In Search of Unicorns: Finding and Hiring Outside Grantwriters Part 2

In Part 1 of this article, Wes Mukoyama of Yu-Ai Kai asked the question: "As a small agency . . . how do I look for a grantwriter? I have talked to a few who either want to be paid by the hour or receive a percentage of the grant. Any suggestions?" We discussed why hiring outside (contract) grantwriters seems to work so seldom - either for the community nonprofit or for the grantwriter. We also suggested two additional choices: hiring support staff to free up your program managers and executive director to write grants, and growing your own grantwriters.

In this issue's Part 2, we'll discuss how to find grantwriters, select them, how much to pay them and what kinds of payment arrangements to choose. (And in Unicorns Found, we profile two of these elusive creatures.)

A. How to find one

1. Use your internal channels first: ask board members, volunteers and friends if they are grantwriters, know grantwriters, or are interested in becoming grantwriters.

2. Call executive directors in your field for suggestions. "We're looking to expand our grantwriting team by working with a very part-time grantwriter. Can you suggest someone? What did she do for you? How much did you pay her? What advice would you have for me if we decide to work with her?"

3. Call recently retired executive directors and development directors. "I always admired your work at the YWCA. Here at the Bicycle Coalition we're talking with some of the same funders that you worked with and we thought that bicycling might be a cause of interest to you. I know you haven't put out a shingle announcing that you're doing grantwriting, but you've got the skills, you could make some money and it might turn out to be great for bicyclists in our town."

4. Go to networking sessions of fundraisers, such as the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) or the Foundation Center and announce that you're looking to hire a grantwriter. Many of the attendees will be fundraising consultants.

5. Ask through channels such as Young Nonprofit Professionals Network, your LinkedIn or Facebook connections. "I'mm looking for a grantwriter who is familiar with and committed to health access. Get involved with social justice health care and make $55/hour. If that's you or you know someone, please send writing sample and rate to ____."

6. Call the local technical assistance provider, United Way, a nonprofit association, or other group and ask for suggestions. Some local associations may have listservs where you can post a query.

7. You can try resource sites such as craigslist, Idealist and others. In the research for this article very few of the people we contacted through these channels called us back.

B. How to interview and select a grantwriter

1. Have the right person in the organization call prospects. Ideally the executive director or whoever will be working with the grantwriter should make the calls. Whether and how they call you back will be part of how you assess their fit with your organization.

2. Prepare your questions before you call: One way to start: "You might know that we're an organization that produces films and accompanying educational curricula on discrimination against gay and lesbian people. We currently receive about five foundation grants each year totaling about $220,000. We're looking for someone to help us by writing two or three additional foundation grants and we hear that you're wonderful. Is this something you'd be interested in talking more about?"

3. Meet in person after having reviewed writing samples. In the interview, pay as much attention to the questions that the grantwriter asks as to the answers he gives to your questions. Does he ask about your relationships with the funding targets and talk about how to incorporate those into the grantwriting process? Does she need materials that you donaEU(tm)t have already and would be time-consuming to create? Does he seem more interested in how your organization needs to change than in helping you get successful grants as you are? Is this person sensitive to your constituents and how to portray and discuss them? (Example: does the grantwriter understand the difference between "a person in a wheelchair" and "a person who uses a wheelchair"?) Do you feel comfortable revealing your fears and warts to this person?

4. Ask for two references and call them. aEUoeHow much of the proposal was written by the grantwriter and how much was drawn from your own materials? Was there the right amount of back-and-forth? What did you like best about this person's work? Worst? Do you have reservations about hiring them again? How much did you pay them and what was the fee based on? If I hire this person, what advice would you have for me?"

5. Propose an initial try-out project perhaps a short proposal for corporate support of a program for which you already have a long government proposal and contract. Agree on a fixed fee and timeline for this work.

6. Be careful with big promises: "Your organization is perfect for Bill Gates." The hope for a big grant and the desire to believe in its possibility can make it easy to let go of one's common sense judgment.

C. How much - and how - to pay a grantwriter

Contingency: Community nonprofits often hope to find a grantwriter who will work on contingency -- she will only get paid if the grant is successful. Grantwriters seldom agree to this, because there are so many variables other than the proposal quality that go into whether the grant is awarded. [Contingency fees combined with percentage compensation are often attacked as unethical when a fundraiser might be tempted to ask a major donor for a $100K gift this year instead of a $1 million bequest. Grantwriting is a different situation.]

Hourly: Most grantwriters charge by the hour. Rates range from zero for volunteer grantwriting to $150/hour or more. The experienced freelance grantwriters we interviewed averaged around $65 - $85/hour. For a first-time engagement, you should agree on a range of hours at a certain rate, such as 6-8 hours @ $45/hour, including one hour of meeting time at the beginning. It may not be easy for a grantwriter to know how much time a proposal will take.

