Many top-notch nonprofits don’t hire grant writers, assuming their program officers or some other staff member can write the grant proposals. This is a big mistake. I’ve reviewed a number of proposals written by people in organizations who are excellent in programming, but terrible writers; yet, the directors have permitted these individuals to write proposals to huge foundations asking for enormous sums of money. Moreover, many of these individuals send out the proposal without ever having another set of eyes proofread the copy for mistakes. The mind-set is this: “it’s my program, I know what we need, so I’m the best person to write the proposal.” WRONG.
Sure, anyone can string words together, but not everyone can do this at a professional level. Grant writing is a skill just like volunteer management, program development, financial management, and so on. It’s always possible to find yourself a great program officer who is also an excellent grant writer; but it’s highly atypical. Grant writers are a rare breed that simply love to take ideas and weave them into an interesting “story” that markets the organization and sells the program or project effectively.
Let’s look at some of the traits that make a great grant writer:
1. Loves to write, and can write with passion: Most private sector grant proposals need to be written with passion; the program must come alive on the page. Great grant writers “get this” and are extremely effective at telling the story so that the reader feels he/she simply MUST fund this incredible program.
2. Clear and concise: All great grant writers know that each word has to fight for the right to be on the page. Sentences must be crisp, clear, and simple.
3. Limit the jargon: A great grant writer doesn’t use jargon and flowery language (the tools of the writing devil); they know that this type of wordiness will only confuse the reader.
4. Strong knowledge of the organization and the issues: A great grant writer has a solid understanding of the goals and objectives of the organization and the issues on which they will be writing. If they don’t, they won’t be able to integrate ideas and the proposal won’t flow correctly.
5. Process oriented: A great grant writer involves the staff, board members, and volunteers to obtain a diversity of ideas and opinions. The best ideas will likely come from the program officers who are directly involved in the program. After the grant writer gathers all the necessary “input” and materials from these various members of the organization, s/he can sit down and begin to pull it all together.
6. Listens well: This is a basic trait, but sometimes overlooked. A great grant writer spends a lot of time listening to and reflecting on the needs and passions of all of the people involved in the organization: staff, board, donors, constituents, and volunteers.
7. Follows directions: A great grant writer follows grant guidelines to the tee.
8. Good researcher: A great grant writer has some background in using databases, web sites, and search engines to research funding sources. They also know enough about grants to be able to recommend funding sources off the top of their head. And many times, they’re responsible for determining how much money to ask for and whether there is a good “match” between the funding source and the organization.
9. Manage the grants process: A great grant writer knows how to develop a spreadsheet to manage the grant process so you will have a clear picture of the status of each proposal.
10. Writing samples: A great grant writer will come to a grant writing job interview with some samples tucked under his/her arm to present to you. Whether the proposals were a success is not as important as how well the narrative flows. As you review the samples, ask yourself: Is it interesting? Does it make sense? Are you engaged when reading the proposal? Do the objectives match the budget and dollars? Remember: the sample proposals s/he presents to you could very well be excellent pieces of work, but were not funded because of politics or timing.