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Entering Grant Writing: How to Be Successful in a Competitive Field

September 24, 2020

At The Grant Plant, we are fortunate to do work that makes a difference in our community every day. That’s just one of the benefits of being in the grant writing field—there are many! For example, we have the opportunity to work with leaders who are passionate about problem-solving and making life better for others. Grant writing is also a wonderful way to learn new things. It’s almost like taking a mini college crash course. As we don’t specialize in any one sector, we have had the opportunity to write about everything from STEM education to social services to minority business development to the arts economy. Finally, grant writing is also a form of economic development. By bringing money into New Mexico from outside the state, we are contributing to the large-scale revitalization of our economy while also funding much-needed services.

We’re often asked how one can get into grant writing. It’s an intriguing career for many, especially those who have a natural bent toward writing, learning, and community-mindedness. In response, this article outlines some of the ABCs of grants, the grant writing process, and the characteristics and skillsets of strong grant writers in an effort to help inform those who are interested in the field.

First, understand the basics. There are many misconceptions about grants, including that they are “free money,” can fund personal ambitions, and that they are there for the taking. Often, those not well-versed in the field might think that a new organization can get a grant fairly easily from a large foundation or from a celebrity (think the Gates Foundation, or Oprah Winfrey). In reality, grants are funding sources, that, while generally non-repayable, are based on a contract between a funder and a not-for-profit agency for an agreed-upon set of services or work. They are often meant to solve problems or build on opportunities. Grants are generally made by both the government or philanthropic sectors. The government codifies its grant programs, which are created by legislation, into the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance (CFDA). Private funders typically set the priorities of their organization—which may be written into their articles of incorporation or by-laws, or decided on by the board of directors—and use these priorities to guide their funding decisions. Typically, grants are opportunities that not-for-profit entities[1] apply for—and that’s where the grant writer comes in. Grants can range from small ($500-$1,000) to multimillion-dollar opportunities. Applications might be openly solicited, or closed and by invitation only. Often, they are made as the result of a personal relationship with a philanthropic organization. Other funders issue open RFPs and any qualifying organization can apply.

It is important to know that grants are not quick funding sources. They often take months to come in. At The Grant Plant, our annual report usually comes out in September or October as we must wait for grant award notifications to slowly trickle in, months after the submission of applications from the previous calendar year. So, if a not-for-profit organization is looking to grants as a stop-gap measure, or looking to fund programs that are launching imminently, grants are usually not the best source for funding. Further, they are often not long-term funding sources. Many funders provide one- or two-year grants and expect not-for-profit organizations to find other sources of funding to sustain their programs. (Enter: The Sustainability Myth and the Nonprofit Starvation Cycle which are weighty topics and fraught with the challenges inherent in the nonprofit sector; while not by any means ideal, as a result of the temporary nature of grant funding, it is important that not-for-profits round out their funding with earned income streams, fundraisers, contracts, etc., not relying solely on grants for operating support.) Finally, grants are highly competitive. It is not unusual for only the top 1-2% of submissions for a grant opportunity to be successful. For example, we’ve had multiple instances where an award notification indicated a proposal was one of only a handful selected for funding from hundreds of other submissions.

If I’m interested in learning to apply for grant funding, where do I start? At The Grant Plant, we believe that grant success lives and dies with prospecting. It is important for a successful grant writer to have a solid understanding of how to identify potential funders that match with a not-for-profit organization’s mission. There are a number of tools out there to help identify which potential funders are aligned and have the capacity to give to your organization. Locally, we recommend Pivotal New Mexico, which maintains a funding database and provides on-the-ground expertise in grant seeking, as well as our own website, which lists high-interest grants that have been screened for NM-eligibility, and also catalogs COVID-related opportunities—a current priority for not-for-profit organizations and funders alike. On a broader scale, many organizations benefit from a subscription to Foundation Center (which is pricey, but may also be used for free at the Albuquerque Main Library), GrantStation, GrantScape, GuideStar, or any other number of resources that help you access rich data about potential funders.

When using these tools, we recommend that you look at potential funders with a lens for alignment and capacity. How much money do they have, and what is their typical grant size? Are their stated priorities aligned with mine? Have they given to similar organizations? Have they made grants in my geographic area? Don’t “wag the dog by the tail,” or in other words, don’t allow the potential availability of funding to change the strategic priorities of your organization. There is often the temptation to chase money, but it is our experience that the most successful grant recipients stick to mission-aligned opportunities.

Keep a calendar and schedule time for writing the grant. Monitor websites and listservs so you don’t miss out on opportunities, and try to plan months ahead, so that by the time your organization needs funding, grant money is already in-hand or soon to be in-hand.

Next, write the proposal. Creative + Technical Writing = Grant Writing. A skilled grant writer tells a story that is scored against a rubric for the maximum number of points. You’ll want to know your audience, and be able to tell the most compelling story about your organization and its programs that are tailored to the interests of that funder. For example, efforts to revitalize the downtown scene in a rural area can be proposed as small business development, delivering arts experiences, or rural economic activity, depending on the focus of the work and the funder.

