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Positioning Grant Writers for Success

by Tony Poderis

Unrealistic Expectations, Pay Practices That Grantors Often See As Tainting The Funding Process, And Poor Planning And Follow Through, Can Doom The Best To Failure

Some of the most heated discussion in the nonprofit world centers on grant writing. Why? Because so much is riding on it. It is the rare organization that could continue to carry out its mission anywhere near as effectively if its grants dried up, and for many, such an occurrence would sound the death knell.

Of the three basic sources of money for non-profits -- earned income, donations from individuals, and grants -- the process of getting a grant is the most puzzling. All but the smallest organizations are likely to have people on staff or use outside counsel who specialize in grant writing. The demand for skilled grant writers, coupled with the mystery that seems to surround successful grant writing, leads to some troubled areas for development professionals and non-profit organizations.

Two questions are central: How do you evaluate the performance of grant writers and how do you pay them?

How Do You Evaluate The Performance Of Grant Writers?

I have seen many resumes with statements like the following, "The grants I write are awarded funds 80% of the time." A recent query to an Internet newsgroup by an executive director asked, "My grant writer has a grant success rate of 41%. How does that compare with the standard of other organizations?"

Grant writers touting a past high percentage of grant attainment to impress potential employers are in danger of setting themselves up for future failure. How many of us would want to go into a new work environment with the expectation that 80% of the grant applications we submit would be approved? Not me!

Executive directors who see the success or failure of grant-getting as residing in the hands of the grant writer are failing to take into account something even more important than the grant application -- the purpose of the funding. Poorly delineated projects, "soft" budgets, and a host of other weaknesses cannot be overcome by a well-crafted grant proposal. The awarding of grants has more to do with function than form, and grant writers are not usually the ones who make the policy and practice recommendations that lead to a search for funding.

When it comes to measuring performance, I believe grant writers should be evaluated on the quality of their work. What I expect of a grant writer as written into a job description might read something like the following.

The grant writer will:

  1. Through interviews and other means, gather information that will easily allow him/her to grasp the concept of a project or program for which funding is sought as defined by the person responsible for carrying it out.

  2. Acquire and maintain sound knowledge and understanding of the organization, and use that knowledge and understanding to better comprehend all projects and programs for which grants will be sought and to recommend the seeking of grants.

  3. Research grant-making organizations and analyze them to identify likely funding sources for specific projects and programs.

  4. Compile, write, and edit all grant applications exhibiting strong expository writing skills and a high-level command of grammar and spelling.

  5. Review the budget of a project or program for which funding is sought and make recommendations to better present it to grant-making organizations.

  6. Develop individual grant proposals in accordance with each grant-making organization's preferences and follow exactly each grant-making organization's guidelines.

  7. Keep in contact with grant-making organizations during their review of a submitted grant application in order to be able to supply additional supportive material.

  8. Manage the process of supplying progress reports when required by a grant-making organization that has funded a project or program.

Any grant writer I hired was expected to carry out the above duties well. Doing so left me satisfied with his or her performance. Grant award or no grant award, the grant writer was successful. It was never my grant writer's job to get the grant, rather the job was to make the best case possible to appropriate funding organizations.

How Do You Pay A Grant Writer?

I recognize the difficulties that cash-strapped non-profit organizations have in providing upfront, fair compensation to consultant grant writers for the legitimate and important work they perform. In many instances, it has become a common practice to make compensation contingent of the award of a grant. Nevertheless, there are concerns this practice raises which need to be addressed.

Often, the professional ethics of those seeking contingent-pay for grant writing are brought into question. While I see problems with giving grant writers a percentage of the "take," I do not think that the willingness, or even the preference, to write grants on a commission basis automatically indicates a lack of ethics.

Rather that preach against contingent pay as unethical behavior, I prefer to share with contingent- pay seekers and providers some real-life consequences of such arrangements.

Say an organization wants someone to write a grant proposal for a project costing $118,000 and that the grant writer was to be paid a 5% commission if the grant is approved. It is almost always a requirement by funders that every dollar to be raised for and spent on projects be accounted for on a line-item basis. For many funders, the line showing $5,900 for grant-acquisition services, would be reason enough to deny the grant. It would make no difference what the commission size or even if the contingency-pay were a flat fee.

Grant-writing expenses are seen as part of an organization's operating budget. Few if any foundations, corporations, or governmental organizations are willing to make a grant when a portion of the money granted is to be used to pay a grant-writing fee. Remember the grant is being requested for a specific project, not to offset operating expenses. A nonprofit that fails to take the possibility of such a caveat into consideration may be facing a rude awakening.

There is another reason why I believe grant writers should never agree to contingency pay. It is simply not fair for hard working grant writers to receive no pay for their efforts when a grant proposal is turned down because of a bad presentation on the part of the organization, an ill timed request, or for some other reason beyond their control.