Percentage of grant proposal: Proposals for multimillion dollar grants are typically longer and much more involved than proposals for $15,000 grants. As a result, it's understandable that grantwriters would want to be paid more for larger proposals. On the other hand, since the grantwriter'sfee can't come out of the grant award (except in rare circumstances), percentage payment doesn't have the same rationale as it does, for instance, in retail sales. Instead, agree on a range of hours it will take and the hourly rate. For example, a large, multimillion dollar government proposal may be bid at 35 hours @ $75/hour and an agreement reached where the proposal will be written for $2,275.

Should you have the grantwriter research targets as well?

The all-too-common experience for community nonprofits is that the grantwriter identifies foundations and corporations that may look like a fit according to their official guidelines, but are such long shots that paying to have proposals written to them turns out to be a waste of funds.

A better approach is for the community nonprofit to identify some potential targets (whether foundation, corporation or government) and ask the grantwriter to do phone (and web) research to explore how best to approach the target and whether it's worth it. Ask him to pay attention to other prospects that might come up in the course of his research. But unless you and the grantwriter have worked together for awhile, don't pay for a web or library search.

D. The Contract

Many experienced grantwriters will have contracts that they will suggest to you. Be sure the following elements are included:

  • Services and products to be delivered, preferably identifying the target institutions and the type of grant that will be sought
  • Deadlines for drafts and final documents, and a first check-in date
  • Materials, resources and time from your agency that the grantwriter will require
  • Fee and when it will be paid
  • Other expenses: agree that the grantwriter cannot incur any other expenses for which you will reimburse without your prior, written, specific approval
  • Confidentiality: an agreement that the grantwriter will not share information about the proposal or your organization with others
  • Independent contractor status: confirmation that the arrangement is one of independent contractor (not employee) and meets the governmental definitions for independent contractor status
  • Ownership of documents: any materials developed will be the agencyaEU(tm)s property
  • Termination of agreement: how either of you can back out

Sample grantwriter contracts

Just like looking for a good dentist, auditor or attorney, you may not get it right the first time. But a thoughtful and patient search for a grantwriter is worth the effort--finding a person who produces good proposals efficiently and who represents your organization well in writing will maximize your grantwriting efforts and benefit you, your organization and your constituents.

See also:

Comments (8)

  • Conditional payments to grant writers is risky for both sides.It is no surprise that people work harder and perform better when there is a direct correlation between their results and their reward. Executives strive to take companies to the next level in order to maximize stock option value. Salespeople go all-out to increase commission income. Following this logic, wouldn’t it be expected that nonprofits reward grant writers on the basis of approved grants rather than submitted grants? After all, why pay someone an hourly rate regardless of whether the request is granted or not?This theory is not new. It has been, and continues to be, a very controversial topic in the nonprofit arena. On one side, it is unfair to the grant writers. The Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) considers it unethical for nonprofits to compensate grant writers on a percentage arrangement tied to the grant amount. They are not commission salespeople but if they were, their commission would be due upon delivery of the work product, not when or if grants are awarded. As much as some of us would like to, we don’t pay stockbroker commissions only when trades result in capital gains; we put our trust in our brokers and pay them for their long hours of research and insightful advice. Of course, we hope they only recommend winning stocks, but we pay the commission upfront on good faith that their picks are solid. The same principle applies to grant writers; we hire their expertise in writing grant requests and must put good faith in their skills and experiences. Just like the stockbroker who cautions, “Past performance is no guarantee of future results,” grant writers cannot predict the future to determine if their proposals will be approved.Inequities aside however, let’s look at why it is simply not good business for the nonprofit to enter into these types of payment arrangements.The nonprofit could actually lose out on a grant approval if the foundation discovers that the writer is being compensated from the grant proceeds. Grant requests are written for specific purposes and foundations expect the nonprofit to apply 100% of the grant toward that approved project. Monies to pay grant writers are expected to come from operating budgets and few foundations fund general operating expenses.As well, grant writers could portray your charity in a disapproving light by irritating foundations with an onslaught of unrelenting persuasive tactics and follow-ups in an effort to speed up the review process and get their proposal approved.You may also unconsciously invite disputes between yourself and the grant writer over compensation on winning grants that are distributed over multiple periods if contingent payment arrangements were not clearly agreed upfront regarding the timing of payments under multiyear disbursements.If your charity is small and lacks sufficient operating funds to properly compensate grant writers, win the writer over to your cause as a supporter, then negotiate pro bono work until your charity becomes solidly established. You have much more to lose than to gain by paying grant writers on conditional terms, so go haggle with your stockbroker instead.

    May 31, 2008
  • This is a terrific article! As someone who has written many grants, some as a consultant, my hat is off to you. There is helpful advice for both parties in here. Thank you.

    Jun 02, 2008
  • I so enjoy reading Blue Avocado, and its predecessor, the Board Cafe. I am glad that the topic of grantwriting is being tackled. I am a project developer and grantwriter for an inner ring urban school district. I am disappointed, however, that no one googled to find the pre-eminent association for grantwriters (NOT AFP!), which is the American Association of Grant Professionals (AAGP) at

    AAGP has a STRICT Code of Ethics which prohibits accepting or paying finders' fees, commissions or percentages of compensation. AAGP also has a credential, the Grant Professional Credential (GPC) that is NOT a Certificate of Completion for a program, course or class, but an actual Credential that was developed with researchers from the University of South Florida over several years.

