Where to Start? Training, Career Track and Advancement Opportunities

by Vault Careers | March 31, 2009

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Most large universities and community colleges now offer courses in grant-writing, and there are numerous online tutorials through universities like the University of Michigan and Purdue. Many federal government agencies also offer online tutorials geared toward specific kinds of grants, including the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Local libraries and community centers also host in-person grant-writing courses, and books on the subject fill at least a wall-to-ceiling bookshelf. The Foundation Center -- a well-established national nonprofit that tracks foundation giving trends and provides a range of resources for grant-seekers -- offers a practical, one-day course on proposal writing for beginners in most major cities, as well as their own guide to grant-writing and several online tutorials. The American Association for Grant Professionals is developing an accreditation program for grant writers with some experience; such a certification may ultimately be useful in attracting clients if you decide to freelance.

Now educated, as a first step towards a grant-writing career, you might want to volunteer to write a grant proposal for a local nonprofit, especially one where you believe in the cause. More often than not, these groups have few paid staff and none who have significant time to raise money. A first-time grant writer is most likely to find a paying job with a small nonprofit, but many cannot afford to hire someone full-time. Even for these part-time or contract jobs, you will be expected not only to understand the fundamentals of proposal writing and foundation cultivation, but also to have a good handle on the issues the nonprofit is trying to address.

For that first grant-writing job, some other professional writing experience can be helpful, especially in a specific field or on an issue of interest to a particular nonprofit. Many nonprofit organizations publish a newsletter that they distribute to donors or members; this is one avenue for gaining experience that is applicable to grant-writing. However, not many nonprofits can afford a full-time newsletter writer. Associations with a large membership base are the exception; they often produce a lengthy newsletter or magazine.

Many first-time grant writers have either worked on the program side in some capacity, or have researched and written about a particular focus issue or service. Proposal writing can be attractive to burnt-out program staff. The pay is better, the work is steady, and the former program coordinator or director may enjoy the shift away from wrangling with ornery policymakers or overseeing the logistics for educational workshops.

While professional writers in other fields can transition into grant-writing, it is important to recognize that grant writing is more than putting words to a page.

And now what?

Like most of the other fundraising tracks, there are ample opportunities to land a grant-writing job with an established nonprofit. While small nonprofit organizations often rely on the staff supervising specific projects to write proposals for that project, most mid-size and almost all large nonprofits have at least one dedicated grant writer as part of a fully staffed fundraising team.

In large nonprofits with robust fundraising departments, there will be a team of as many as four or five grant writers, each covering a distinct portfolio of programs or managing relationships with a portfolio of grant-makers.

Universities and teaching hospitals usually have a slightly different structure. An institutional relations team raises funds for general support, endowment, capital campaigns, financial aid, and special university projects, such as an expanded athletics program for women or a new piece of medical equipment. At the same time, professors and residents are expected to devote some portion of their time to writing fundraising proposals to support their research.

Before you move on to a larger nonprofit, or go out on your own, you will need at least a year of experience in grant-writing. That experience can come in a variety of ways -- volunteering to write proposals to a group that you care about is often a good start. Most national nonprofits are looking for grant writers with at least three years of professional experience and preferably with the issue or in the field on which the nonprofit is focused. When you reach this level, the pay can be quite good (by nonprofit standards) and you will probably not have much trouble finding a job.

Management positions in grant-writing can be found with national nonprofits, most of which have a director of foundation relations or institutional giving supervising the team of grant writers. These directors are highly experienced grant writers (with at least eight years in the field) who have established relationships with foundations and other grant-makers. Directors of foundations relations are managers, supervising other grant writers in developing numerous proposals at once; for one national conservation group, the institutional fundraising team is producing more than a hundred proposals a year.

The Ultimate: Freelancing

You may be in a position to begin freelancing with only a year of grant-writing under your belt, especially if you want to devote yourself to a particular sector of nonprofits with which you have previous experience. One freelancer with a little more than a year of grant-writing experience lined up a full plate of clients within three months. In fact, grant writers will frequently start receiving requests for assistance if they are perceived to have any expertise at all, whether or not they are interested in freelancing. Most consultants cater to small and mid-size nonprofits that cannot yet afford dedicated fundraising staff.

The perks of the freelance grant writer are like those of any independent consultant -- among them the freedom to set your own hours and the chance to work on a variety of projects and with a range of clients. But you will not escape deadlines of grant-makers or those inconvenient periods in the summer and winter when foundations often expect proposals. You can choose not to take on projects at these times, but you are likely to lose a lot of clients. Your schedule will also be dictated by overwhelmed program staff -- often the case at small nonprofit groups -- who may put returning the call of the consultant at the bottom of their to-do list.

One grant writing consultant complained of regularly receiving phone calls from a particularly stressed-out staff person after nine oclock at night. Since you are likely to be working with smaller nonprofits with either fledgling fundraising departments -- or no fundraising staff at all -- there is also some risk that the organization is financially unstable. It is therefore important to negotiate contracts where you get some money up front.

Keep in mind that although it is tempting as a freelance grant writer to charge clients a percentage of grants that come in, this is considered a completely unethical practice and is discouraged by all of the associations for fundraising professionals. The draft code of ethics distributed by the American Association of Grant Professionals expressly forbids this form of compensation. Your fee should not be set in any relationship to the size of a grant request, especially since it takes as much time to write a $10,000 proposal as it does to write one for $1 million.

According to the Grantsmanship Center, most grant-writing consultants recommend setting an hourly or daily fee for services and provide an overall estimate of time it will take to complete a proposal before signing a contract. Some consultants set rates based on the size of an nonprofits budget, discounting fees for smaller organizations. There is one other important rule: a grant-writing consultant should never be paid with grant funds, unless the nonprofit has explicit approval from the grant-maker or the grant is for general capacity building. Otherwise, this is also an unethical practice and can cause a foundation to revoke a grant.

If consulting on your own feels a little daunting, there are also many small consulting firms that specialize in helping nonprofits write grant proposals and better articulate program vision and goals. Like most consultants, you will work for a number of clients at any given time, most likely to be small-to-midsize nonprofits, serving not only as a writer but also as a mentor in developing an overall strategy for obtaining grants. Like an in-house grant writer, you will help program staff to plan and document programs. In fact, most consulting firms assist nonprofits with overall strategic planning.

As is true for any freelancer, contacts and networking are critical to establishing a steady base of clients. You will also need to demonstrate an ability to bring in the money, and potential clients will probably ask how much you have raised in grant funds for other organizations. Consulting firms are usually looking for experienced grant writers, and depending upon their client base, may be looking for someone who has experience developing proposals in a particular field.

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