(if you can find one)

by David Tandet


Finding a great grant writer is like winning the grand slam . . .

. . . because there really is no training ground for grant writers out there.

There are no minor leagues, and relatively few decent classes. The process of training a grant writer is difficult, expensive and risky.

That’s why astute agencies and programs – once they find a grant writer they can work with that can win – do everything they can to hold on to that individual. They never let that person go. And they never, ever, share that grant writer with anyone else.

Good grant writers are in such high demand that the competition to find and even steal them from other agencies is fierce. Often times, he who has the best headhunter and top offer wins.

But first . . .

The issue of compatibility with your staff

You may have found a very talented grant writer with a very impressive winning record, but what if he can’t work with your staff? What if, for whatever reason, the chemistry is wrong? What if the grant writer’s working style is drastically different from the working style and philosophy of your agency and its staff?

You’re pretty much out of luck, because incompatibility is a sure signpost for failure.

Now, always remembering how crucial that compatibility component is, let’s move on to

Nine reasons a good or even great grant writer is in your nonprofit’s reach

Getting the best proposal possible will take the best writer you can find. Good grant writers command a pretty decent rate. So your first question when looking for a good grant writing candidate is probably this: how can we hire a top-of-the-list grant writer within our limited budget? Consider these points:

1. As you should be well aware, grant writers love an underdog. And maybe, in addition to your clientele, your own agency is a bit of an underdog. That is, you are determined to succeed against tremendous odds.

Is your case good? If your bottom line is delivering the best human service – not personal gain or ego fulfillment – and if you breathe life by living example into that quote about having the mental fortitude to do the job and take the job but not yourself too seriously, then you are not out of the running.

2. Most great grant writers I know donate many hours a year (gratis and at reduced rates) to help underdogs with a good cause.

3. Astute grant writers know that if your cause is good, your staff is good and the grant is good, the result will be success.

Success means that you grow as an agency. Growth means needing and winning more grants. If you’re loyal – and you should be – that means more work for the grant writer down the road.

4. You can also get several great grants out of a writer for the price of one. You can hire the best to write one grant and then use that writer’s words and research as boilerplate for future proposals. While I of course caution you to not simply cut and paste but to adapt their words to the specific needs of each grant, at least you will have a solid, professional foundation to work from.

5. You can also use a great grant writer as an editor, after the first draft. In other words, involve her in the planning and outlining process. Then you and your staff go ahead and do the grunt work, the first words-on-page draft that follows the planned structure. Following that, have the writer come in and do an edit and a polish. This also solves the problem of a writer being willing, but not available, to work full-time on your project.

6. Don’t be shy about being honest and asking the writer directly: “Is there a way we can benefit from your services within the parameters of our limited budget?” With a great grant writer, there is always a way.

7. Another question to ask yourself about a grant writing candidate: does he have a diversity of experience and sufficient expertise? Experience refers to several things: writing, subject matter, and populations dealt with.

Ideally, your candidate will have expertise in one or two areas and a wealth of experience in a lot of other areas.

• Does your candidate have experience writing in other disciplines and in other styles? Are samples of those writings professional, polished, clear, and effective?

• Does your candidate have experience running meetings? Running a program? Does the writer candidate have any experience or education in other disciplines that could contribute to the writing of your grant?

For example, a candidate who worked as a substitute teacher might have some insight into an educational grant that others would not. Does the candidate work exclusively with one population or can she demonstrate an ability to ascertain and address the needs of a broad spectrum of target populations?

8. Another question to ask yourself about a grant writing candidate: will he adjust his schedule to meet yours? Or will you have to adjust your schedule?

Ask about schedules. If the writer is trying to fit your project into her neat little time compartments – forget it. What you want to hear is that your prospective grant writer would like to get the assignment far enough in advance so that the writer can begin working on it sooner and avoid a last minute crush. Of course it must be recognized that there is ALWAYS a last minute rush of some sort, and the experienced grant writing candidate knows this. That’s why the good or great writer will reserve the time to exclusively work on your project as the deadline nears.

But don’t get cold feet just because a grant writer schedules several projects at the same time!

It is not uncommon for a great grant writer to be working on three or even four different projects that have approximately the same due date.

But what you need to hear is that as the deadline nears, the bottom line is this: the writer will do whatever it takes to get it done. The writer has to be in a place where a schedule can be adjusted accordingly.

