Unrealistic Expectations, Pay Practices That Grantors Often See As Tainting The Funding Process, And Poor Planning And Follow Through, Can Doom The Best To Failure

Some of the most heated discussion in the nonprofit world centers on grant writing. Why? Because so much is riding on it. It is the rare organization that could continue to carry out its mission anywhere near as effectively if its grants dried up, and for many, such an occurrence would sound the death knell.

Of the three basic sources of money for non-profits—earned income, donations from individuals, and grants—the process of getting a grant is the most puzzling. All but the smallest organizations are likely to have people on staff or use outside counsel who specialize in grant writing. The demand for skilled grant writers, coupled with the mystery that seems to surround successful grant writing, leads to some troubled areas for development professionals and non-profit organizations.

Two questions are central: How do you evaluate the performance of grant writers and how do you pay them?

How Do You Evaluate
The Performance Of Grant Writers?

I have seen many resumes with statements like the following, “The grants I write are awarded funds 80% of the time.” A recent query to an Internet newsgroup by an executive director asked, “My grant writer has a grant success rate of 41%. How does that compare with the standard of other organizations?”

Grant writers touting a past high percentage of grant attainment to impress potential employers are in danger of setting themselves up for future failure. How many of us would want to go into a new work environment with the expectation that 80% of the grant applications we submit would be approved? Not me!

Executive directors who see the success or failure of grant-getting as residing in the hands of the grant writer are failing to take into account something even more important than the grant application—the purpose of the funding. Poorly delineated projects, “soft” budgets, and a host of other weaknesses cannot be overcome by a well crafted grant proposal. The awarding of grants has more to do with function than form, and grant writers are not usually the ones who make the policy and practice recommendations that lead to a search for funding.

When it comes to measuring performance, I believe grant writers should be evaluated on the quality of their work. What I expect of a grant writer as written into a job description might read something like the following.

The grant writer will:

  1. Through interviews and other means, gather information that will easily allow him/her to grasp the concept of a project or program for which funding is sought as defined by the person responsible for carrying it out.
  2. Acquire and maintain sound knowledge and understanding of the organization, and use that knowledge and understanding to better comprehend all projects and programs for which grants will be sought and to recommend the seeking of grants.
  3. Research grant-making organizations and analyze them to identify likely funding sources for specific projects and programs.
  4. Compile, write, and edit all grant applications exhibiting strong expository writing skills and a high-level command of grammar and spelling.
  5. Review the budget of a project or program for which funding is sought and make recommendations to better present it to grant-making organizations.
  6. Develop individual grant proposals in accordance with each grant-making organization’s preferences and follow exactly each grant-making organization’s guidelines.
  7. Keep in contact with grant-making organizations during their review of a submitted grant application in order to be able to supply additional supportive material.
  8. Manage the process of supplying progress reports when required by a grant-making organization that has funded a project or program.

Any grant writer I hired was expected to carry out the above duties well. Doing so left me satisfied with his or her performance. Grant award or no grant award, the grant writer was successful. It was never my grant writer’s job to get the grant, rather the job was to make the best case possible to appropriate funding organizations.

How Do You Pay A Grant Writer?

Few topics generate more heated discussion in non-profit organizations than whether professional grant writers should be paid a percentage of the money raised, receive commission-based compensation, or be paid a performance bonus. Perhaps because it is a practice of giving financial rewards to grant writing professionals contingent upon the achievement of fixed money goals, we can simply refer to it as “contingent-pay.” Whatever you want to call it, two things are becoming more and more apparent.

  1. The practice is increasing.
  2. The practice is troubling the grant writing profession.

I recognize the difficulties that cash-strapped non-profit organizations have in providing upfront, fair compensation to consultant (or staff) grant writers for the legitimate and important work they perform. In many instances, it has become a common practice to make compensation contingent on the award of a grant. Nevertheless, there are concerns this practice raises which need to be addressed.

Often, the professional ethics of those seeking such contingent-pay for grant writing are brought into question. While I see problems with giving grant writers a percentage of the funds awarded by grantors, I do not think that the willingness, or even the preference, to write grants on a percentage, commission, or bonus basis automatically indicates a lack of ethics.

To me, the answer to the question of why contingent-pay is so troublesome—and often incites highly charged emotions—seems obvious. It is one thing for grant writing professionals to discuss grant writing techniques and philosophies and to strenuously air disagreements. It is quite another to tell people that the way or amount they are paid is unethical.

