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What does a grant writer do, anyway?

The job title "grant writer" is actually kind of misleading. When you hire a grant writer, you're in fact getting a lot more than just someone to actually write the grant. Let's walk through what a good grant writer does for you from start to finish, and also what they don't do.

Step 1: Getting to know all about you

Generally, when you hire someone to work with your grants, the first thing you should expect is for them to request a fairly lengthy conversation with you, usually by phone or video call, if not in person. They'll ask you about your organization, the specific project you're hoping to have funded, how much money you'll need, how that money would be spent, and who's in charge of the project. They'll ask some detailed questions about your non-profit status, whether you have an EIN number, and what county you're located in. They'll also ask if you have a specific funding opportunity in mind and how you prefer to communicate.

Step 2: Research mode

It's generally best to hire your grant writer before you spend loads of time looking at funding opportunities, because they can actually do that work for you. After getting to know your project, the first thing most grant specialists will do is conduct research. Those of us who work with a lot of grants generally subscribe to platforms that allows us to easily search through a massive database of all the opportunities available - federal, state, local, and private. This is expensive software, but it means you can get a list of 10-12 prospects with about 4-5 hours of work, whereas if you try to find those grants yourself without using a database, it could take days. Your grant writer should let you know what grants they think are the best fit, their due dates, average amounts awarded, any restrictions on the use of funding, what the application process looks like, and the website so you can check it out yourself.

Step 3: Project collaboration

Once you choose which prospects you want to pursue, you'll want to have a lot of conversations with your grant writer to tailor the application to that particular grant. They'll be able to ensure that you're not including elements that the funders won't cover and to prevent you from suffering mission drift.

Step 4: Asking the important questions

A lot of the big grants hold webinars, which your grant writer should attend. These always answer a lot of very specific questions about the application process. If you and your organization have a question that's not answered in the request for proposals or in the webinar, your grant writer can contact the program officer to try and get an answer for you.

Step 5: Grant management

Grants are confusing. I've written some that required 45 separate attachments, including resumes, financial statements, letters of support, signed agreements, etc. It's a lot to keep track of, and that's before you even get into the narratives. A grant may require 90 pages (yes, 90 pages!) of written material, including an executive summary, a problem statement, a lit review, etc. Your grant writer should help you keep track of these documents. If they don't offer

, ask them to provide a checklist of everything you'll need as soon as you start, that way as they write, you can be tracking down the financials, letters of support, and resumes you'll need if applicable.

Step 6: Actual writing

Oh yeah. Grant writers actually write the narratives. Based on their conversations with you, the grant writer should write all the narrative portions of the grant, including executive summaries and bio sketches based on resumes. This is the part people actually think of when they hear 'grant writer,' even though it's just part of the job.

Step 7: Editing

The grant writer should edit all parts of the grant package - even those you wrote. This will help your application have a consistent tone.

Step 8: Cheerleading

Your grant writer keeps you motivated and pushes you over the finish line, even if you're kicking and screaming. That being said, they're also your reality check. If they tell you that day-after-tomorrow deadline is not realistic, it's probably wise to listen to their advice. They know their grants.

What your grant writer is NOT

1. Your project conceptualizer

I've had a few clients now say things like "I want to go for this grant. Can you come up with a project that would be a strong contender?" Please don't do this! Always match the opportunity to the project you actually want to do, not the other way around. If you're asking someone to invent a project that your team will have to carry out just so you can get money, you're not ready to be seeking funding. Have a project first, then find a way to fund it.

2. Tech support

Yes, grant writers know the big government grant submission websites. Yes, these websites are a beast. Your writer can guide you through them, but they cannot do things like get you registered or troubleshoot for you. Some clients do choose to add their writer as a team member so that they can do the actual submission, but that can be risky business. That's giving a stranger a lot of your very personal information. It's always best if the client completes the actual submission.

3. A psychic

Hands down the most irritating question I get is: "can you guarantee me a grant?" Runner up is, "what are my odds of getting this grant?" We can't know, and you should fire any writer who tries to tell you you're guaranteed a grant. We know if you have a strong concept, absolutely, and we're all out to give you the best, most refined application possible. But still, grants often get thousands of applications, and your writer can't know who your competition is or what their brilliant ideas are. Whether you get a grant or not depends only in small part on the writing itself. The bulk of the decision is made based on concept, current need, competition, and budgeting considerations. You can turn in a brilliant application and not get it just because someone else turned in a brilliant application too. That's just how it goes.

4. Someone to be paid on commission

Never offer to pay your grant writer 'if they get you the grant.' This is disrespectful of the work they put in for you, and most grants will not cover your using funds to pay your writer, so asking them to work on commission is not just shitty, it's also getting into murky ethical/legal territory. Be prepared to pay your writer on an hourly basis. Some will also negotiate a fixed price to be paid when the grant is submitted.

Remember, hiring a grant writer doesn't mean you aren't capable of writing your own grants. Most people hire folks like me because they're busy running non-profits - they have a lot of other things on their plates, and grants are very time consuming. Hiring a writer saves you a lot of time, even if it costs you some money. If you want to try and write one on your own, and I do recommend everyone try it to get a feel for the process, go for a small, private foundation grant. These tend to have the simplest applications. And if you get stuck, remember that it's ok to pull in a writer midway through - they'll love that you made the attempt!


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