9. Another question to ask yourself about a grant writing candidate: may we ask for, review, and check out your samples?

Make sure you review the candidate’s writing samples BEFORE the interview, not during or after. This will allow you ample time to review them and prepare specific questions.

Also, make sure the candidate gives you a name and phone number to call from someone who worked with her on each sample so you can call about each. Verify what contribution she made to the final product.

Ask for a variety of samples that encompass a variety of budgets and a variety of different subjects.

Also, can the candidate provide writing samples of materials other than proposals (e.g., articles, brochures, etc.)? Ask to review those.

Be warned, however: there will be some grant writers, including myself in some instances, who may ask for the professional courtesy that you only review the samples right in the interview.

That is because there are some unscrupulous creeps out there who will copy a great grant that they know is a winner, and use the research and wording for their own purposes with no intention of ever hiring the writer.

In that case you will need to allot more time for that writer’s interview slot. And you will still need to check references on those projects – and you can do that before the interview.

Any grant writer who says he wrote a grant all by himself is – to steal a phrase from screenwriter William Goldman – either lying or trying to sell you something.

The following are questions that any good grant writer worth her weight in Post-It notes HATES to be asked in an interview – and will respect you for if you ask.

These are tough questions with no right or wrong answers.

How they are answered can offer deep and clear insight into writing style and work philosophy.

Each answer makes a grant writing candidate list and prioritize what’s important.

Each answer makes a grant writing candidate honestly and objectively evaluate his or her own strengths and weaknesses, and tells you how and where someone puts the blame.

Each answer tells you whether that individual can constructively criticize him or herself and the entire team – and put a positive spin on it. Example: a candidate may honestly evaluate a shortcoming or weakness in a grant, then quickly follow it with a “But what we learned never to do again was . . .” and that’s fine. Great. Exactly what you want to hear.

Here’s a tip: decide on what you would most like to hear in the answers before you ask the questions. They’re that important. And they will reveal as much about your philosophies and priorities as they do about the candidate’s.

The top three questions I think you should ask a grant writing candidate

(After you get a satisfactory response to four other essentials about program design structure, organizational methods, and interface skills, that is.) Those four essentials:

• If we were watching you facilitate a first meeting with a new client and a group of potential partners and collaborators, what would we see?

• What to you are the essential elements and an effective structure of a Letter of Inquiry (LOI)?

• How do you go about researching a subject and how do you include those findings in the design and writing of the proposal?

• If we asked you to participate in the recruitment and hiring of an Evaluation Coordinator for this project, what questions would you ask him or her?

1. What questions would you ask a grant writer if you were interviewing grant writing candidates and why?

2. Describe the team approach/process used in your last grant effort and the role you played in that process.

3. Tell us about your most recent proposal that WAS NOT funded and why?


So how do you abuse a grant writer?

First, get in line and wait your turn.

Let the above joke be a warning: the following is written with extreme prejudice, from a grant writer’s point-of-view.

Maybe what follows is a bit slanted and overstated.

Or, you could look at it as extremely helpful. That’s because if you really want to get the most out of someone, you learn what makes him/her tick. (This section could also be called, “How To Get The Most – And Least – Out Of A Grant Writer.”)

So here’s what makes a couple of grant writers tick . . . and what really ticks us off.

Never answer a question with “because that’s how I told you to write and I’m paying you to write – that’s why.”

We’re not the stenographers. We don’t take and transcribe dictation. We use our voices to turn your ideas into the words of winning proposals.

You don’t have to agree or disagree – just understand: I doubt myself on a regular basis. That’s what a writer does.

And what does a writer do next?

Fix the product until he doesn’t doubt himself and thinks it can’t get any better . . . and that period usually lasts about five seconds.

Then we’re back to doubting ourselves and, by doing that, figuring out ways to make it better. Of the hundreds of writers I know and have interviewed I’ve only heard a couple who are completely satisfied with their projects once the final word is typed. And some are alcoholics. And the rest are never satisfied. Many, in fact, won’t even read what they’ve written. They see the mistakes and flaws. They have an urge to grab a pencil and correct, forgetting that it’s too late. I say that not looking for sympathy. Not so you’ll agree or disagree. Just so you understand.