Rather than preach against contingent pay as unethical behavior, I prefer to share with contingent-pay seekers (and providers) some real-life consequences of such arrangements which mainly puts the livelihood of the grant writer at risk. I believe grant writers should never agree to contingency pay. It is simply not fair for hard working grant writers to receive little or no pay for their efforts due to many reasons beyond their control. I’ll list several of those reasons which I have seen crop up time and time again, resulting in rejected proposals. In those instances, a grant writer’s time and effort were wasted and she or he received no compensation for their good faith professional services:

  • Say an organization wants someone to write a grant proposal for a project costing $118,000 and that the grant writer was to be paid a 5% commission if the grant is approved. It is almost always a requirement by funders that every dollar to be raised for and spent on projects be accounted for on a line-item basis. For many funders, the line item in the budget showing $5,900 for grant-acquisition services, would be reason enough to deny the grant. It would make no difference what the commission size or even if the contingency-pay were a flat fee.
  • Grant-writing expenses are seen as part of an organizations operating budget. Few if any foundations, corporations, or governmental organizations are willing to make a grant when a portion of the money granted is to be used to pay a grantwriting fee. Remember, the grant is being requested for a specific project, not to offset operating expenses nor to disguise a professional fee. A non-profit or a grant writer that fails to take the possibility of such a caveat into consideration may be facing a rude awakening.
  • Discerning and experienced program officers can readily see right through, and will reject, poorly delineated projects, “soft” and questionable budgets, and a host of other weaknesses which cannot be overcome by well crafted grant proposals.
  • An ineffective and failing “selling” job might be made during a presentation meeting by an organization’s officials.
  • You do not know in advance the foundations which are over committed to funding other organizations, have limited resources, thus they will not have funds available for you at the time, nor possibly for some time to come.
  • What if the grant was to be paid out over a number of months—even years? Would an organization be willing to pay the grant writer for the services rendered in full at the moment of grant approval? Should the grant writer be willing to accept a compensation payment schedule in sync with that of the grant award which could be spread out over several years?
  • The grant writer should be ready to accept the fact that she or he will receive little pay for a major work, should a much lesser amount be granted than was originally requested.
  • A grant writer could conduct the best possible research, make the most helpful recommendations, and even voice strong protests and caution when called for—but project directors and executive directors will prevail should they insist that the grant request be written in spite of flaws and concerns. They will say to the grant writer: “We’ll send it anyway, what have we got to lose?” They should ask the grant writer that question who stands to lose a great deal.
  • Most grantors have greater vision than grant-proposal-submitting organizations. Grantors routinely look for assurance from the organizations that what they fund will be reasonably evaluated and measured in the longer term for effective and efficient use of their money, and that the organizations have future financial sustainability plans in place, or pending—especially that there are well developed long-range, strategic plans in place or being planned. A grant writer’s best efforts expended in the writing of a given proposal simply cannot be extended or expected to meet such governance and policy-making requirements and expectations.
  • Grant proposals, even the best of them, are all too often prepared and presented to potential grantors when the organizations have no, or few, other important sources of contributions to show, especially from their boards of trustees. Chances are slim to none for grant awards when there are no other visible and viable sources of support available to the organization.
  • The hope for grants to be awarded to ensure payment for the grant writer’s efforts is even more uncertain, and most unlikely, when proposals are stretched beyond practical and common sense limits, and they are presented to new, potentially uninterested, prospects—some even to distant, uncaring potential benefactors—as is often the case.

In the end, grant writers should be paid for their time and efforts by the hour or project, whether or not the grant is received. I question whether an organization unable to pay a fair fee for work done is likely to survive. Few non-profits forced to operate in ways not fully in accord with accepted professional standards flourish and grow.

I believe in the standards that have resulted from thousands of grant writing professionals working to help raise billions of dollars over decades of time. For me, not everything should be a matter of personal opinion; codes of ethics are established through collective wisdom because we do need absolutes by which to work and live. When I see all the wrong that can befall an organization or a grant writer in contingent-pay schemes, I cannot imagine for the life of me why either would want to go that route.

What Should You Do
Before Engaging An Outside Grant Writer?

Accomplished, experienced grant writing consultants are in demand and they are not cheap. Therefore, you should do as much of the preparation work as possible yourself. This will allow you to spend your consulting dollars where they are really needed — the actual grant writing. Also, the better prepared you are, the more likely you will be to attract the best grant writers. Before you engage a grant writer, you should already have:

  1. Defined the project or program you want to get funded.
  2. Developed the essence of your “Case for Support.”
  3. Identified prospective grant sources for the project or program.
  4. Determined who will actually solicit the funds and how they will do it.

