Three Faulty Assumptions about Grant Writers

What happens when you want to pursue grant funding, but you don't have the time or the skills to write grants?

For many nonprofits and projects, the answer is to outsource the work to a grant writer.

Recruiting a grant writer can be beneficial. By delegating the task of grant writing to someone else, the organization's staff is free to focus on their work, and the executive director can spend more of her time on program management.

While hiring a grant writer to handle the grant writing can make a lot of sense for these reasons, nonprofit and project administrators often have unrealistic expectations of what a grant writer can (and should) do. These misaligned expectations can lead to disappointment on both sides after a grant writer comes on board.

If you are a nonprofit or project administrator and are considering hiring a grant writer, there are three common assumptions about grant writers you'll want to avoid when reviewing candidates.

 1. Believing a Grant Writer's Success Rate is an Indicator of Skill

If you have ever applied for a grant writing position, it is not uncommon to be asked during the interview, "What is your success rate ?" Said another way: "Of the proposals you've written, how many were funded?"

It may seem blasphemous to say that a grant writer's success rate doesn't matter. However, a grant writer rarely writes a proposal alone, and a grant proposal receives funding for various reasons, many of which are out of the control of the grant writer.

Proposals develop in stages. Behind almost every proposal, you'll find project ideas and text contributed by more than one person. One of the roles of the grant writer is to pull the proposal sections together and edit the text so it sounds like it comes from one voice. She may also handle the copy editing. Additionally, a critical function of the grant writer is to make sure that the proposal conforms to the funder's guidelines and is responsive to the funder's questions and expressed needs. If the funder has defined a problem and requests proposals offering potential solutions, the grant writer helps ensure that a proposal stays focused and answers the questions asked.

Asking for a success rate during a hiring process makes sense in situations where there is a direct link between one person's actions and the outcome. For example,  in a sales environment, it is possible to look at a "win" (a sale) and see a direct line from the sale to a single salesperson's efforts. With grant writing, a successfully funded grant proposal never has a solid, uninterrupted line back to the grant writer. The grant writer contributes to a proposal and may control some of its development, but she is never fully responsible for the final product.

Questions relating to success rate don't produce a helpful answer about the grant writer's skills for four reasons:

  • It can be difficult to tease out how a grant writer's contributions led to the success or failure of a particular grant. An exception to this is if a grant writer failed to meet a submission deadline or some other task that is solely her responsibility.

  • Grant writers are usually not the subject-matter experts on a proposal team. The grant writer depends on those who have experience and education in the given field to write a proposal's substantive or technical content. If the core content is poorly conceived—something the grant writer may lack the capacity to determine—the proposal will not be funded. To perceive an unsuccessful proposal as a failure of the proposal writer is to overlook the team-based nature of proposal development.

  • The odds are against success. The majority of grant proposals are not funded. A foundation's or government agency's award decisions are based on a variety of factors, many of which have nothing to do with the quality of the proposal submitted. For example, a funder may announce a funding opportunity, but it could be wired for an incumbent organization. An unsuccessful proposal doesn't necessarily mean that the proposal was poorly written or did not meet the funding guidelines.

  • For many funders, the budget, not the proposal's narrative, is the tipping point in deciding whether to fund a proposal. A grant writer may have little control over the budget's development or presentation. Additionally, a grant writer cannot control or predict the behavior of the competition. A competitor organization may submit a similar proposal with a smaller budget and receive the award as a result.

If you decide to ask a grant writer for her proposal success rate during an interview and she gives you a high success rate, you'll need to ask some follow-up questions to tease out her contributions. What was her role in each proposal? How much of each grant did she write? Did she control the process? Did she build the budget?

It's possible the applicant may have some numbers to share in answer these questions. Regardless, the applicant probably will not be able to provide supporting documentation in the form of a spreadsheet listing every proposal she has ever worked on, which foundation it was submitted to, and the proposal’s outcome (i.e., funded or not funded).

What is an alternative question that might get you closer to what you need to know? The question "What is your success rate" tries to get at the question "How good are you?" For the reasons outlined above, it doesn't do a good job. Instead of asking about success rate, a way to find out whether the applicant has the experience and qualifications you seek is to ask questions such as:

  • What types of funders have you submitted grants to (government, family foundations, corporate foundations, etc.)?

  • What has your role been in the proposal process? Have you been the lead writer?

  • Can you describe how you go about preparing a proposal? What are the steps in your process to make sure a proposal is submitted on-time and meets the funder's guidelines?

Asking process questions can give you information that is more indicative of whether the person is a good fit for the job than a success-rate question, which isn't meaningful without additional information.

 2. Believing a Professional Writer Makes the Best Grant Writer

Someone who writes well can perform very well as a grant writer. However, someone who works as a grant writer may not spend much of her time writing. In fact, the bulk of her time may be spent coordinating the contributions of others, editing, and managing the submission process.

When searching for a grant writer, placing more value on writing skills than other skills, such as the ability to coordinate teams, can lead the proposal process to fall short. The final proposal might be well written if a professional writer works on it, but it may be a difficult process unless the person also has experience managing proposals.

If you need a grant writer who writes well and who also can coordinate a team, you should weight the writing skills relative to the other required skills.  Consider writing skills, but don't don't stop there.

Even if you intend to rely on the grant writer to handle the bulk of the writing, writing skills will play a larger role, but they won't be the only skills required to get the proposal ready for submission. The grant writer will still need to have the ability to manage timelines, interpret the funder's guidelines, and coordinate her work with the person preparing the budget.

How can you determine if someone can write well and handle the other parts of the process? In addition to asking for writing samples and asking about proficiency with Microsoft Word, you can add questions that get at the project coordination and information management aspects of the job. Examples of questions to ask include:

  • How have you managed your work in past positions? Have you used an information management system to coordinate your work with others on a team?

  • What is your experience working with teams and managing a team effort?

  • Have you written grants in the past? If so, were you hired just to write the grant application or were you also involved in determining where to submit applications?

  • Was it your role to develop the proposal calendar and manage the process or was that done by someone else?

3: Believing Grant Writers Need to Be Subject-Matter Experts

The role of the grant writer involves at least as much, and possibly more, facilitation of content development than actual content creation.

Just as "What is your success rate?" is often asked of applicants for grant writing positions, organizations hiring grant writers may screen applicants based their experience writing on a specific topic. They may value subject-matter experience over other experience—even significant grant writing experience—and eliminate candidates who have not written grants on a particular topic or submitted grants to specific foundations. This impulse is understandable. If a grant writer has subject-matter experience, it is clearly an added benefit. However, it isn't necessary for a grant writer to be a subject-matter expert to do her job well. Eliminating candidates just because they haven't written grants for a particular field or to particular funders can result in someone being passed over who could be a great fit for the job.

Subject matter experience is important, but it's not essential because hiring a grant writer does not eliminate the need for the organization's leadership and staff to participate in the proposal's development. An organization cannot outsource the entire grant writing process to a grant writer. The grant writer can help articulate the organization's message and ideas and put an organization's plans into writing, but the organization's staff will necessarily remain the primary source of the proposal's content.

In addition to asking an applicant if she has submitted grants to specific funders or has experience in a specific field, an organization should also try to evaluate the individual's ability to listen and collaborate. Helping staff to articulate their organization's history, direction, and goals will require these skills. The grant writer should be able to tell the organization's story, but without engagement from the leadership and staff of the organization she serves, the story could end up—sometimes inadvertently—being more fiction than fact.

Questions to ask an applicant to complement questions about subject-matter expertise include:

  • If you work with us a grant writer, you will write proposals about a subject area you may not be familiar with. If we hire you, what steps would you take to make sure that the proposal is accurate and reflective of our work?

  • Proposals can require the contributions of many people. In your past work, how have you handled the question of narrative voice and worked to make a proposal cohesive?

The Grant Writer is a Team Member

Relying too heavily on the assumptions above when hiring a grant writer can lead to qualified applicants being eliminated from consideration.

A grant writer cannot create grant proposals without significant input from staff. While the staff's proposal work may lessen with a dedicated grant writer on board, the organization's leadership and staff must participate in the proposal's development and should expect to do so. Hiring someone who can work well in a collaborative environment and help others articulate their thoughts is possibly more important than finding someone who has written grants for submission to a specific funder or on specific topics.

Second, a grant writer should have strong writing skills, but she doesn't need to be a professional writer. At least as important as writing skills, and arguably more important than subject-matter expertise, is the ability to work with others and help the organization tell its story persuasively and cohesively.

Third, the grant writer's success rate is not a good indicator of her work. To find out if someone is a good candidate for a grant writing position, ask questions to assess her knowledge and ability to perform the work. Grant writers work as a member of a team, and her success rate is a reflection of the team's performance.