And what if the grant was to be paid out over a number of months -- or even years? Would the organization be willing to pay for the services rendered in full at the moment of grant approval? Should the grant writer be willing to accept a payment schedule in sync with that of the grant?

In the end, grant writers should be paid for their time and efforts by the hour or project, whether or not the grant is received. I question whether an organization unable to pay a fair fee for work done is likely to survive. Few non-profits forced to operate in ways not fully in accord with accepted professional standards flourish and grow.

What Should You Do Before Engaging An Outside Grant Writer?

Accomplished, experienced grant writing consultants are in demand and they are not cheap. Therefore, you should do as much of the preparation work as possible yourself. This will allow you to spend your consulting dollars where they are really needed -- the actual grant writing. Also, the better prepared you are, the more likely you will be to attract the best grant writers. Before you engage a grant writer, you should already have:

  • Defined the project or program you want to get funded.

  • Developed the essence of your "Case for Support."

  • Identified prospective grant sources for the project or program.

  • Determined who will actually solicit the funds and how they will do it.

Begin the definition process by first setting your grant-seeking priorities as they fit within your organization's long-range strategic plan and mission. The three basic areas for which you are likely to be seeking grants are:

  • To create new programs and services.

  • To support ongoing programs and services.

  • To provide annual operating funds.

Then clearly and precisely define each project or program for which you will seek grants in terms that grant-making organizations will recognize and respond to. Make sure that while you're doing this you also plan for life after the grant. How will you support the project or program in the future if it is to last longer than the timeframe covered by the grant? It's a question every grant making organization will want answered.

Be certain that you have reasonably determined in advance the scope, intent, and "case" value to the community of the project or program you wish to have funded before you engage a grant writer. If you ask the grant writer to do this, he or she will have to learn your organization's capabilities and community's needs in the specific areas. It makes no sense to pay someone on the outside to do this. Those who run your organization already have this knowledge. Also, when you meet with grant makers you will be better able to respond to questions if you have developed the case.

Identifying the sources most likely to make a grant to an organization such as yours for the purpose you have defined is crucial to the process of grant application. The public library, the Foundation Center, your trustees, and others in your community are excellent sources of this information. Check your state Attorney General's office to see if it publishes a list of foundations. Go through other non-profit organizations' annual reports to look for funders. Then be sure to contact as many foundations and other grant making organizations as possible to get their grant seekers' guidelines and grant awarding calendar.

While most experienced grant writers, particularly if they operate in your geographic and "services" areas will know such information, doing your own research will let you better direct the grant writer's efforts. It is not hard to do and will establish a process and routine you can follow in future grant- seeking opportunities. Plus the information and expertise stays in your organization.

Never ask a grant writer to be the actual solicitor of funds. You and others within your organization are the best people to present your case. Why would you want a grant writer with whom you have a temporary relationship to represent you to grant makers? Why let the outside grant writer build a personal relationship you or your trustees could be nurturing? Besides, foundations want to meet the people who operate and are committed to an organization --- not an outsider on a temporary hire.

Prepare well before you engage a grant writing consultant and you will save money while putting your organization in a better position to attain the grants for which you apply.

Okay, we've covered a lot of material here. Everything from paying and evaluating grant writers to using consultants. But by no means have we exhausted the topic of grant writers and grant writing. Neither I nor anyone else has all the answers on this subject. My goal here is to encourage you to look at grant writers, how you use them, and how you pay them within the context of:

  1. Your organization's mission.

  2. Your organization's fund-raising agenda.

  3. Grant making organizations and what they are likely to expect of you.

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About the Author:

Tony Poderis was for 20 years to 1993 Director of Development for The Cleveland Orchestra and its Summer Home, Blossom Music Center. He was responsible for Cleveland's largest annual institutional fund-raising campaign. Since 1993, Tony has been a fund-raising consultant serving all non-profit institutions' needs to develop and to maximize their potential to raise Annual, Endowment, Capital, and Sponsorship & Underwriting funds.

Tony's experiences have won him a wide audience. At many hundreds of seminars and workshops in the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico, and Mexico over the course of his 30 years in fund-raising, he has addressed every facet of raising contributed income for social service, medical, educational, religious, and cultural institutions. He is a fund-raising Speaker/Specialist consultant to the United States Information Agency and the Mexican Government.

Tony is the author of a 115 page book on fund-raising published by FundAmerica Press titled "It's a Great Day to Fund-Raise!" In this publication, he has condensed his nearly three decades of fund-raising experience to provide a concise step-by-step guide to help all volunteers and professionals be as successful as possible as they carry out their fund-raising responsibilities for their respective non-profit institutions.

Visit his web site at for more information about his book and lots of other great fundraising advice.

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