Grant Writers Beware By Gail Shapiro

Angela Hoy’s recent article, Red Flag Phrases To Avoid In Freelance Help Wanted Ads, made me think of another – those ubiquitous ads for “grant writers.” Of course, we know they mean “grant proposal writers,” as the grant writer is the one with the money to give… but who’s quibbling?

Many of these ads seeking free or cheap labor are placed by folks who don’t know any better, not by crooks. If a small or start-up non-profit organization (NPO) is asking straight out for free help in proposal writing (and this is one case where you literally get what you pay for), that’s one thing. Writers obviously can choose to volunteer their time, either to get more experience or because they love the mission of the NPO. For those who dream of doing a few of these gigs, and then charging big bucks, it’s important to understand that grant proposal writing is not creative writing. It takes training, an intimate knowledge of all the funders and each one’s specific focus in their particular geographic area, as well as technical knowledge, both in non-profit management as well as in the “business” of the client organization.

My objections rests in the ethical issues involved. I often see ads that read: “Grant writer (sic)”…paid by percentage of monies raised.” In our field, working on a percentage basis (or small fee plus percentage) not only is not advantageous either to client or writer, but actually violates the Code of Ethics of the AFP (Association of Fundraising Professionals), to which most of us belong. So, no professional proposal writer would do this. Most charge by the hour or by the day, as it is almost impossible to tell ahead of time how long a proposal will take, particularly if one has not worked before with this client. Much depends on what the client already has prepared, how cooperative they are about getting information to the writer in a timely way, whether this proposal is a top priority for them, and so on.

Another ethical issue to consider is this: does your prospective client really need a proposal written? In more than 25 years in the business, I probably have turned away 75% of all potential customers. Why? Many non-profit Boards think finding grant money is the solution to all their funding needs and fiscal woes. Not long ago, I was called by a brand-new agency that wanted to raise $2 million to buy and renovate a building. A grant just wasn’t going to do it. In Massachusetts, where I live, the average grant is about $4000 – and there simply aren’t enough funders in any one field of interest to raise that kind of money. It wasn’t a grant this group needed at all, but a well-thought out strategic plan for development. I had to dash their dreams of quick, free money, as I let them know that 90% of all giving comes from individuals, and just 10% from grants.

Let’s say, though, that your prospective client has a good development plan, knows that a grant proposal is what they want and need, and has identified the specific funder or funders to which they will apply. Sounds good, right? Not quite yet. In order to protect yourself, and avoid a lot of aggravation, before you agree to write a grant proposal, you should be sure that the client has done all its homework. Among many other activities, the client will have:

  • Put its fiscal house in order. This means books up to date, tax returns filed, etc.
  • Budgeted enough time to do a thorough job. A good rule-of-thumb for an inexperienced proposal writer is to allow at least 80 hours to prepare a simple proposal for a corporation or foundation. Double that figure for more complicated projects or for government proposals. Halve that time if you have significant experience.
  • Allowed ample time for the finished proposal to be proofread and produced. Oh, if I had a nickel for every panicked 6 a.m. call: “There’s this GREAT grant opportunity. The proposal is due tomorrow at 5 pm. Can you help us?” And, no, flying to Washington DC to hand-deliver a proposal on the day of the deadline is not a judicious use of the non-profit’s money.
  • Made sure the program or project for which the client is requesting funds is well-thought-out, fully developed, has a feasible budget, and a good evaluation component. Missing any one of these means that, in addition to being a proposal writer, you will be expected to serve as: program developer, evaluation specialist, budget developer, hand-holder, and (unlicensed) psychologist. An experienced proposal writer normally has a functional knowledge of all of these components.
  • Has identified the potential funder. Or do they expect you also to be a researcher? That’s a fine way to earn a living, but is a different skill set.

These are just few of the activities you can check ahead of time. Unfortunately, it is not possible to identify internal organizational conflict, lack of support from the Board, and so on.

Often, new or inexperienced non-profits will ask you to send samples of previous work. While understanding their need to be sure you can do the job, your proper response is this: “The work I do for my clients is proprietary. I know you wouldn’t want me breach your privacy by using work I do for you as a sample to show others. Please allow me to supply you with a list of satisfied clients, and you can speak directly to them.” Or this: “Here is a list of foundations which have made grants to my clients.” (Be sure this is okay with the foundations – some insist on privacy and do not allow you to publicize this information.)

If the prospective client insists and the potential for work is big enough, you might visit them in person and allow them to look at (but not keep) a print copy of a successful proposal, with the name of the client and the funder blacked out.

No one said this was easy. But here’s the good news. The standard for payment is one-half upon signing the contract, and the balance upon completion – unless it is a very long or complicated job (such as a Federal proposal) in which case you should request payment at specified benchmarks. The rates for a self-employed, experienced, successful proposal writer in large metropolitan areas is about $800 to $1000 a day, or $100 to $125 an hour – and we’re worth it!

Gail Shapiro currently is developing an online course in grant proposal writing for beginners, while simultaneously preparing for her daughter’s March 12 wedding, and attempting to finish her newest book, A Pocketful of Change: How Your Charitable Gifts Can Improve the World, Solve a Problem, or Transform a Life – Including Your Own. A Charitable Giving Consultant, Gail helps individuals, families, and small business owners match their charitable gifts with their goals. She offers grant proposal writing and strategic planning services to non-profit organizations. She lectures and consults on fund development, financial management and philanthropy. In her volunteer life, Gail is the founder and President of Womankind Educational and Resource Center in Wayland, and is the co-creator of Womankind’s Financial Literacy Project. She is the editor of and contributing author to Money Order: The Money Management Guide for Women. Named by President Bush as a Daily Point of Light in 2002 for her many years of volunteer service, Gail holds a B.A. from Framingham State College, and an Ed. M. from Harvard University. Contact her at 508-655-4473 or Her web address is: