Hiring an Outside Grant Writer

Ah, the convenience of having your own grant writer on staff.

Of course, few nonprofits can afford such a luxury. Instead, their development director or executive director spends inordinate amounts of time writing grant proposals, valuable time that should be spent in running the organization. The executive director of one of the largest environmental organizations that we work with spends half of her time fashioning grants, rather than developing the strategies that will determine whether the grant is successful.

When it comes down to the financials, hiring a contractor to handle your grant writing might appear to be the more expensive way to go, and you might think that giving the grant-writing ball to a staff member to run with is a preferable option. Outside grant writers can charge up to $3,000 per grant proposal for a private funding source and sometimes over $10,000 to write a federal grant proposal! Keep in mind, however, that as you invest that money into an experienced outside grant writer, the likelihood of receiving the $50,000, $100,000, even possibly millions of dollars in grant funding is greatly increased. With big bucks on the line, wouldn’t you rather have someone experienced in the technicalities of foundations, grant writing, and program budgets, processing your proposal?

Remember, though, that hiring a contract grant writer isn’t something you want to rush into. Grant writers come in all shapes and sizes, and you need to decide on the type of grant writer that will work best with your organization. Here’s a tip: Hire a grant writer on a contract basis first. Have them write one or two grant proposals, and if the relationship proves successful, consider putting them on staff – but on a part-time basis.

Suggestions for hiring a grant writer:

  1. Never ask a grant writer to solicit the funds. You and others within your organization are the best people to present your case. It’s not a good idea to give your grant writer the reins in building a relationship with potential funders. The foundation should build a relationship with you, not an outside grant writer.
  2. It’s tempting to let the grant writer plan, design and write your proposal for you. Don’t take the bait. Your staff should devote the time and energy needed for planning the project and overseeing the development of the grant proposal. The grant writer will not be able to do her/his job without a good deal of input from the staff and other stakeholders.
  3. Time is important. You cannot logically expect to hand over the guidelines of a grant to a grant writer on December 6 th when the grant proposal is due December 10 th and expect them to develop and submit a truly winning grant proposal. Most grant writers can put together a winning proposal within the time frame of one month, although federal grants take much longer (sometimes up to six months). Although, any good writer is capable of doing a rush job, the end result is usually only half as good as it could have been if the writer had been given more time to develop the proposal.
  4. While most experienced grant writers are well versed in the process of funding research, doing your own research will let you better direct the grant writer’s efforts. You will establish a process and routine that you can follow in future grant-seeking opportunities. Plus, the information and expertise stays in your organization.
  5. Think about the amount for which you are applying. Is the grant going to bring in $6,000 – and if so, should you really spend upwards of $3,000 on an outside grant writer? Smaller grants should probably be written in-house and then reviewed by an outside grant evaluator (fees for reviews and evaluations are nominal compared to the full-on writing).
  6. Before starting the hiring process, be sure you don’t have an experienced grant writer already on your board or volunteer staff who could provide the service to you at a reduced charge or pro bono.
  7. Hire a good writer. Request writing samples. Go with someone who writes clearly but passionately. Try to stay away from overly technical and/or good but ho-hum writers. Grant proposals shouldn’t read like a guide on how to install an oven; they need to eloquently but realistically, and in detail, explain your project and your need.
  8. Before delving into the project, the grant writer will have to do some investigation and research into your organization and the program for which they will be writing the request. Expect the grant writer to do the following:
    • Gather information through interviews and other means to get a good grasp on the project.
    • Acquire sound knowledge of the organization. This helps if you will retain this grant writer for the long haul, as they will then be able to help you seek other grant opportunities.
  9. The Price Tag. It’s now considered unethical and against professional standards for contract grant writers to charge fees based upon the amount of the awarded grant. It is also unfair to the grant writer not to be compensated if the grant is not awarded. Instead, the grant writer should be paid by the hour or by the project. Fees vary, but $50 to $70 per hour is reasonable.
  10. Remember first and foremost that whether you are accepted or denied funding, the “fault” does not always lie in the hands of the grant writer. Poorly conceived projects or programs and a soft budget cannot be overcome by a well-crafted grant proposal.