In Search of Unicorns: Finding & Hiring Grantwriters, Part 1

Part 1 of 2

My small agency can't afford to hire a full time fund developer. How do I look for a grant writer? I have talked to a few who either want to be paid by the hour or receive a percentage of the grant. I am perplexed. Any suggestions? --Wes Mukoyama, Yu-Ai Kai, San Jose, California

Everyone's heard of unicorns, but almost no one has ever seen one. Like Wes, almost everyone in community nonprofits thinks it would be great to have a grantwriter. But it's rare to find and work successfully with this rare creature. Why is it so hard?

In this issue of Blue Avocado we'll explore why hiring grantwriters seems to be a hit-or-miss proposition, and what to think about doing instead. In our June 1 issue, Part 2 will lay out a blueprint for finding and contracting with outside grantwriters.

Why it doesn't work very often
Community nonprofits have a harder time succeeding with grantwriters than institutions with large fundraising departments. For example, a nonprofit university seeking research grants has a well-worn groove to follow, a trove of written materials on which to draw, experienced staff for the grantwriter to work with, and can afford to pay tens of thousands of dollars per proposal.

While some community nonprofits have strong staff fundraisers and good grantseeking track records, many lack one or more of the elements (besides a grantwriter) to support successful efforts. And grantwriters can be reluctant to work with organizations that lack "readiness": good written materials, a wide reputation, established connections to funders. Even the best cook will have trouble making a delicious meal when the refrigerator is empty and the stove is broken. No wonder many grantwriters are reluctant to work with the agencies that have the fewest resources.

At the same time, nonprofits are often disappointed and frustrated with their contract grantwriters. When paying by the hour, the cost per proposal may be more than the chance of success is worth. And the grantwriter may request backup materials the agency doesn't have--and needs to come up with fast, or pay the grantwriter to produce.

And sometimes community nonprofits feel that the grantwriter is inappropriately trying to change their whole organization--its programming, mission statement, board, and messages--because otherwise "you won't get this grant."

If and when a grant is denied, it's easy to for both sides to be resentful. The grantwriter might think, "If only this agency had listened to me!" while the agency people might be thinking: "What a waste of money!" The executive director often doesn't know whether to blame herself for hiring the wrong grantwriter, or for being an agency that isn't ready to get grants.

And when good grantwriters find clients with whom they work successfully, they quickly don't have time for new clients. [Career change idea: maybe you should go into freelance grantwriting?]

When should you hire contract grantwriters?
But contracting grantwriting often does prove to be a big help to community nonprofits. What are some of the circumstances in which it is most likely to succeed?

  • Proposals for government grants and contracts and responses to RFPs often have very particular formats and requirements than an experienced grantwriter already knows. Work with someone who not only knows government funding, but knows Colorado State Department of Education or National Institutes of Health (NIH). The grantwriter may also help you identify good candidates for your organization, and do some intelligence work to see if a contract is "wired" (unofficially designated in advance for a particular agency).
  • All-volunteer organizations can consider part-time grantwriters and fundraisers as alternatives to hiring their first director.
  • If you already have good written materials you use to obtain corporate sponsorships to an event (or are stuck with some not-so-good pieces), a grantwriter can help you freshen the content, and produce more of them.
  • Although some nonprofit folks can express their ideas brilliantly in a conversation, they're frustrated when faced with putting these thoughts into proposal-like languages. In these cases, a writer--not necessarily a grantwriter--can interview program leaders using a journalistic approach, and write up staff thinking into compelling proposals.
  • If you're unfamiliar with grantseeking, consider asking a grantwriter to work with you to develop some proposals and to teach and tutor you through the grantseeking process.
  • When you're without grantwriting staff for a period of time (such as for illness), a contract grantwriter can be very helpful in an interim position to shepherd work in progress and maintain proposal production.