Grant writing is different than a lot of other forms of writing. A few points of distinction include:

  • It is usually scored based on a rubric
  • There are page, word, or character limits, often delineated by section or question
  • There are usually complicated directions, with Requests for Proposals (RFPs) numbering anywhere from a few pages to more than 100 pages, and these directions must be followed “to the T” or your proposal could be rejected without even undergoing review
  • It needs to be a convincing case for your organization as a potential investee
  • It is future-focused; unlike academia or the media, it does not report on past efforts (at least not solely)—rather, it is a plan for the future to the extent that it can be imagined
  • It tends to follow a set structure that includes a need statement, program plan, goals/objectives, evaluation plan, and organizational capacity/expertise

Want to be a grant writer? We have found that there is a common set of characteristics that successful grant writers share. Some of these include:

  • Impeccable writing
  • Critical and strategic thinking skills
  • Ability to see the forest and the trees
  • Entrepreneurial
  • Results-oriented
  • Discerning
  • Superior organizing skills
  • Strong attention to detail
  • Competitive spirit
  • Loves challenges
  • Displays a relentless pursuit of perfection
  • Is able to move a work product forward in the absence of complete information (remember, you are writing about the future, so there is a level of ambiguity and best guesses involved)
  • Ability to maintain grace and humor in deadline-driven situations

It’s also helpful to have an understanding of the nonprofit sector as a whole, not-for-profit funding models, and budgeting, as well as basic graphic design/layout skills.

If that sounds like you and you want to make a difference in your own community, there are a number of ways to get started as a grant writer. If you’re a newbie, try volunteering at a nonprofit organization and assisting with their grant writing efforts, attend networking events (when they’re again available), and find related webinars. Impact & Coffee, which highlights local nonprofit organizations, is a great place to learn more about the sector locally (and is all online now during COVID). The University of New Mexico Continuing Education program has a grant writing course, the Center for Nonprofit Excellence holds workshops, and Candid has classes online. One of the best intro books to grant writing is (seriously) Grant Writing for Dummies, which was written by Bev Browning, a celebrity among the grant writing circle.

If you have some experience in the field, check out the Center for Nonprofit Excellence’s job board, which often includes positions for grant writing; monitor job sites such as ZipRecruiter, Indeed, or LinkedIn for grant writing positions; or look through GuideStar or other online data to identify nonprofits with larger budgets. These organizations often either outsource grant writing or have a staff position and might be a source of employment. The national Grant Professionals Association(GPA) also has a job board. Consider enrolling in Pivotal New Mexico’s Talent Academy, which is meant to upskill existing grant writers with the next level of training.

Finally, a few caveats. There is a lot of pressure working in the grant-seeking field as it falls in the nexus of time (i.e., deadlines) and money. It is hard to predict what is coming up; while there is some stability in annual deadlines, a new opportunity might arise that requires re-prioritization of your workload in order to meet the deadline. Also, if you are freelancing, the not-for-profit organizations that hire you need to recognize that they have to spend money to make money, and that there is no guarantee of a grant award even if you produce a high-quality proposal.

One of the most frequently asked questions we get is whether we will work for a percentage of the award. The answer is no: it is considered against the GPA code of ethics[2] because grant makers are funding an organization to do the work promised in the proposal, not provide payment for work already completed. Further, there are numerous factors that go into the consideration of a grant award, only one of which is proposal quality. For example, the geographic distribution or certain populations served within the proposed scope of work, the organization’s past track record and its financial solvency, or a personal relationship on the part of the funder and a different applicant will all be determining factors when funders decide who gets awarded and who does not.

Working for a percentage of the award becomes tricky as well when you are considering (for example) a fee of 10% of the award amount. For a $50,000 grant, is a $5,000 payment reasonable? (Maybe, depending on the complexity.) For a $1,000,000 grant, is $100,000 reasonable? (Probably not.) Further, if an organization cannot pay for you to write their grants, they are probably not positioned well to get a grant to begin with. Ultimately, the grant writer put in the work, and should get paid for a quality product.

We’d love to hear from you if you are entering the grant writing field, or if you are an experienced professional. What tips do you have to share? What were the biggest stumbling blocks to entering the field? What do you find most rewarding? As grant writers, we are able to advance the good work happening in our communities by helping to fund it. It’s an important role, and one that can be very rewarding both personally and professionally.

Contact: Erin Hielkema, Vice President, at erin@thegrantplantnm.com.

 

[1] “Not-for-profit” entities can include nonprofit organizations as well as local and state government, who are also often grant seekers. In this article, “not-for-profit” is used when speaking of all these types of agencies, whereas “nonprofit” is used when speaking specifically of private organizations with tax exemption.

[2] GPA statement “in response to a Request for Proposal requesting grant writing services for a percentage of the grant award: …The funder is awarding dollars based on several variables, including the community need, the efficacy of the project, and the organization’s capacity to implement, deliver, monitor, and sustain the project. The funder is not awarding funds based entirely on the expertise of the grant proposal developer.” See: https://grantprofessionals.org/general/custom.asp?page=ethics.

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