Updated: May 24, 2019
Grants are a big opportunity. Its understandable why many organizations consider hiring professional help to gain an advantage in the application process.
But hire the wrong writer and you could waste weeks of your time, spend thousands of dollars, and be no closer to winning a grant.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that organizations thinking about hiring a grant writer are usually those with the least grant writing experience and therefore most vulnerable to being scammed or getting a low quality of service.
Full disclosure: I am a former grant writer myself and my bias is against hiring grant writers. It's why I'm on a mission to use technology to make grants so easy that anyone can write them themselves. But for now there are still many situations where hiring a grant writer is beneficial, if you know how to do it correctly.
This comprehensive guide will teach you the pros and cons of hired writers, how to determine if a grant writer is a good fit for your organization, and how to maximize your chance of success if you do hire external help.
I want to address the downsides of hired grant writers first. Far too many nonprofits get exploited both intentionally and unintentionally by grant writers.
Here are the big three potential issues to consider.
Most organizations assume that hiring an external writer will be more time efficient than going it alone because the grant writer is more experienced.
The problem is that experience is not the only factor in writing an effective grant. You must be intimately familiar with the organization, the programs, and the individuals you are describing.
Your hired grant writer will need to take time to interview you and may have to constantly pepper you with questions throughout the process so that they can gain an understanding of what to write about.
You will also need to be available to hand over documents, such as budgets or your IRS 501(c) 3 letter. And there might even be sections of the grant they ask you to write yourself, such as team bios.
If you aren't capable of coordinating these efforts the whole process will end up being frustrating and time intensive.
Hard to determine expertise
It might be difficult to judge the skill of your hired writer.
In most lines of work your past success rate is a good indicator of expertise. However, its not so simple with grant writing.
The success of a grant is less about the quality of the proposal than it is about funder preference. A hired writer may have a high success rate simply because they usually write grants for highly qualified organizations to begin with.
Asking a hired writer about the total money they have earned their clients is also a bad indicator. Grants awards range in size from $500 to $50,000,000. Total money earned is more due to project choice than writer skill.
Here"s a personal example.
While I was a grant writer, my company won a federal DOT grant for tens of millions of dollars. This one grant was larger than the sum all the other projects we worked on combined.
And our win was less about the quality of our written proposal than the strong underlying need of the target population who the project was for.
Hired writers are expensive. You are looking at hundreds to thousands of dollars depending on the size and scope of the project.
The fallacy that many organizations make is comparing the cost of a hired writer to the potential payout. Paying a $1,000 dollars to earn a grant award of $50,000 seems like a good deal.
But there is no guarantee your grant proposal will be accepted. And because there is little to no transparency from grant funders, you may not know if you were rejected because of a poorly written proposal or funder preference.
If you hire a grant writer without first finding an appropriate grant opportunity, you are buying an expensive lottery ticket.
The complexity of the grant application process coupled with the high potential upside of winning makes it so easy for grant writers to take advantage of organizations.
Grant writers can make lofty promises about all money they can help you win and convince you to hire them to work on multiple projects.
They are also incentivized to convince you to apply for many grants even though you may have a low probability of success.
I admit, that was a pretty bleak outlook on hiring a writer. My goal is to protect you from being scammed because it is a problem in this industry.
There are still many benefits of hiring a professional writer, which I will explain below.
I mentioned that funder preference is more important than the quality of the application. But assuming you have done your research and you apply to the right funder, then the quality of your proposal makes all the difference.
Here are just a few of the ways an expert grant writer can help you succeed.
Grants come with many instructions and potential for error. A good grant writer will be able to pay attention to all the fine details and make sure your application isn't rejected on a technicality.
A good grant writer will be able to create a moving narrative that will captivate the reader. They will know how to use both story telling and facts to build a powerful argument.
Facts don't always speak for themselves. A good writer is needed to bring them to life.
All grant funders typically ask applicants to write the same types of sections in their proposal. This includes a needs statement, program description, evaluation, and so on. An experienced grant writer will know exactly what the funder is looking for in each section.
Funders prefer applications that are ambitious and have lofty goals even if the project doesn't live up to the application. The key to winning is being a little over optimistic but just the right amount. A good grant writer knows how to nail this balance.
Access to additional opportunities
In addition to writing proposals, some writers can help you find grant opportunities.
I warned earlier there is potential for writers to oversell you on low probability opportunities. But a good writer can help you discover and apply to grants you would otherwise miss out on.
They may also be able to determine better than you which grants are worth applying for and which are a waste of time. The key is to find a writer that you trust.
Template for the future
Let's say you hired a writer who put together a solid proposal but you got rejected. Total waste of time and money?
You may still be able to reuse sections of their proposal when you go to apply to your next grant opportunity. If you apply to a funder that asks similar questions to the original then some of your work is already done.
Using this principle, we created a Universal Application for grants that lets you submit identical answers across multiple applications, eliminating hours in application time (currently for Los Angeles area organizations only.)
When to hire a grant writer
So you can see there are both benefits and potential drawbacks of hiring a writer. Let's figure out when you should hire a writer and how to make the most of it.
Scenario 1: You are new to grants and want a writer to do everything for you
If this sounds like you, you should think twice about hiring a writer.
Because you know so little about grant writing it would be very easy for a hired writer to over sell and under deliver. Its possible you will get lucky but most likely you will strike out.
I've talked to small organizations who tell me they had bad experiences with hired writers a few times and then soured on the idea of pursuing grants altogether.
Scenario 2: You are a new or relatively small organization
Funders want to make sure they are going to get results for their grant dollars. This means they tend to give to larger more established organizations with proven track records.