Working with contract grantmakers is more likely to succeed when you:

  • Already have a track record of successful grantwriting. You have written material that the grantwriter can build on. You have solid relationships with foundations and other institutions to support the proposal process.
  • 'When you're responding to government RFPs that aren't wired and have a grantwriter knowledeable in that field and familiar with that funding agency.
  • You have a track record of working successfully with consultants (it's a skill that takes experience to develop), and know how to contract with them, support them, get results from them
  • When the grantwriter is based in your area so that face-to-face meetings can occur easily, and she can visit your office to get a feel for your mission and commitment

Alternatives to hiring a contract grantwriter

Hiring support staff instead: Letting program managers write their own grant proposals brings an authentic voice to the documents, and provides your staff with a meaningful sense of investment in the proposal and the program. Learning to write proposals and work with funders is a critical skill set that they will value developing, and will result in greater bench strength in your organization. Rather than hiring an outside expert, make it possible for your inside experts to flex their fundraising muscles by hiring support staff that allow your staff leaders to shine.

Grow your own staff grantwriter: Grantwriting is a learned (not inherited!) skill, but for those who are already good writers, the process is not that hard to master. Take advantage of grantwriting and fundraising classes and mentorships in your area. Work with people who are already in tune with community nonprofits and their constituencies. And as part of the African American community, for instance, or the deaf community, you'll be growing African American and deaf grantwriters who can be parts of your leadership in ways that a contract grantwriter never can be. And finally, the newly trained grantwriter will have gained professional skills that he or she will take into both paid and volunteer work for years to come.

Next issue in Blue Avocado: How to find a contract grantwriter, contract with one, and how much to pay

Comments (21)

  • It is unethical to pay someone a percentage of a grant (or any gift) as their compensation.

    They should be paid by the hour or by a amount agreed upon in a contract.

    Please see the following web site for more information regarding ethics and compensation in fund raising.

    Also, some states require registration of fund raising consultants and solicitors. If you live in a state like Pennsylvania that requires this, make sure they are properly registered. Otherwise you and the consultant are both subject to fines.

    Dave Tinker, CFRE

    May 15, 2008
    In the article you explain that some grant writers need to be registered and in that I have a question . Is it possible to find a listing of these states and if not , would you know if Illinois is one of them?Thanks ,
    Richard S. Clarkson

    Oct 15, 2009
  • One more option, ask your funders (United Way, local Foundations, City or County staff) if they can help you. I have often provided advice and rewitten grants for small nonprofits as part of my job working for a funder. I am amazed how infrequently our funded programs ask us for help! I have worked for a variety of funders as well as nonprofits and a good funder is interested in building the capacity of local nonprofit staff to bring in new resources. But don't expect them to help if the grant is due in 24 hours.

    Also collaborative grant writing is often a good option. Bring together agencies which would be good partners on a grant, outline what each agency will contribute based on their expertise. Then one person takes the lead and gets the pieces from the others. Make sure you and your partners keep their promises! Or you could then go to the funder and ask them to take the lead on the collaborative grant. Generally you strengthen your chances of getting the grant by doing this.

    May 15, 2008
  • Re: paying a percentage of the grant. This is never, ever, ever OK. Any good grantwriter will know that is ethically wrong. Those active in the field (and I am not) will know it is specifically prohibited by the code of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

    I have written a lot of grants for my job and orgs where I volunteer, and I have also hired a grantwriter. Not worth it to work with someone who is willing to take a cut.

    Great topic, thanks.

    May 15, 2008
  • As someone who grew into being a grant writer, I could not agree more...
    A person with intimate knowledge of a program is in a much better position to speak to the needs of an agency in a grant. Many times the grant applications are very straight forward...and you can learn by doing. Time to learn is the key.

    I have also reviewed grant proposals and some foundations may even respond to an application with additional requests for more information or clarifications. That follow-up is also part of the learning process.

    My advice....JUST DO IT! pays off in the long run.

    May 15, 2008
  • Thank you for so effectively sharing both sides of the story. As a contract grant writer I enjoy working with a variety of clients and serving smaller, grassroots agencies who can't afford full-time development staff. For the same reason, I work on an hourly rate instead of charging a monthly retainer, although the retainer would probably be a smarter business move on my part.

    I am most appreciative of your explanation that not all agencies are ready for grants. I learned the hard way that a potential client is better served if I say, "No, I'm sorry, but I don't think you're fundable at this stage," rather than saying "yes" because I feel for them and then am not able to deliver successful grants. I carefully screen potential clients and won't work with an agency unless they have their house in order.

