How To Make a Career Out of Grantwriting

November 19, 2008


“All work is empty save when there is love, for work is love made visible.”

 — Kahlil Gibran




            Can you imagine getting paid to significantly confront the atrocities and flaws plaguing our world; such as poverty, war, crime/violence, addictions, domestic abuse, AIDS and other health-related issues, orphans, starvation, rape, gender issues, environmental issues, housing and population concerns, human rights, quality education, etc.?  Can you imagine that your gift for writing can be used to directly benefit thousands, or even millions, of suffering people all over the globe?  One of the easiest and most tangible ways you can use your literary skills to improve the conditions on this planet is to write grant, or funding, proposals for the non-profit sector.  The non-profit sector is a vital part of global economy and the demand for non-profit sector services is constant.  Therefore, there is an expansive, international market for grant writers and depending on the size of the organization you serve there are substantial economic benefits for you.


What exactly is “grant writing”?


            Understand that the very nature of the non-profit sector is cause-driven, idealistic, and all services and resources are procured and maintained via donations and income-generation schemes, of various means.  The bulk of non-profit sector fundraising is securing grants from local, national and international foundations, companies, trusts, and public and civil society agencies.  Therefore, every non-profit organization needs a grant writer, either freelance, contractual, part-time, or even full-time.  Large international development agencies (i.e., Oxfam, Save the Children, UNICEF, Peace Corps, etc.) have entire grant writing teams, or departments.


            A grant is a substantial, usually long-term or time-bound, commitment of funds, resources or gifts-in-kind from one agency (trust, company, etc.) to a non-profit organization.  In order to secure a grant, one must perform three essential tasks:


1.      Research:  Research potential donor agencies and identify a “match.”  For example, one could expect Tobacco Companies to consider funding Cancer research; however, one could not expect the Elton John AIDS Foundation to consider funding Cancer research.  (Explicit research instruction will be covered in Part 3 of the series.)

2.      Query:  Once a “suspect” donor agency has been identified, the grant writer must “query” the potential donor.  This is usually a single page letter or email that briefly introduces the non-profit organization and requests grant application guidelines, forms, instructions, and general criteria.  (Query instruction will be covered in Part 4 of the series.)

3.      The Proposal:  Following any instructions of the potential donor agency, the grant writer must clearly communicate with the non-profit employer, and then compose a comprehensive proposal to the donor agency with the sole objective of “selling” the cause of the non-profit employer and securing the funds/resources/gifts-in-kind requested in the proposal.  Proposal styles and formats greatly vary, depending on the guidelines or application forms of donor agencies; however, there is a universal format.  (Grant writing instruction will be covered in Part 5 of the series.)


Who exactly are seeking grant writers?


            There is a wide spectrum of organizations and agencies that regularly seek freelance, contractual, part-time and full-time grant writers. 


·         International Development Agencies; such as:  Peace Corps, Oxfam, Volunteers Overseas Service (British version of the Peace Corps), UNICEF, USAID, etc.

·         National Development Agencies; such as:  VISTA, “Points of Light Foundation”, Boy/Girl Scouts, etc.

·         International, national and local non-profit organizations, such as:  Habitat for Humanity International, GreenPeace, Amnesty International, MADD, HealthCrisis Network, etc.  Causes range from environmental issues to poverty reduction; AIDS to Cerebral Palsy; education to micro-enterprise; drug abuse to domestic abuse; crime reduction to peace.  (Part 2 of the series will provide a detailed list with links to target these organizations.)

·         Churches and faith-based organizations; such as:  World Vision International, Sisters of the Presentation, Buddhist Monasteries, etc.

·         Educational Institutions and Research Facilities

·         Healthcare Institutions and Organizations

·         Political Parties, Associations and Lobby Groups

·         Local Civil Society Groups; such as:  The Rotary Club, the Lion’s Club, sports’ leagues, Neighborhood Watch, etc.

·         Individuals seeking research, writing, film, and arts grants


How do I start?!


            I suggest you start by reading the rest of this series, for more information about targeting your clients, research, query composition, and how to write a basic grant proposal.  Following this series, do your own additional research about the non-profit sector (how it works), fundraising in general, grant writing instructional texts and samples, and how to write effective proposals.  There is a myriad of valuable, resourceful materials available on the Internet, in your local library, and especially, at your regional Grants Library.


            Secondly, I suggest you select the “cause” or field that most interests/affects you; preferably, an issue that intimately concerns you and/or your family and loved ones.  For example, if you or a loved one has suffered due to the irresponsibility of a drunk driver, or you have experience living with an alcoholic, you should consider “alcoholism” as your “cause” or field.  An intimate relationship with your selected “cause” will manifest itself in your dedication to the work and the quality of your proposals.  You must believe in the mission and vision of your employer in order to write effectively, see the tangible results of your work, and secure future grant writing opportunities. 


            Thirdly, once you have identified your “cause”, or “causes” (feel free to be open to various fields—the more causes you authentically support, the more writing opportunities.)  I suggest you research which local non-profit agencies address the issues of your selected fields first.  Assuming you have never written a grant proposal before, I would suggest you VOLUNTEER your grant writing services to a local agency, in order to get experience.  Like all writers, a grant writer needs a grant portfolio.  Instead of a document citing your published materials, the non-profit sector wants to see your grant writing success rate and whom you have served.  Note:  Depending on your grant writing success rate within your volunteer work, you may have to volunteer for a short while in order to build up your grant portfolio. 


            Once you have successfully secured a grant or two (and in the non-profit sector:  Size does matter!), you update your CV to include these achievements and then you have two choices:


1.      Selectively target non-profit agencies (locally, nationally, or even internationally) that address the issues of your “causes” and actively promote yourself and your proposal writing skills.

2.      Actively seek job adverts for “Grant Writer Needed”.  (Details as to where to locate these ads will be covered in Part 2 of the series.)


What are my working options?


            Grant writing can be done at home or in the organization’s offices; this is between you and the organization.  Grant writing can be freelance, contractual, part-time, or full-time; again, this is between you and the employer.  There are several payment options which include the following:


·         Percentage of the funds you raise (negotiated between you and employer before work begins and you must have a contingency plan in the event a proposal fails)

·         Flat fee, upfront and partial payment deposit– directly proportional to size of the grant proposal

·         Hourly billing

·         Front deposit and then percentage of funds your raise

·         Part-time or full-time salary, as advertised by the employer

·         Most payments are negotiable


            However, it is important to note here that despite your Pulitzer-prize winning proposal, external circumstances often adversely affect the success of your proposal.  For example, you write an exceptional proposal to a company and one month later, the company suffers a catastrophic fall in stocks.  This could result in rejection of your proposal.  Last I read, 1 in 10 grant proposals is successful; but recall the Law of Averages.  Therefore, you must carefully consider the organization you serve—have they easily obtained grants in the past?  Do they have a solid reputation, history and credibility in the community they serve?  Do they have a “good record” with past funders?  Are they duplicating services already available in the area, or are their services unique?  Are their financial and legal documents/processes transparent?   Is there solid infrastructure in the organization?  Do you have a contingency plan in the event of an unsuccessful proposal?  Would you donate money to them?!


            Despite the risk of unsuccessful proposals, there is a constant need for grant writers, a huge diverse market of potential employers, a flexibility in work environment and payment schemes not usually permitted in the corporate world, and the potential to make a very good, stable income writing.  However, I believe the most critical pay-off, is that at the end of the day, you know your writing skills are being used to improve the state of the world.  How many people can say that?


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