Maggie was a freelance writer looking for a larger market for her work. She read books on grant writing, spoke with a professional grant writer, and even attended a workshop offered by the local United Way organization on writing grants. The problem was that she had only one nonprofit organization among her clientele; the others consisted predominantly of for-profit businesses and local publications. She telephoned her contact at the nonprofit agency but received a cool reception. “It isn't you or your work,” the contact said. “It's that these grants are critically important to us. We can't really afford to take a chance.”
Maggie wondered how she'd break into a market that she knew would be lucrative when even her nonprofit client refused her assistance. She decided to reduce some of the risk for the nonprofits by offering to write a grant for free. Over the next week, she contacted another nonprofit she knew a bit about. “I'd like to volunteer to write a grant proposal for you,” she said. “Do you have experience?” the executive director asked. “No, but I intend to get it by writing one for you,” Maggie said. “Sorry,” replied the executive director.
Finally, Maggie looked up a Request for Proposals and wrote a grant proposal based on the criteria in that proposal and her information about her client nonprofit agency. Then she tried again. She telephoned a third nonprofit in the community and volunteered her services.
When the executive director asked if she had experience, Maggie said, “I've only done one, so I'll need your guidance.” The executive director was thrilled. “We do have an RFP (Request for Proposals) right now. It's due in thirty days, and yes, we'd love some help! When can we meet?” Maggie was in.
The vignette above is true. It is not easy to break into grant writing for the same reason that the field is lucrative for freelance grant writers. Grant proposals have great value and are taken extremely seriously by nonprofit organizations.
Train your clients and staff of nonprofit organizations to send you “heads-up” letters announcing upcoming grant opportunities or upcoming RFP releases. Or sign up to receive notifications from Grants. gov and the foundation center, and notify your clients. Prior notice helps the grant writer advise the client, provide ample time to prepare a program and proposal, and identify and meet with potential community partners.
Maggie continued to market her grant-writing services over the following year, and she grew more and more successful at securing clients and work. Before the year was out, she didn't even need to market anymore. Nonprofit directors started passing around her name, and she got as much work as she could handle.
Like Maggie, you may have to donate your services the first time to open the door to your grant-writing career. As an alternative, you might subcontract with a professional grant writer in your community who can supervise your work and provide guidance for strengthening the final proposal. Or you may have an existing nonprofit client who is willing to work with you through the first proposal.
If possible, select some of the easier grant formats — usually local foundations or your local government — to get you started. This will limit the total number of hours you volunteer, and it will also provide you with a base of experience that you can use in marketing for more extensive work in the field.
Businesses seek skills similar to those of grant writers. You might see a business in the classified section advertising for a proposal writer, and some individuals market their skills as “proposal,” rather than “grant,” writers. In general, businesses must often respond to requests for proposals — for services or products — in the same way that nonprofits respond to requests for proposals for new programs that address a particular issue. Occasionally, however, businesses must write grant proposals for specific types of requests made by government agencies or other businesses. Since very few businesses have a grant writer on staff, they will require the services of a professional freelance grant writer. Architectural firms are one exception. Many of the larger firms have proposal writers on staff to provide the narrative description and the other information required that they use to supplement presentation drawings and estimates.
Proposal writers and grant writers perform nearly identical services — one for the for-profit and the other for the nonprofit sectors. Use your grant-writing skills to market proposal-writing services in for-profit industries, or if you already write for businesses, use your writing skills to help nonprofit organizations improve your community.
Sometimes individuals apply for a very select grant, such as a Small Business Innovation and Research (SBIR) grant from the federal government. It provides Phase I grants of up to $100,000 and Phase II grants of up to $500,000 to entrepreneurs and inventors so that they can further develop their ideas for products that have some social application, as well as market promise.
For the most part, however, individuals are not the best market for your business. It is best for them to write the grant proposal themselves. The granting organization is funding the person behind the idea, and thus reviews the grant with an eye for that person's level of expertise, experience, and familiarity with the field. There are myriad other criteria that they use to judge the merit of the applicant and the proposal. The SBIR is judged by Ph.D. reviewers in science, medicine, technology, and/or engineering. The grant writer must be an expert in the field, along with the inventor, if he or she is to write with authority to this audience.
Another factor you should consider before taking on individuals as clients is that individuals often lack the money to pay the professional grant writer. If you want to donate your time and effort, you can easily find projects that are more fun and more interesting than those requested by a struggling inventor or entrepreneur.