    I would also like to warn non-profits that there are many grant-writing charlatans out there charging a lot of money for poor service. Please vet candidates carefully: check references; ask for writing samples.

    You are the customer and expert for your organization and its mission. Look for a grant writer that you can partner with for the long-term and it can be a very happy and profitable collaboration.

    Happy grant writing!
    Kelly Kester-Smith
    YES! Communications

    May 15, 2008
  • Kelly,
    I am an Executive of a small non-profit that is interested in pursuing a contracted grant writer. However, in researching the best-practices, I have began to question whether our organization is ready for such a step and if we are truly fundable.
    Do you offer a preliminary screening or consulting in this area? If not, are you aware of an expert who does?
    Thank you,
    Jamie Corder
    jamie at

    Mar 11, 2009
  • Hello Jamie -
    I am a professional grantwriting consultant. I have had this discussion many times with clients and agree with the posters who are saying that many times the best thing a consultant can do for a client is tell them they are just not ready for grantwriting. In fact, I think this issue is so important that I have done workshops on the topic. Workshop attendees love the self-assessment quiz I give them at the beginning of the session, and I think you will find it very useful. It is called "Is My Organization Ready to Write Grants?" and I just uploaded it to my LinkedIn profile so you can download it. To find it, send me an invitation at LinkedIn, my name there is Julie Whelan Capell. Once we are linked, scroll about 1/2 way down my profile and in the "Files" section it is the second document.
    Of course, anyone here on Blue Avocado, if you want to download the document, find me on LinkedIn. If you mention Blue Avocado in your invitation message, I will accept the link.
    Happy Grantwriting!!

    Jul 03, 2009
  • Regarding grantwriters, it's important to know that paying according to a percentage of the grant brought in (rather than on a project or hourly basis) is not considered ethical by the Association of Fundraising Professionals.
    "Members shall not accept compensation or enter into a contract that is based on a percentage of contributions; nor shall members accept finder’s fees or contingent fees. "

    The reasons to avoid this approach are hard to explain in a comment box, but I do advise discussing the topic with an experienced fundraiser who is a member of AFP, even if the person you are considering is not a member.

    May 15, 2008
  • Thanks for all these comments! Actually, the issue of how much to pay and on what basis will be taken up in Part 2 of this article, in the June 1 issue. Not everyone agrees with NSFRE (now AFP) that contingency fundraising is unethical. I think that most of the time it is the wrong choice, but I disagree with AFP's raising it to the very strong level of unethical--bundling together contingent fundraising for million dollar bequests at universities with $400 fees for writing grant proposals for community nonprofits. But more on this next issue. And thanks to all you Commenters for helping me think about the issue more deeply. Jan

    May 16, 2008
  • If a community nonprofit feels that a grantwriter is "inappropriately trying to change their whole organization", then I would guess that person is not a good fit for the agency! However, if you carefully screened the grantwriter and are comfortable with her experience and qualifications, then it is worth it to keep an open mind and consider her questions and suggestions. I'm not suggesting you consider changing your agency's mission because a grantwriter -- or even a funder -- requests it. On the contrary! But sometimes an interested outsider with a little distance can spot inconsistencies or unanswered questions and offer advice on how to fix the problems. If she has taken the time to learn about your organization, her suggestions should be structured to build upon the strong core of your agency, not distort it. Even though the grantwriter is not paid on commission, she has a vested interest in your successful fundraising, and some experience and skills that you might not have inside your organization. Before hiring a grantwriter, another thing you might consider is whether you are open to positioning or phrasing your messages a little differently. If not, you may not be able to reap the full benefits of the grantwriter.

    May 21, 2008
  • A line of commentary about the issue of paying grant writers was recently posted at the Chronicle of Philanthropy's Give and Take blog section. One of the most interesting assertions was that many organizations should spend far more time building relationships with individual donors because that's where most of the money is coming from. This is not true of all organizations. However, in organizations where it is true, often as much of 70-80% of major contributions are coming through bequest societies. For small nonprofits with close ties to their communities, perhaps engaging professional grant writers isn't the best way for them to secure funding.On a related note, the NEA released requirements for a new play development program, requiring an applicant to supply $80,000 in matching funds. Does that sound like an opportunity for a smaller organization? Probably not - which is why many successful grant seekers are likely standing on the shoulders of giants.