    Finally, many of our experienced grant writers crossed over from the operational side of non-profits because we found we like grant writing. We are all about social justice! I encourage anyone interested to look at the website and/or contact Gail Vertz, our Executive Director at

    A sample of the AAGP Code of Ethics:

    "Members, among others, are to:

    --Practice their profession with the highest sense of integrity, honesty, and truthfulness to maintain and broaden public confidence.

    --Adhere to all applicable laws and regulations in all aspects of grantsmanship.

    --Continually improve their professional knowledge and skills.

    --Promote positive relationships between grant professionals and their stakeholders.

    --Value the privacy, freedom, choice and interests of all those affected by their actions.

    --Ensure that funds are solicited according to program guidelines.

    --Adhere to acceptable means of compensation for services performed; pro bono work is encouraged.

    --Foster cultural diversity and pluralistic values and treat all people with dignity and respect.

    --Become leaders and role models in the field of grantsmanship.

    --Encourage colleagues to embrace and practice AAGP’s Code of Ethics andStandards of Professional Practice."

    Susan Pardee, MBA,

    Jun 02, 2008
  • Reader Jake Seliger has let me know about his blog, Grant Writing Confidential at If you write proposals, you'll enjoy stuff like "RFP Lunacy: Answering Repetitive and Impossible Questions."

    Jun 03, 2008
  • An easy way to find a consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area is to post your job listing for free at There are currently 67 consultants who have paid an annual membership fee to get access to the job postings, and those who feel they are qualified and who are interested will get in touch with you.

    Then you can do the due diligence to find the one that is the best fit for your organization. Mary's List has been helping to match nonprofits and consultants for 11 years!

    Mary's List is only for temporary job postings--no full time jobs please.

    Jun 03, 2008
  • Anne Hindery Camp
    June 5, 2008

    As a former grantwriter and current grant reviewer, let me add my two cents. I think the organization should write up a simple one pager (even a paragraph or two will do) that clearly spells out what the group is looking for money for. If they can’t do that they’re likely not ready for a grantwriter. Such a simple document also helps the organization keep focused on what they need monies for and helps reduce ‘smokestack’ chasing (i.e. looking for grants that don’t quite fit what you do and thus add layers of work in exchange for the award).

    I’m a little nervous about the suggestion that a board member may offer to write a grant for free, what if they're a lousy writer? For that case or in general I’d be sure to ask anyone who is interested in writing a grant for a writing sample. When I speak to grantwriting classes or trainings I encourage a couple of things: if you can’t make me want to turn to page two, forget it and keep it simple. N o need to use jargon or big words. Most grant reviewers have a stack to read so make sure you use the format they grant maker requests and by all means use spell check and check and recheck your math. I am amazed at how many grant proposals miss this.

    Another source may be your local college or university. We have a Public Administration graduate level class that help (read writes grants for) a number of smaller nonprofits each year. Even better, it’s free and supervised by the instructor who has lots of grantwriting experience.

    Jun 05, 2008
  • After many years on both sides, ie, grantwriter and Executive Director, I would like to comment on the comments. Grantwriting is hard work and requires skills. Anyone can write a grant, but not a grant that is actually funded-and that's the whole point, right?

    As for grant writers who want to change an organization: if the organization cannot produce a compelling one page summary of what they do, that organization needs to change something. If they want money, but don't have a kick-butt program, that's something that needs to change. If the RFP requires collaboration, but the organization likes being a lone wolf, that needs to change. Grantwriters don't do magic, we can't just pull funding out of a hat because you're a nice person.

    The implication that getting paid whether funded or not is that, what the heck, I got paid, why try so hard? A grant writer should very much want you to be funded. It reflects on them, too. But no doubt there are charlatans out there. Be careful.

    I suggest you find someone eperienced with and somewhat passionate about your service. I'm big on youth, self-sufficiency, service learning, volunteer involvement. Others might be big on health, or seniors, or the homeless. Some of that passion comes across in the proposal, which can be mind-numbingly dull sometimes. (I've been a reviewer, too).

    So, collaborate, develop a kick-butt program that fills a gap, and find the writer who is excited by your kick-butt program. TADA.
    Best wishes, Fireball

    Jun 10, 2008
  • Are you really looking for "grantwriters"? Maybe my comment is one about semantics, but aren't you really looking for someone who is skilled and knowledgeable enough to develop and write a compelling proposal in response to grants in order to convince funders, who actually write the grants, to "buy" what you have to offer?

    This may seem like a minor nuance but I've found that when I think in terms of developing and writing a proposal that is responsive to a grant issued by a funder looking to award grant $$$, it puts a different twist on how I approach the process.

    Jul 17, 2008

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