The Sustainable Nonprofit: Ten Ways to Make Your Grantwriter's Time Count
The decision to use a freelance grantwriter can be a smart investment for a nonprofit organization, especially if it knows how to use that freelancer effectively.
With that in mind, here are ten tips (plus a bonus tip) to help you make the most of your freelance grantwriter's time:
1. Get organized. Make sure your grantwriter has everything she needs to be as autonomous as possible. This is likely to require a substantial amount of time in the beginning, but it will also save you time in the end. Ask your grantwriter for a checklist of things she needs, as well as a wish list. The basics include audited financial statements and organizational budgets. Go a step further and provide her with project budgets for every program or capacity-building initiative that may be eligible for the grant. Also, be sure to provide letterhead, photographs, .jpegs of logos, and anything else she'll need to tell your organization's story.
2. Single point of contact. When working with a contractor, it's always best to have a single point of contact. Make sure the individual assigned to be that person is a decision maker who can delegate effectively to every department/function within the organization. Development directors of small organizations may be too busy with special events to give grant proposals the attention they require on a regular basis. Having the grantwriter report directly to the executive director is optimal, in that it will give him/her better access to the "big picture" and help ensure that the information he or she needs is produced in a timely fashion.
3. Put it in writing. Dictating instructions or narrative to a grantwriter over the phone can be a poor use of time and increase the chances of miscommunication or error. Instead, take the time to put key ideas/information in bullet-point form for the grantwriter to elaborate on and polish. Use a descriptive subject line in e-mails so the grantwriter can quickly locate the information at crunch time. It's also a good idea to keep e-mail threads current by changing the subject line when important new information is introduced in the thread. If an attachment is included, make sure to reference it in the body of the e-mail.
4. Back off the deadline. Too often, busy organizations will wait until a deadline looms to send information to the grantwriter. Don't. Grantwriters need time to analyze the grant opportunity, write and edit the proposal, incorporate revisions and additional edits into the proposal, and package it all to best effect. Organizations lose the opportunity to put their best foot forward if they wait until the last minute. If there's going to be more than one reviewer, create a review calendar and stick to it. Or better yet, use Google docs so that the appropriate parties can participate in the group-editing process, leaving time for the grantwriter to finish it up. Be sure to note whether the grant proposal needs to be postmarked by a certain date, and note the time of day and time zone for online applications. Some foundations still require eight copies of a proposal, double-sided and hole-punched, so leave time for logistics. Last but not least, give the grantwriter a chance to give the proposal a final read-through before submitting it.
5. Provide the budget first. One of the most frustrating experiences for a grantwriter is to get a proposal ready and then receive a project budget that doesn't remotely resemble the proposal narrative. Follow the money. It's critical that the grant budget is set first, so that the narrative serves to describe the request for funds. Remember, organizations that have a solid understanding of what it really costs them to provide a service tend to do best in the quest for sustainable funding.
6. Use your grantwriter to write grants. Be careful not to let your team put the grantwriter to work doing administrative tasks. Keep in mind that she is being paid $40-$120 per hour, and while she's probably great at gently nagging team members for important information, crunching numbers, creating board rosters, and the like, you might want to use her time for writing grants.
7. Take their advice, seriously. Experienced freelance grantwriters are worth their weight in gold because they know what foundations want, and expect, to hear and can help organizations move in that direction. They also tend to be familiar with a broad range of research, the latest developments in technology, and can suggest ways that the organization can work more efficiently and effectively — but only if you ask.
8. Keep them in the know. Make sure your grantwriter receives all of your e-mail communications, the minutes to board and staff meetings, and anything else that will help him do his job. The more your grantwriter knows about your organizations and its activities, the better able he will be to keep an eye out for appropriate grant opportunities.
9. Try a retainer. Working with your grantwriter on a monthly retainer basis gives her the flexibility to respond to urgent needs or back off when things are slow. If an urgent opportunity comes up, she can devote extra hours to that particular proposal and spend fewer hours the following month so that things balance out over time. Your financial team also will appreciate having a consistent monthly dollar amount to figure into the budget planning process.
10. Project wisely. Encourage your grantwriter to write several proposals at a time. Developing a completely new proposal for every opportunity that comes up is labor intensive and inefficient, as is having your grantwriter switch his or her focus from project to project. One way to avoid this is to focus one month on general operating support grants and the next on program support, etc.
11. Leave time for follow-up calls. One of the best ways to get your grant proposals funded is to build a relationship with the funders you have targeted. Allotting time for follow-up calls, even for proposals that are declined, is one of the best investments of your grantwriter's time you can make. You might even want to consider giving your grantwriter an organizational e-mail address to use for initial inquiries and follow-ups. Relationships and personal contacts matter in development work, and the more resources your organization devotes to cultivating them, the better the chances your proposal will end up on the top of the submission pile.
— Allison Shirk
Allison Shirk is a freelance grantwriter based in the Puget Sound region. A version of this post appears on her Web site.