My new book, Writing With a Mission: How to Create a Successful Career as a Grant Writer” will be available in just a few short days (September 9th). This book is the book that Bruce (my co-author) and I wish we had when we were at the beginning of our careers as grant writers and nonprofit professionals.
We’ve written it to give you an insider’s look at what it’s like to be an effective grant writer, what skills you’ll need, and how to get your foot in the door. With so many people either looking to cultivate new skills to make themselves more valuable at their place of employment or strike out on an altogether new career path, we think that this book can be a practical tool for you to uplevel your career options.
Having said that, we thought we’d give you a little preview of the book itself so you can see why we think it’s such a great addition to your bookshelf. Below you’ll find a section of Chapter 3: “Why Grant Writing? What Does a Grant Writer Even Do?”. (Note that the following is not the complete section. It’s just a teaser for your reading enjoyment!)
What does a grant writer do?
That’s a good question, too. Being a grant writer involves much more than writing. See below for an overview of a grant writer’s typical duties:
The vast majority of grant funders, whether they are government or private funders, have one thing in common – they award grants only for specific purposes.
If, for example, a foundation states they only support programs benefiting children undergoing cancer treatment, then nonprofits in the animal welfare sector need not apply.
If a funder gives grants only for items that can be “seen, felt, or touched” such as equipment or appliances, then your organization should not be asking them to help pay for staff salaries.
So, a big part of a grant writer’s job is finding prospective funders whose interests, eligibility requirements, and guidelines fit what the grant writer’s organization needs.
If, for example, you are employed by a nonprofit organization that is building a new emergency shelter for homeless adults, and your boss tells you to find funders who will help cover the cost of building the shelter, you need to evaluate prospective funders based on factors such as the following:
- Whether they give grants in your geographic area. Many funders have defined geographic areas in which they give. They do this for multiple reasons such as keeping the number of grant proposals they get to a more manageable number.
- Whether they are willing to help cover capital costs. Some funders will not support capital projects like building a shelter.
- Whether they have an interest in supporting your general type of nonprofit organization (a social services organization in this example).
- Whether they have an interest in supporting programs benefiting the population you serve.
- Whether the funders’ timelines for when they want applications submitted and give grant awards are consistent with your project’s timeline. This is important because funders seldom give grants to cover costs your organization has already incurred.
Research continues to play an important role once you are writing a proposal. Most grant applications ask you to provide a “statement of need,” where you cite data showing the need for a program or project like yours. Finding the best and most relevant, up-to-date data to cite requires diligence on the grant writer’s part.
Initiating and maintaining relationships with prospective or actual funders
The quality of your writing and grant applications affects whether your organization receives grants.
However, fundraising of any sort, whether it is grant writing or another type of fundraising, requires you to build and sustain relationships with prospective and actual funders. You may be attracted to the solitary nature of writing alone at your desk all day. But if you ignore the power of relationships in securing grant awards, you do so at your peril.
The nature of these relationships may vary widely from one funder to the next.
Some funders do not wish to receive emails or phone calls from prospective applicants. Obviously, it will be difficult or impossible to establish any kind of relationship with these people. In cases like that, you will have to submit your grant request “cold” without having touched base with the funder beforehand. When this happens, your ability to be concise while still conveying the importance of your organization’s need and how it aligns with that grant maker’s priorities is of paramount importance.
Government funders may have strict rules concerning applicants’ contact with them prior to submitting an application. To ensure the transparency and fairness of the application process, they may only allow you to submit questions via email prior to a stated deadline. Then, the government entity’s responses to all questions can be made available to all prospective applicants.
At the other end of the scale, some foundations will consider your grant request only if you have talked to them first.
The lesson here is to do your homework. Find out how the funder does or does not want to be contacted and then do what they have asked.
The nature of your interaction with funders may vary once a grant is awarded, too. Some funders only want a written follow-up report and nothing else. Other funders may take a very hands-on role in the project they funded. Many funders fall somewhere between these two bookends.
So, put simply, your job is to initiate and maintain relationships with prospective or actual funders in accordance with how they want, or how they seem to want the relationship to look.
Writing and editing
Then, there is the actual writing component of grant writing.
In reality, you may edit as much as you write. Many funders tend to want the same types of information, even if their requirements, guidelines, and application formats vary from one another.
If the organization where you are hired has a history of applying for grants, they probably already have templates of the organization’s history, the statement of need, descriptions of existing programs, and so on. In this case, a significant part of your writing may consist of modifying this existing material to fit the funder’s word or character limits and to speak to that funder’s unique interests.
You also must ensure all information presented is up to date. You do not want to present the number of clients your program served two years ago if a more recent number is available. You should not cite research, studies, or statistics that are woefully out of date, either.
You will have to create material from scratch if the organization has no history of applying for grants, if a new program or project is the focus of the proposal, or if an existing program has never been a focus of past grant applications.
You need to periodically look at your existing grant application narratives and see where you can strengthen your organization’s “unique selling proposition.” Did another organization’s similar program close, and now you’re the only organization offering this type of program in your city? Does your overall sales pitch generally pass the “who cares” test? Does your narrative feel stale? If the narrative feels stale to you, funders who read your proposals may feel the same way.
You may be wondering what exactly a grant proposal is supposed to consist of.
Many, but not all funders tell you specifically what they want to see in your grant requests. Grant proposals can range in length from just a 1-page letter to multiple pages of narrative plus attachments consisting of budgets and other documents required by the funder.
The short one-page letter type of applications are not necessarily easier to write. You must put a lot of thought into how to make your case with such a severe space limit!
Some funders who want specific information may ask you to respond to questions such as “provide a brief description of your program,” and leave it up to you to provide an adequate amount of detail.
Some funders, particularly government funders, may ask a series of very specific questions to ensure your project is likely to succeed and consistent with the purpose of the grant. Many funders, particularly government funders, use a point system to score and rank order the grant applications they receive. Several of those funders provide applicants with very specific criteria that must be met for each section of the application to earn points.
Other funders fall somewhere between these two extremes. But to one extent or another, you can typically expect to provide most or all of the following items or information in a grant proposal:
- A cover letter, usually signed by the executive director or someone with the authority to enter the organization into a binding agreement.
- An executive summary, typically one page or less, describing the key points contained within your grant proposal.
- The organization’s mission statement
- An overview of the organization, providing information such as the organization’s history, current programs, qualifications, the number of staff or volunteers, and the annual budget amount.
- A statement of need showing why the program or project is needed.
- A project or program description.
- A description of how exactly the grant funds will be used.
- Evaluation criteria – what goals and objectives will show whether the program or project has been successful?
- Budget narratives elaborating upon the program/project budget and/or explaining the reasons for any deficits.
- How your organization will be collaborating with other organizations.
- How your organization plans to sustain the project or program beyond the current grant period.
Some funders may require more extensive information above and beyond these items. But this list gives you at least a basic overview of what you will be writing.
Once a grant is awarded, you must ensure the grant is being used for the purpose described in the grant proposal.
Foundations have missions just like your nonprofit organization has a mission. Many foundations have trust documents indicating how the foundation is supposed to carry out its philanthropy. You, the grant writer, must make sure your organization honors its commitment to advancing the funder’s purpose.
You may have co-workers who do not understand this. Let’s suppose your organization requests a grant to purchase new kitchen equipment and a grant is awarded for that purpose. However, there was a 6-month gap between the time the grant application was submitted and when the grant check arrived. Six months is a lot of time for new needs to crop up at any nonprofit organization. During that 6-month gap, an aging roof at one of your organization’s facilities has been identified as a critical need. When the grant check arrives, the operations director wants to use the grant to pay for a new roof instead of the kitchen equipment.
Like most nonprofit staff members, the operations director means well, is simply trying to address critical needs on limited funds, and when the grant check arrives, has decided the new roof is now the more urgent need.
As the grant writer, you are responsible for preventing this diversion of funds from happening. The funder did not give you a grant to replace a roof. To use a grant for a purpose other than what you told them, you must get the funder’s permission, which may or may not be given.
Government funders typically oversee their grantees more closely than private funders do. Nevertheless, you need to make sure your organization remains in compliance with the terms of any government grant received. Do not assume that your colleagues know the terms of the grant as well as you do. Being a grant writer often means that you have to be the “grant police” in your organization, too.
At some point after the grant is awarded, you will be responsible for providing the funder with a follow-up report. Government funders may have rather extensive reporting requirements. They may require you to compile certain data and track your progress toward meeting various outcomes (often the outcomes you stated in your original proposal).
Some foundations may have very specific reporting requirements, too, although they will probably be less demanding and extensive than what you will typically see with government funders.
Other foundations do not formally require grantees to send them a follow-up report. However, you should send them one anyway. If the grant supported a project being carried out over a long period of time, such as constructing a new building, you should send them occasional updates about the progress of the project or program.
Funders have a right to know how their support made an impact. You never want your funders to feel like you are treating them like an ATM.
Unless they specifically forbid you from contacting them apart from application submissions, which is rare, you should make a point of staying in touch with them outside of applying for grants, too. In fact, we recommend scheduling some touchpoints on your calendar to remind you to send emails, notes, updates, and even holiday cards. All of these small efforts add up to keep you top-of-mind and in the good graces of your funders.
Writing With a Mission will be available to purchase starting September 9th! Mark your calendar now!