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Now Casting: Multiple Roles Available for Grant Writers!

The ability to play many roles will serve a grant writer well.

An actor who can play Hamlet, Willy Loman, and Felix Unger, or Lady Macbeth, Amanda Wingfield, and Lady Bracknell, all equally well, is highly valued by any theater company. Likewise, grant writers who can flawlessly execute many diverse roles bring real value to their nonprofits. Those roles bring you into contact with the dedicated people who run programs, the nonprofit’s board of directors, foundation staff and trustees, volunteers, and those served by your nonprofit.


“Grant writer” is an insufficient label for what you do. Being skilled in writing clear, concise prose that can be understood by, and appeal to, anyone with an interest in the topic at hand comes high on the list of roles at which you must excel, but there is much more involved in the grant-writing process, sometimes requiring a chameleon’s talent to fit into a variety of situations. Let’s take a look at the many roles you will be called on to play.



A good grant writer is a skilled journalist. (In fact, journalists can easily transition into grant writers, the skills sets being nearly identical.) When asked to prepare a grant proposal, you will rarely have all the information you really need at your disposal. Ferreting out the “who, what, when, where, why, and how” of a program is your first responsibility. Beware a grant-writing assignment where you are told, “The program is the same every year—just freshen up the text from last year.” Sure, it’s much easier to freshen up and reshape an existing proposal and call it a day, but to do justice to your nonprofit, you need to go deeper. It’s also unusual for a program to be run exactly the same way year to year, and if you describe past practices in a grant proposal, they will become the standard by which future results will be judged, creating a nightmare when a report is due.


Be sure to question any statistics used in past proposals. When were the stats compiled? Using the most recent statistics and research is just as important in describing the clients you serve—for example, income levels, ethnic breakdown, etc.—as it is in predicting the results of your program. Don’t let old information create incorrect assumptions that will make it impossible for your program to appear successful when you report on a grant’s impact.



As you gather information, you assume another role: researcher. Research is an often underutilized step in the grant process, though it’s the most important. Funders’ most common complaint is that grant seekers have not spent time learning about the targeted organization’s application requirements and programmatic interests. Leave out this step, and your proposal is sunk. You will, naturally, gather your prospect list by delving into foundation databases, noting who funds similar organizations, and closely reading funders’ websites.


But you need to go deeper to succeed. Who are the people connected with each foundation? What are their personal interests? Do they have any connections with your organization? Does anyone on your board know any of the foundations’ trustees?  Distributing lists of the trustees of prospective foundation funders to your board is an important step, but don’t forget to research your own board as well. You might discover valuable connections that they didn’t realize could be useful; universities they attended, clubs they belong to, and schools their children attend can all be important links to people making decisions at foundations and corporations.


Translator: Once you’ve gathered information from your nonprofit’s staff, another role frequently comes into play: translator. Both nonprofit program workers and funders have a fondness for special jargon. As the translator, you will make both groups intelligible to each other. Appropriate the funder’s jargon only enough to demonstrate that you understand its priorities and requirements. And completely avoid your nonprofit’s jargon. The last thing you want to do is make the funder feel puzzled about what you want funded. Writing in plain, straightforward English will eliminate the jargon completely. Do a great job of it and neither group will realize they speak different languages.


Storyteller. The most readable grant proposals illustrate programs with narrative stories, which is why you must also be a storyteller. Who doesn’t like a story? Stories make your programs come alive by relating what you do to help real people. Moving stories can come from anyone on your staff, but don’t forget to talk to some of the people served by your nonprofit. First-hand accounts of how you have changed a life illustrate, like no other method, the importance of what you do.


Diplomat. Being a grant writer often requires you to also be a diplomat. Board members, volunteers, and program staff will sometimes bring you names of funding prospects, some good—but more often not. You want their involvement and don’t want to discourage them in any way, but it is your job to assess which are strong prospects and let them know, in the nicest possible way, that you have stronger prospects to pursue. Try making it a “teachable moment,” and help them understand the difference between an ability to give and a proclivity to give.

Accountant. It doesn’t hurt if you can also be a mathematician or financial analyst. Even if you are lucky enough to have finance staff at your nonprofit to prepare the program and operating budgets, it remains your job to make sure the numbers add up—add up literally, of course, but also add up in relation to what you have written in the proposal. Is everything in the budget covered in the narrative (and vice versa)? Do the names of the budget categories use readily understandable terms and avoid in-house jargon? Does one large number, in income or expense, stand out and need an explanation? Clarity is just as important in the budget as, if not more important than, in the proposal narrative.

Advocate. Playing all of these roles prepares you for your most important one: an advocate for your nonprofit. This role brings together all the other parts you have played. Armed with thorough knowledge about your nonprofit and its programs, possessed with moving stories of the difference your nonprofit has made in people’s lives, and equipped with detailed information about the funder and the people associated with it, you are ready to raise significant funds to make the world a better place.


Playing the many roles of a grant writer doesn’t require costumes, mastery of an accent, or wigs and makeup, but just as an actor prepares for each role, so too does the professional grant writer, investing time, gaining the necessary skills, and devoting all of his or her energies to fulfilling the many roles required.



Another Article you might find interesting: Fundraising is for Everyone (or The Characteristics of a Good Fundraiser)



This article originally appeared in The Non-Profit Times .

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An Introduction to Grants and Freelance Grant Writing 

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