the exception of some very small, private/foundation grants) have reporting requirements. This means that if and when you get a grant, you will be required to submit weekly, monthly, quarterly, or annual reports demonstrating what activities have taken place, how you’ve spent grant funds, what type of impact you’re observing, and what progress you’ve made towards achieving benchmarks and goals.
When you’re writing a grant, you may be tempted to agree to any conditions if they will just give you the money. Your organization needs it, your boss is counting on you to make it happen, and you have faith that you can satisfy the grantmaker one way or another.
But let me stop you right there. Reporting requirements for grants is not a suggestion. And they definitely shouldn’t be an afterthought. When you decide to apply for a grant, pay special attention to the grant reporting requirements and schedule. Can you gather the data they want? Do you have the manpower to not only gather that data, but also put it into a usable format and make sure it’s submitted on time.
If the answer is ‘no’, then don’t even submit a proposal. Flaking out on your grant reports can damage the reputation of your nonprofit, its likelihood of getting future grants, and you may even need to repay the grant for which you’ve missed reports (yikes).
Pro Tip: Having a well-thought-out evaluation plan before you start applying for grants can not only make you more attractive to grantmakers, it can also ensure that you know what types of data gathering and reporting your organization is capable of and willing to do. If you haven’t yet, check out my blog posts on Program Design Through the Grant Lens and 5 of My Fave Tips to Help You with Program Evaluation.
5. If you’re using a consultant or freelancer, you should not make their payment contingent upon the grant award
This one is surprising for a lot of nonprofits which are unfamiliar with using grant writers. But it’s a mainstay of professional grant writing ethics that the writer should get paid for their work whether the grant proposal gets funded or not.
Think about it this way: there are a million reasons a great proposal may not get funded. The grant reviewer could be in a bad mood when they read the proposal, they could have changed their funding priorities but not made that clear on the RFP or their website, or they could have pre-emptively chosen which organizations were going to receive awards that year without making that information public (a sneaky practice that happens often).
None of those scenarios are a grant writer’s fault. And in the meantime, a grant writer has spent untold hours researching the grant opportunity, crafting a well-written proposal, checking facts and plans, collecting data and research to support their case, and editing the final proposal. This work is detailed, time-consuming, and valuable. And it deserves to be paid regardless of the outcome.
This is why many grantmakers don’t like to see nonprofits include consultant fees in program budgets. They don’t want to encourage nonpayment of that person if the grant isn’t funded and it doesn’t usually reflect wise use of resources anyway.
This list is not exhaustive, but I do think if you follow these 5 principles you’ll manage to avoid 99% of the grant writing pitfalls you could otherwise fall into. For a more comprehensive analysis of grant writing ethics, please take a look at the Grant Professionals Association’s Ethical Guidelines.
If you are a grant writer, I also highly recommend that you join GPA. They have national and local chapters and are an invaluable source for professional development and learning. You can find more information about joining GPA here. (And by the way, this post was not sponsored or influenced in any way by GPA. I just believe in what they do.)
I’ve also created a Grant Ethics Poster printout for you. I don’t believe you’d ever do anything unethical, but it’s still a great reminder for everyone at your org to do what’s right and keep your nonprofit in the good graces of your funders!
Get your copy here and don’t forget to share this blog article!