    May 22, 2008
  • To help readers avoid expensive, time consuming and ineffective grantseeking activities, I believe that "WHEN" to hire a grantwriter is extremely important and needs to be emphasized. For example, let's build on this key section of the article:

    "Working with contract grantmakers [I assume you mean grantWRITERS?] is more likely to succeed WHEN you:

    "Already have a track record of successful grantwriting. You have written material that the grantwriter can build on. [AND, ESPECIALLY WHEN] You have solid relationships with foundations and other institutions to support the proposal process.

    "When you're responding to government RFPs that aren't wired and have a grantwriter knowledeable in that field."

    I suggest that the most appropriate times to hire a grantwriter are WHEN:
    1. You have determined that your organization is qualified to compete for a formal, not-wired RFP -- government or non-government.
    2. You have spoken in person or by phone or had an email exchange with one or more grantmakers, after sending them a 2-3 page description of your project -- and have been okay'd to submit a proposal.

    I also suggest that it is usually not appropriate or effective to contract with grantwriters to write proposals which are then going to be sent unsolicited to groups of funding sources that have never contacted before and addressed to persons that have never heard of the organizations before.

    Jun 03, 2008
  • I look forward to the next article dealing with payment arrangements. I too believe that AFR went too far is declaring any percentage payments as unethical. I have used this arrangement successfully with freelance grant writers and both sides were quite pleased with the results. All that it does is force us to use non-AFR members or for their members to ignore the prohibition in those situations where this type of arrangement would be beneficial.
    Jim Jones

    Dec 17, 2008
  • I am a grant writer in North Shore MA and would love to help local non-profits write grants. I would do it for free, except I have to make a living too! Since my layoff as a technical writer and editor,where I helped with corporate proposals, I have been considering starting my own business as a writer and editor, which would include grant writing, publicity and tutoring. I am wondering how to set it up and contact local organizations and people without too much upfront expense.
    Lucy in Wenham MA lucy-f at

    Jul 02, 2009
  • My Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based communications consulting firm, Write Now! Consulting, specializes in helping new, small, emerging nonprofits, and those which have not yet fully incorporated grants into their funding mix. I view myself and my staff of contracted professional grant writers (The Grant Squad) as educators and trainers, not just writers. We help nonprofits achieve readiness for grant funding, and equip them with the tools to do so successfully.
    Because we take this view, working for a percentage makes little sense. The value we provide goes well beyond any dollars raised through grant writing - our clients receive many so-called "intangibles" - mentoring, training, coaching, program development, evaluation planning - through the process of collaborating with us to write a proposal. The result? More effective organizations, better programming, improved client outcomes, and greater donor satisfaction. We should and do get paid for this work. If the client wins the grant, so much the better!
    I teach grant writing at the university level, and find myself addressing many questions of ethics time and time again in the classroom. Young people entering the nonprofit sector and the development profession are concerned about these issues (they raise them almost before I can!) and it's important for them that our profession continues this dialog and strives to build a high level of integrity and accountability into our work.
    Jan, thanks for re-starting this discussion about contracting with grant writers. There's much to dig into!
    Sally Stanton, PhD
    Principal Consultant and Word Wrangler
    Write Now! Consulting

    Jul 03, 2009
  • Anonymous

    Your Grant Solutions is a community based grantwriting firm located in Atlanta.... for more information visit

