Find out If You Should Hire a Professional Grant Writer
Most nonprofits want to include grants from foundations or the government in their funding mix. It is a sensible thing to do, but not always easy. Researching and writing grants takes time and finely honed research and writing skills.
You may be fortunate enough to have an experienced grant writer on staff, especially if your organization has a long-standing grants program. But for many nonprofits that is not so, and it might make sense to hire a grant professional or consultant, at least for a limited time.
I asked just such an expert, Jake Seliger of Seliger Associates, about the pros and cons of hiring an outside grant writer. Here's the gist of what he told me.
The Pros of Hiring a Grants Consultant/Writer
- The grant writer will actually sit down and write the proposal: He or she is not likely to spend time in endless meetings discussing what the proposal should be like. Some organizations assign groups to write a proposal, a strategy that often ends up producing what Jake calls a "franken-proposal," cobbled together from mismatched parts.
- The job will get done on time: Consultants could not stay in business if they did not meet deadlines. Since the goal of writing proposals is to get the money, being on time is crucial. But it's surprising how many would-be grant writers fail to turn in complete and technically acceptable proposals ahead of time. A good consultant will get that proposal to you early enough for a thorough review and revisions and then to the funder by the deadline.
- You have control: You can hire the grant writer and fire her if the process doesn't go well. If you make someone an employee and discover six months later that he has time management issues, that person can often be hard to fire. Or, it can't be done quickly. If your consultant is no good, you just cancel her retainer or don't hire her for the next job.
You get the benefit of the consultant's experience: The diverse experience many consultants have can be a bonus. An expert likely knows the quirks of many funders and various systems, such as the Foundation Center's grants database or the federal government's Grants.gov. You don't want to make a million-dollar mistake because the grant writer doesn't know the ins and outs of the application system.
The Cons of Hiring a Grants Consultant/Writer
- The consultant does not have the institutional memory that an insider might have: It's great if your staff grant writer has been with you a long time or if the system he set up can be easily passed on to the next person hired. Institutional memory is something to treasure. On the other hand, if you have had staff turnover, the lack of memory could work the other way.
No one remembers when and how the last proposal was made, or where to start next time. With the churn in development staff on the rise, loss of institutional memory may be more damaging than you think. A consultant grant writer might be able to bring you up-to-speed faster than a new hire, and a consultant can often set up a grants system that works well when you do make that next hire.
But remember that a professional grant writer has several clients to work with at any given time. You might not be happy to share his attention. However, any grants professional worth his fees should be able to juggle that situation and give you all the time you need.
- You might not pick the right person: It can be tricky finding the consultant who fits with your organization, listens well, and has the sharpest skills. Look for experienced grant writers with a roster of satisfied clients. Also, sign a short-term contract so you can have a trial run before getting involved long-term.
- It may cost too much: Cost is likely the most frequent reason organizations hesitate to hire a professional grant writer. But that fear itself can trip up a nonprofit when it is reluctant to hire professional help to do the tasks that can't be handled by current staff. Don't make the mistake of assuming that a rookie grant writer can learn grant writing and research quickly.
Remember too that a staff person comes with a salary plus benefits. When considering costs, be sure that you include all of them to make a fair comparison. Never agree to pay a grant writer a percentage of a successful grant. Legitimate consultants will never suggest this since it is considered unethical by their professional associations. You'll want to set up an hourly pay arrangement, a flat fee for writing a particular grant, or a retainer for a certain time.
The bottom line about whether to hire a professional grant writer is that you need to consider these things:
- What talent you have on staff (and how much time they have to devote to grant writing).
- Your need for grants from a variety of sources, and what outside talent you can find at what cost.
Be sure to interview several grant writers before you hire, get estimates of the overall cost, and names of former and current clients. If you are starting from scratch, you can search these sources for listings of consultants, including grant writers:
- The Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) offers a Consultants Directory on its website that can be searched by specialty, name, or by geographic area.
- The Grant Professionals Association lists consultants by state.