Your First Freelance Assignment
Getting started in grant writing as a profession takes careful preparation.
No one will want to pay you (at least not much) to write your first grant. You’ll need one or more samples of past work to be seriously considered for any grant-writing assignment. A writing sample such as a term paper, master’s thesis, or published article will demonstrate whether or not you can write clearly and compellingly, but before an organization pays you to write a grant for them, they will want to know that you also understand the grant process and how to write for funders.
Developing a Portfolio
There are two ways you can develop a portfolio. The first is to write a sample grant proposal, using a local nonprofit that you care about as a model applicant organization. You’d do this to demonstrate that you know what you’re doing, not to sell the proposal to that organization. If the nonprofit is well-known, potential clients who read your sample will be better able to determine how accurate and persuasive it is, so choose your subject carefully. The proposal should also be addressed to a known funder in your area.
Be sure to research the funder carefully to make sure that the program for which your proposal seeks funding is something that funder typically supports. Remember to review a list of their recent grants as well as their guidelines. Also, be certain to label clearly this as a sample proposal so as not to imply that you worked for this nonprofit.
In writing this sample proposal, you’ll be at something of a disadvantage. You won’t have access to existing proposals from that nonprofit, nor will you be able to interview the people who run the program. Therefore, don’t get overly detailed in this proposal and risk stating something that someone better acquainted with the nonprofit would recognize as inaccurate.
A better way to develop a portfolio is to volunteer to create a grant proposal for a small nonprofit without a development department. This could be for your house of worship, kids’ soccer team, community chorus, hospital auxiliary, or any such institution or group. You’ll have the advantage of access to any past grants and descriptive materials they have and be able to interview the people in charge, including those who run the specific programs.
You may even be able to talk to program participants (like your kids who are on the soccer team) to receive great quotes that will enhance your proposal. Additionally, this is a proposal that you will submit and get a result—hopefully a positive one. A successful proposal will change your standing in the eyes of any potential client.
Creating a Résumé
So let’s say that you have written three grants as a volunteer for one or more groups, two of which were successful (which would be a very high success rate). How do you present your experience to potential clients? You’ll start with a résumé, listing your most recent work first and education last. In addition to the grants you’ve written, include any published articles you have written, but don’t list term papers.
You might include a master’s thesis, or even a senior thesis, if its subject relates in any way to the grant work you’re seeking. For example, if your thesis was on literacy education in immigrant communities and you’re seeking work writing grants about literacy or education, this would be a good addition. A thesis on the use of adverbs in the works of John Donne would not be helpful.
Potential clients will want to see at least one writing sample. Of course, you’ll send what you think is your best one, but also consider what you have written that is closest to that you hopefully will be writing for the client. (An environmental client will respond better to a proposal for a similar organization than to your thesis on literacy.) And naturally, a grant proposal that got funded is always a plus to include.
Some fundraisers like to make bold statements about how much “they” have raised. This annoys me because fundraising is a joint activity that depends on many things, including the relevance of the nonprofit, its past success in raising money, its standing in the community, and connections the nonprofit’s staff and board have with funders. The artful creation of grant proposals is, alas, not the most important factor—although without it, the other factors might be meaningless. Similarly, quoting your success rate can be misleading. Someone writing proposals for a major nonprofit with deep community roots and a long history of service will have a very different success rate than a grant writer raising funds for a brand new organization serving an unpopular cause.
In addition to the résumé and your writing samples, you will also need a cover letter to sell your services. So what glowing things can you say about your work in your cover letter? You can state how many proposals you’ve written and definitely highlight one or two that were successful. You can also write about what challenges you overcame in creating a proposal, such as if the nonprofit had never sought grant support, and you had to start from square one. (But be careful not to sound negative about anyone or any nonprofit you have worked with!) Writing about a great relationship you had with someone at one of your clients is good too.
And by the way—there is no need for you to say that you wrote proposals as a volunteer. That’s just between you and the group for which you did so.
The most important factor in getting a grant-writing job will be a recommendation. I wouldn’t hire you, or anyone else, without first speaking with someone you had worked for previously. I’d want to know if the working relationship went smoothly, as well as if the proposal was successful. If the reference tells me you had listened carefully, incorporated everything she or he thought was important in the proposal, met all your deadlines, and been a joy to work with, the success of the proposal will be a nonissue (assuming I think it was well-crafted).
Setting Your Fee
After getting past the screening process, you’ll be asked the tough question: How much do you charge? Professional fundraising associations all discourage or forbid grant writing based on a percentage of the grant. There are good reasons for this: (1) Funders wouldn’t make the grant if they knew that was how you were being compensated. They are making a grant to fund a program, not you. (2) Professionals get paid for their knowledge, skill, and time. As I stated above, your skill in crafting the proposal is only one reason for a proposal’s success or failure. (3) It’s usually no harder to write a grant for $100,000 than one for $1,000, so why should you be paid differently for proposals requiring equal effort?
I believe that I serve my clients and myself best by working for a fixed fee rather than on an hourly basis. For example, when you’re new to the profession, it may take you a very long time to research the funder’s requirements, whereas a highly experienced grant writer will already have that knowledge. Although the relative hourly rate of a novice versus an experienced grant writer will compensate the latter to a degree, why should an experienced grant writer be penalized for her or his inherent knowledge?
To figure out how much to charge, I do, of course, take into consideration the number of hours it will take me to complete the project. This will be based on my knowledge of the funder and the condition of the nonprofit’s documentation for the project. Ask yourself the following questions:
Is there an existing proposal from which to get started?
Has the funder made a grant to this nonprofit before?
How good is the program’s budget?
Does the budget need a narrative explanation?
Is there documentation on the program, such as program evaluations, press recognition, or client testimonials?
How available to me will the program director be?
After deciding how many hours it will take me to do the project, I tack on a couple more for-profit and as a hedge against it taking more time than I expected. Be clear with the client upfront about how many iterations your price includes. You don’t want to be doing endless edits.
Once you’ve figured out how many hours the job will take, you just multiply that number by your hourly rate to get the fixed fee. What, you might ask, should your hourly rate be? That will be determined by your level of experience and what the market will bear. I don’t think many grant writers would work for less than $25 an hour, and the most experienced might charge $100 an hour.
With that range of rates and the range of hours required to complete different proposals, a grant proposal can cost a client from a couple of hundred dollars to several thousand dollars. For more about fees, see ProfessionalGrantWriter.org. And you can find a sample spreadsheet to calculate your fee in The Wise Guide to Winning Grants (or download it at https://www.grantadviser.com/feecalc).
Not every nonprofit is ready to seek grants—they might lack experience or resources, for example. To help your potential clients get ready to fundraise (and increase the likelihood of a successful grant application), take a look at The Quick Wise Guide to Fundraising Readiness.
Grant writing can be a very rewarding profession. It’s a great feeling to know that you have helped a nonprofit serve the community, and the pay’s not bad either.
For more on being a consultant, take a look at these books.
In The Wise Guide to Winning Grants, I expanded this article into two chapters that cover legal, administrative, marketing, and other issues. (paid link)
Weiss, Alan. Million Dollar Consulting (paid link)