    Jul 05, 2009
  • Hi All,I agree that writing grants on a percentage basis is not the best approach for either client or grant writer. I sweated through my first grant back in 1992, which was funded, and I got to produce a performing arts series because of it. I guess I got hooked and have been writing proposals for the arts and social services since then, most recently as a freelancer.I don't work on a percentage basis for two reasons. First, for the client, it over emphasizes the financial outcome. Sure, you want your client to get the grant, but there's so much more that comes from the process: grant writing informs marketing copy, program descriptions, budgeting. An outside perspective can help staff to think in fresh ways about their programs, help an organization tell their story, and help people who tend to downplay the good work that they do, see it for its real value. These outcomes are not directly connected to the award amount, yet all are extremely valuable. Second, it means that the value of your writing is attached to a future outcome that you have absolutely no control over. Doesn't matter how brilliant you think your writing was or how well the proposal was matched to the funder. If the award is not made, or made in a modest amount, you might not get paid for the value of your time. This is an unneccessary risk for freelancers. So I offer my clients two options - pay me reasonably by the hour or per project. The latter is estimated based on the hours I think I will work. Then, I take into account the likelihood of future work with the client and a bunch of other factors, throw them in the mix and come up with a per project cost. I ask for half up front and half after the proposal is submitted. I've never had a client express regret in paying me for a job well done, even when the grant was not funded.~ Kim ZantiLos Angeles

    Jul 08, 2009
  • As a professional grant writer I find myself torn as to the issue of percentage pay. I offer a flat rate as the norm, however there are times where a non-profit literally does not have the financial capacity to hire me (or another grant writer) either hourly or for a flat fee. While other posters can quote chapter and verse from the AFP, at the end of the day these are clients that need a grant to continue their worthy cause. In those cases, I charge a fee upfront to cover my costs for research, etc and then am able to consultatively reach an agreement with the client as to how to move forward. If they don't have a reasonable chance of receiving the grant, I tell them so. If they do, I take the "risk" and move forward for a percentage.
    It may not be "ethical" in some peoples eyes, but with all the scam artists out there, I know I will provide quality work and that these non-profits will hire someone else that may not!

    Jul 10, 2009
  • Anonymous

    As a development professional for 18 years and currently a consultant on fundraising and management issues, I think that one of the challenges for both organization and potential contract grantwriter is often the image of a grantwriter toiling in isolation to come up with a competitive grant that will get funded with very little effort by the organization. I think that is where the idea of a percentage awarded based on results was planted. In many cases, the process is the point... meaning that the process of thinking through the fit with the funder, designing or "packaging" the program, etc etc. can be highly beneficial to the organization and in fact, is why a good grantwriter is value added.
    I have a policy of working with at least one small organization a year pro bono as part of my giving back to the community. I could be busy 90 hours a week if ONLY I would either work for free or for a percentage. I have a sliding scale for my work, and I work with my clients to make sure that there is value added, whether the grant is funded or not. I consistently try to do my best work--- beyond that, it is really not in may hands- as I put it, then it is in the hands of the grant god.
    Aside from the AFP and ethical considerations, working for what really is a commission, puts you on a par with a salesperson and I think misses the point of the organization-grantwriter relationship, whether that is in house or contractual.

    Jul 17, 2009
  • Anonymous

    Beyond the question of ethical and unethical re: percentage of grant awarded is the question of - where will that payment come from?

    I have no inherent problem, in the grantwriting world, with paying the consultant on the basis of a percentage of the award. (Have been working in this field for nearly 30 years.) I don't think the same ethical restrictions that apply to raising gazillions of dollars from individual donors (AFP) necessarily apply to grantwriting (Grant Professionals Association).

    However, the question of whether a percentage-based contract is best for small nonprofits that don't have the up-front resources so far has been ignoring the where-will-the-pay-come-from question. IT IS UNETHICAL, ILLEGAL AND IMMORAL TO BUILD COMPENSATION FOR THE GRANTWRITER INTO THE PROPOSAL BUDGET WITHOUT CLEARLY AND EXPLICITLY REVEALING THAT THAT'S WHAT YOU'RE DOING. In other words, without the funder's clear and express approval, you CANNOT use the grant proceeds to retroactively pay for the grantwriter's service. And I'm afraid this is what most people have in mind when they talk about "paying a percentage of the grant award." "When we have the money in our bank account from the grant award, then we'll have something to pay you with."

    Nope! Those monies are only to be used for the specific purposes set forth in the approved proposal and the approved budget.

    And for the record, I have yet to encounter a funder who will in fact allow a grant award to be used to pay after the fact for anything.

    Mar 03, 2011

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