We don’t have to like something when we’re writing it, but we do have to be in love with it. What’s the difference between like and love? For a more complete definition see Shakespeare.

From my point-of-view, when you’re in love you’re blind to all the shortcomings and only see the beauty of what you behold. When you like something, you see the flaws and, in fact, will probably never be able to look past them.

Writers have to work themselves into enough of an enthusiastic frenzy to have the energy to do an excellent job. They have to love what they are working on. But don’t lie to us. Don’t ask us to write lies.

Don’t wait until after the bidder’s conference before you decide to use a particular writer. Not unless you want to really put her at an extreme disadvantage.

Sure: you may have a staff representative who takes great notes attend the conference. Well it’s not the same thing and it’s definitely not as effective. A grant writer needs to go to the bidder’s conference of the grant he is writing. Period.

We come in contact with a lot of people who have written grants. Some will actually take us aside and let us know that they could write the one we’re working on – and could probably do a better job. That is, if they could find the time.

That’s the trick isn’t it? Amateurs try to find the time. Professionals make the time.

Writing time – as previously discussed in WRITING STYLES – is creating focused time: no distractions, no phone calls, no meetings, no office chit-chat, no life – just pure writing time.

A professional writer is paid to keep her calendar free. A professional writer is paid to budget time. A professional writer is paid to focus on one thing at a time in a concentrated manner. A professional writer is paid to create a distraction-free environment.

Sometimes we are philosophically opposed to something and just have to say, “To be honest I disagree, but if that’s the way you want to do it, that’s the way I’ll write it.”

It’s our job to provide options. It’s the client’s job to make the decisions.

In most cases, though, when we disagree or take issue with a point, it’s because we feel it is not what they are asking for in the RFP.

That argument carries more weight than anything. If we think it won’t get funded because it’s not aligned with the RFP then it’s our job to vehemently disagree.

Sometimes it gets down to crunch time and we’re the ones who have to say to the group, “stop your fighting and maneuvering and bickering and MAKE A FREAKIN’ DECISION!!!” (Okay, maybe we don’t say it exactly that way but it’s fun to fantasize.)

This is the most common one we get: we’re told that the grant we’re about to write isn’t “really that much work” because you can “just boilerplate it.” This supposedly means that all a writer has to do is cut and paste responses and sections from previously written grants into sections of new grants – and then just update the name of the program.

Say what?!

That’s like telling a teacher there’s not much for you to do: you already have plans written for the day. It’s like saying to a cop: just another routine domestic dispute call here. Or . . . or . . . or . . .

The fact is that every project is different. Every project has new requirements. And while the bulk of the information may be the same, it has to be reshaped and reworded to support the point you are making for that particular grant.


Jerry Seinfeld has a great comedy routine about paying the bill after dinner:

Went out to dinner the other night, check came at the end of the meal as it always does. Never liked the check at the end of the meal system. Because money’s a very different thing before and after you eat.

Before you eat, money has little value. When you’re hungry, you sit down in a restaurant; you’re like the ruler of an empire. You don’t care about cost. You want maximum food in minimum time.

“More drinks, appetizers, quickly, quickly. Fried things in the shape of a stick or a ball. It will be the greatest meal of our lives! We shall eat like kings and queens.”

Then after the meal, once you can’t remember ever being hungry ever in your life, you see people walking in the restaurant, you can’t believe it. “Why are these people coming in here now? I’m so full. How could they eat?”

You’ve got the pants undone, napkins destroyed . . . you never want to see food again as long as you live. That’s when the check comes. This is why people are mystified by the check. What is this? How could this be? They start passing it around the table. This can’t be right. How could this be?”

“Does this look right to you? We’re not hungry now, why are we buying all this food?”

That reminds me so much of being a grant writer. We supply the client with an estimate of the time and cost it will take to complete the grant. That is agreed upon. Planning meetings are conducted. Time has little value. We shall write the greatest grant ever! We want it all! Give it your very best! Whatever it takes! We want it all and we want it now!

Then after the grant is completed  and submitted, desks and minds are cleared. Everyone catches up on his or her sleep. Our invoice (that is within the estimated cost of course – it has to be or we lose money, not the client) is submitted and the client is mystified. What is this? How can this be? They start passing it around. This can’t be right. Does this look right to you? That seems like an awful lot for one grant. What took so long?

Why so many hours?


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