Want to use your writing skills to change the world? Consider grant writing.
Instead of filling corporate pockets, you’ll be helping nonprofit organizations get the money they need for worthy projects like food pantries and youth programs. If you’re lucky, you’ll even find clients who’ll give you repeat business so you’re not always hustling for work.
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Grant writing can be lucrative, but a writer must be prepared for hefty competition in the field. You’ll be competing with staff fundraisers and experienced consultants for a piece of that grant-writing pie. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to carve out a niche for yourself in this market.
Step 1: Assess yourself.
If you’re a lyric poet by nature, get ready to use a different side of your brain. Grant writing can be technical: acronyms abound and budgets rule.
“It is not for anyone who has tendencies to procrastinate or stare blankly at their computer screen waiting for an idea to drop into their mind,” said Beverly Browning, author of Grant Writing for Dummies.
To survive in this field, you’ll need to meet tight deadlines, be extremely detail-oriented and understand the world of nonprofit program development and evaluation. That’s not to say your writing skills won’t count for anything. The old days of presenting “just the facts” have given way to new appreciation of storytelling in grant writing. Your clean, crisp and careful prose will separate your work from the rambling proposals that put funders to sleep and/or the sloppy, rushed jobs.
Step 2: Take a class.
Whatever your learning preferences, you’ll find a wealth of classes and resources at your disposal. The Foundation Center offers a variety of free online courses such as Introduction to Finding Grants and Introduction to Proposal Writing. Community colleges also tout classes and/or certificate programs in grant writing, as do private colleges. Ditto for adult and continuing education providers. Browning, for instance, teaches online courses through ed2go.com and the Grant Writing Boot Camp.
While courses offer the advantage of personalized attention, how-to books such as Grant Writing for Dummies and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Grant Writing provide reams of information in engaging formats for DIYers. Another book, The Artist’s Guide to Grant Writing by Gigi Rosenberg, deals specifically with funding for creative types.
Step 3: Write your first proposal.
Yes, it’s perfectly OK to apply for a grant for one of your own writing projects to break into the field. A free weekly newsletter for subscribers called Funds for Writers (fundsforwriters.com) will give you a wealth of leads at the click of a mouse. In addition, look into funding from your local arts council and state arts commission as well as grants from artist-in-residence programs, professional associations and educational institutions. Peruse their websites to find helpful information such as past grant recipients and awarded amounts.
Chris Rohmann got into proposal writing after applying for a grant for one of his own book projects. A longtime theater critic for The Valley Advocate in western Massachusetts, he landed a gig writing proposals for a theater company, first as a contractor, then as a regular part-time employee. “The work I was supporting was exciting and important,” Rohmann said.
Other grant professionals, like Megan Hill of Seattle, come from a background in the nonprofit sector. Hill volunteered in college for Habitat for Humanity and then worked as an in-house grant writer for a nonprofit before striking out on her own as founder and CEO of her own grants-consulting business. To break into grant writing, she recommends volunteering time with a nonprofit.
Step 4: Build your portfolio.
A portfolio showing a high rate of success will launch you on your way. While it’s stressful to have your future dependent on the decisions of grant makers, you’ll learn tricks to make the odds work in your favor. For starters, you’ll find out how crucial it is to follow directions to the letter. You’ll also discover how to research funding sources to boost your chances of success.
Insiders recommend you start with small, local grant applications. Be prepared to work for free or about $10 an hour at first. Rohmann, for example, wrote his second grant proposal on nearly a pro bono basis.
To develop a clientele, build your network in the local nonprofit community. In addition, you’ll find postings on idealist.org, Craigslist and some philanthropy digests and publications.
Step 5: Boost your skills.
If you decide to make grant writing a serious business, you’ll need to up your game. The learning never ends in this field, thanks in part to its specialized software and lingo. (Pro tip: Industry honchos tend to favor the terms “grant professional” and “consultant” over “freelancer.”)
While newer grant writers can expect to charge $20-$30 an hour, experienced professionals can earn $150 or more an hour, according to Debbie DiVirgilio, a consultant in northeastern Maryland and past president of the Grant Professionals Association.
DiVirgilio generally works between 40 and 60 hours on a federal grant compared to about five hours or less on a foundation proposal. However, someone less experienced may find a federal grant takes 120 hours or more, she said.
“More and more organizations are seeking contractual grant writers who are certified,” DiVirgilio said. Two organizations – the Grant Professionals Certification Institute and the American Grant Writers Association – offer paths to certification.
You’ll need to decide for yourself what credentials you need for the work you want to do. Whatever the case, choose projects you’re passionate about. You’ll have the satisfaction of seeing your hard work make dreams come true.
Joan Axelrod-Contrada is the author of Career Opportunities in Politics, Government, and Activism. She is the chair of the grants committee for the WriteAngles Conference held every fall at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts.
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