So even if you understand grant writing enough to hire a writer, you still have a lower probability of success to begin with.
Make sure you know for certain your funder is interested in your organization before you invest in a grant writer.
Scenario 3: You are an established organization and you have done your research about which foundation to apply to
You are now in a strong position to apply for a grant.
And now you understand the potential risks and benefits of hiring a writer so you can make an informed decision.
Try to find a writer that has experience with your funder or grant opportunity in particular, although this may not always be possible.
Important questions that organizations fail to consider
It's easy to get distracted comparing pros and cons of grant writers and lose sight of the bigger picture.
Here are some questions that you should be asking before you start considering whether a grant writer is the right choice.
Do you have a staff member who can write grants?
Or do any of your volunteers have grant writing experience? You might discover that you already have internal grant writing capacity going underutilized.
What is the grant for?
Do you have a concrete plan for how to use the money or are you just looking for more funding because more is better.
Funders want applicants with detailed plans for their use of funds so they know the money is going to good use.
Don't hire a grant writer if you don't have a well designed project to propose to funders.
Is grant funding the best source of revenue for you?
Maybe it is a better use of your time and money to improve your existing fundraising methods and slowly increase the size of your organization than go for an all or nothing grant opportunity.
Most grant come with spending restrictions. You may be better off with less money but more freedom.
Manage your expectations
The biggest mistake organizations make is getting excited about all the potential good they could do with a big grant payday they forget about the risks.
Grants are hit or miss. It often takes several attempts before you're successful.
And winning a grant will not solve all your problems. In fact, some grants come with so many rules and reporting burdens that they do more harm than good.
Carefully assess your situation before you consider applying for grants.
How to find grant writers
When hiring an external writer you have two main options, hiring a freelancer or working with a grant writing firm.
Freelance sites like Upwork and Fiverr (there are several freelance sites, just do a Google search to find them) let you sort through different offers to find the best combination of price and expertise, see what types of projects a freelancer has done in the past, and read reviews from previous employers.
The quality of freelancers varies widely on these sites so you could be taking a gamble, especially if you aren't able to pay for top talent.
On the other hand there is potential to find value.
New freelancers often give discounts in order to build up their reputation. And with multiple people bidding on your offer you can compare offers and find a good deal.
Working with a grant writing firm will be a more reliable experience. Also, probably more expensive.
Talk to their previous clients to get a sense of their quality of work before you commit.
Do a Google search to discover grant writing companies in your area or talk to friends and associates to see if they have worked with any they recommend.
How to get the best results from your writer
So far I've covered everything you should consider before you hire a writer.
There are also a few things you can do after you've hired a writer to increase your chance of success.
Prepare to collaborate
Many organizations assume that all they have to do is hire a writer and everything else will take care of itself.
This isn't the case.
Your writer is going to need to learn from you, access documents, and check in with you periodically. Gather all necessary info in advance so your writer can get up to speed quickly.
Assign one person at your organization to be in charge of working with your hired writer so they will be able to get what they need to do their job without delay.
Create a project timeline
If your grant project has a deadline then it is imperative that you break the project into a series of deliverables in advance. This way you can check in at each point to make sure the writer is on track.
If you are going to edit or make suggestions, do this very early in the process. Grants have many moving parts so it will be impossible to make big changes with only a few days to go before the deadline.
Give your writer a due date several days in advance of the actual grant deadline. There are almost always unforeseen details that come up and you don't want to be blindsided with no time to respond.
Give your writer everything they need to do their job and then leave them alone.
Trust their judgement.
Once they have a good understanding of your work they will be able to write about it better than you can. After all, this is the whole point of hiring them.
If you are going to make changes to their work then run it by them first. If you do not understand all the project rules and requirements then you may be inadvertently introducing errors into the proposal.
How to pay your writer
Most freelance grant writers charge either by the hour or per project. You can negotiate with freelancers to determine a fair price.
Both options have drawbacks.
If paying by the hour you may incentivize a writer to take longer and increase the price. If paying by project you could incentivize them to cut corners and finish quickly.
Here's my suggestion.
Pay per project and set clear guidelines about the deliverables. If using a freelance site to find your writer then you will be able to rate their work, which will improve their accountability.
Grant writing companies are more likely to have fixed agreements that come with a standard set of services. Of course there is sometimes room to negotiate with the these companies as well because grant projects can differ in scope.
Whichever you choose, I advise not to go too cheap.
Hiring a grant writing only pays off if you actually win the grant. Saving money by hiring a less qualified writer only decreases your chances of success.
Remember, you should only be hiring a writer if you know you have a good grant opportunity to begin with.
Should you pay a percentage of the grant if you win?
In short, no.
First of all, few hired writers would accept a percentage only compensation agreement because they know that that success is more related to funder preference than their efforts.
I don't recommend a flat rate plus percentage either.
In almost all cases you won't be able to pay the hired writer with grant funds (foundations don't allow this). You will have to pay them with your existing organization funds.
This means, for example, if you agree to pay a 5% bonus if you win and its a $50,000 grant, you will have to shell out an additional $2,500 in fees. Since it can often take up 9-12 months to learn if you are successful, this means you need to set aside $2,500 for up to a year. This may not be practical for many organizations.
Hiring a grant writer is not a decision to make lightly.
Done right you can greatly improve your odds of getting a grant payday. Do it wrong and you get burned. I hope this guide helps you navigate this decision and I wish you the best of luck with your grant writing journey.
If you want to get better at writing grants yourself, check out the grant writing resources and tools we offer at GrantLaunch.