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March 31, 2009


According to the perception perpetuated by the often money-strapped nonprofit community, the grant writer is the one person who can keep the organisation afloat, or at least allow staff to embark on that next exciting project. However far from the truth this may be, stories of a single grant that makes a dream project possible only lend power to a certain mythology around grant fundraising.

So who gives out these grants? For the most part, the primary focus of institutional fundraising is foundations, which are in fact another kind of legally recognised nonprofit organisation established for the purpose of distributing funds to worthy causes. Like other nonprofits, foundations will have a governing board, usually known as the board of trustees, and an executive director or president, all of whom are usually involved in making decision about who to fund.

Whether they work as in-house grant writers or freelancers, grant writers aren't just writers -- they're also correspondents, researchers, financial managers and active participants in the program side of nonprofits. And when they finally sit down to write the grant proposal, they bring everything together to make sure it best represents the nonprofit program.

But there's more to the grant-writing profession than cranking out well-written grant proposals. There are four fundamental ongoing responsibilities of a grant writer:

  • Writing or managing the process of writing grant proposals and reports on current grants
  • Identifying prospective foundation, corporate and government grant makers and devising strategies for initiating or strengthening relationships with these funders
  • Maintaining regular correspondence and contact with current and prospective funders
  • Maintaining a calendar of proposal submission and reporting deadlines and coordinating staff involvement in meeting those deadlines

These activities fall under the rubric of institutional fundraising, referring to the range of institutions (foundations, corporations and government agencies) that give grants.

The grant writer is often the first person to document all aspects of a program or project and therefore plays an important role in helping flesh out that program. It is often the grant writer who asks the most difficult questions about the program, knowing that the grant maker will ask the same tough questions. The grant writer is therefore a crucial player in planning for the organisation, and can often lead this process.

Unlike other fund-raisers, grant writers are less likely to work directly with funders, although there are opportunities to interact with staff at foundations, government agencies and corporations with grant-making programs. Most of the time, grant writers collaborate closely with a nonprofit's leadership -- primarily the executive director, but also with other managers -- and with staff on building relationships with foundations and corporations.

Most foundation officers want to hear the inside scoop on any issue from those on the front lines, or they want the executive director to show up for a meeting to demonstrate how important the foundation is to the grant-seeking organisation. The grant writer is therefore scheduling meetings with foundations and helps staff prepare for these meetings, rather than attending them.

The grant writer also drafts most correspondence to grant makers, from thank you notes to informal updates on program activities. A good grant writer also reminds program staff to regularly pass information on to funders, from news articles in which the nonprofit is cited to legislation that a staff member helped draft.

Other roles for grant writers

Research is another key activity. In addition to interviewing program staff, grant writers are on the internet, reviewing news articles on the issues on which the nonprofit focuses, and on other grant makers' activities. Grant writers are often asked to provide detailed briefings to the executive director on potential funders, including information on current assets, stock prices of corporations with foundations, latest grants awarded, staff changes at the foundation, and any intelligence on grant makers' program planning processes.

A good grant writer will also work with the executive director on any pitch for a new project, whether on paper or for a meeting with a foundation officer. In this capacity, the grant writer coaches the executive director or program staff on buzz words or jargon that will strike a chord with a particular foundation's staff ("capacity building", "leveraging funds" and "partnerships" are popular terms among foundations), and on how to position a project as strongly matching the foundation's interests.

A grant writer is also a financial manager of sorts, working closely with a nonprofit's accountant or director of administration to develop budgets for projects and programs, and also with program staff on how they spend grants. At larger nonprofits, a finance department may produce financial documents for grant makers and employ a grants manager to oversee expenditures to grants; but more often than not, the grants writer is as knowledgeable as the organisation's leadership and financial officers about program expenses and how a particular grant ought to be spent. Number crunching is a part of the job, as are Excel spreadsheets. However, budgets and financial reports can sometimes be a welcome distraction from writing.


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