Begin the definition process by first setting your grant-seeking priorities as they fit within your organization’s long-range strategic plan and mission. The three basic areas for which you are likely to be seeking grants are to:

  1. Create new programs and services.
  2. Support ongoing programs and services.
  3. Provide annual operating funds.

Then clearly and precisely define each project or program for which you will seek grants in terms that grant-making organizations will recognize and respond to. Make sure that while you’re doing this you also plan for life after the grant. How will you support the project or program in the future if it is to last longer than the timeframe covered by the grant? It’s a question every grant making organization will want answered.

Be certain that you have reasonably determined in advance the scope, intent, and “case” value to the community of the project or program you wish to have funded before you engage a grant writer. If you ask the grant writer to do this, he or she will have to learn your organization’s capabilities and community’s needs in the specific areas. It makes no sense to pay someone on the outside to do this. Those who run your organization already have this knowledge. Also, when you meet with grant makers you will be better able to respond to questions if you have developed the case.

Identifying the sources most likely to make a grant to an organization such as yours for the purpose you have defined is crucial to the process of grant application. The public library, the Foundation Center, your trustees, and others in your community are excellent sources of this information. Check your state Attorney General’s office to see if it publishes a list of foundations. Go through other non-profit organizations’ annual reports to look for funders. Then be sure to contact as many foundations and other grant making organizations as possible to get their grant seekers’ guidelines and grant awarding calendar.

While most experienced grant writers, particularly if they operate in your geographic and “services” areas will know such information, doing your own research will let you better direct the grant writer’s efforts. It is not hard to do and will establish a process and routine you can follow in future grant- seeking opportunities. Plus the information and expertise stays in your organization.

Never ask a grant writer to be the actual solicitor of funds. You and others within your organization are the best people to present your case. Why would you want a grant writer with whom you have a temporary relationship to represent you to grant makers? Why let the outside grant writer build a personal relationship you or your trustees could be nurturing? Besides, foundations want to meet the people who operate and are committed to an organization — not an outsider on a temporary hire.

Prepare well before you engage a grant writing consultant and you will save money while putting your organization in a better position to attain the grants for which you apply.

Okay, we’ve covered a lot of material here. Everything from paying and evaluating grant writers to using consultants. But by no means have we exhausted the topic of grant writers and grant writing. Neither I nor anyone else has all the answers on this subject. My goal here is to encourage you to look at grant writers, how you use them, and how you pay them within the context of:

  1. Your organization’s mission.
  2. Your organization’s fund-raising agenda.
  3. Grant making organizations and what they are likely to expect of you.


From time to time, consultant grant writers and organizations, seeking to engage a grant writer on a temporary or project basis, want to know what amount of fee is fair and reasonable. And non-profits want to know where they might find such accomplished professional grant writers. Here are my personal observations on both those inquiries.

General Grant Writing Pay Rates

Fees charged by grant writers will range far and wide. But from what I have seen, experienced and capable grant writers charge about $60 per hour. I’ve seen some fees in the area of $100 per hour and more, and then I have seen some very low fees—well under $50. I believe that the $60 to $70 per-hour range is usual, and with the right person, it is fair and reasonable. Naturally, the hourly rate and the resultant total fee will be significantly impacted by the relative efficiency of each grant writer. As well, grant writers could charge by the project once they assess the full range and scope of the job, but the flat fee for time expended would probably closely factor out to the hourly rate I cited.

However, as I strongly encourage in my article, neither party should in any way arrange compensation to be paid on a “contingent-pay” basis. That is, do not enter into a contract which would have a grant writer paid a commission, bonus, or percentage of a grant award—or from any other available funds. And especially do not arrange payment upon award of the grant in the first place.

How to Find Grant Writing Jobs

When you are ready to start your own grant writing consulting career, or you want to increase your client base, you might be able to secure freelance grant writing opportunities in some, or all, of the following ways:

  • Send letters to development officers of non-profits in the geographic area of your choice (United Way, universities, hospitals, etc.), and let them know that you are available. Get your resume’ up to date and ready. You might just make contact at the right time when an organization is in the middle of a full-time grant writer search, and could make good use of your interim freelance services. Not to mention the many additional non-profits with no such full-time staff position which are generally in need of the services of a freelance grant writing professional.
  • Be a member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, or otherwise attend the local chapter’s regular open lunch/program meetings. It is one of the best ways to get to know individuals who work for non-profits and to have them know that you are in the consulting business should they have a grant writing need some time or another. This is true as well with board members of organizations who are at those meetings. It’s the best possible, “Let me have your business card,” opportunity during the “Attitude Adjustment” half-hour prior to the usual lunch program. See your nearest AFP Chapter from their geographic search page.
  • “Network!” Make inquires at the AFP chapter, and other places where there might be opportunities to speak on grant writing topics. Offer your free lecture services. Maybe the local Library, United Way, Business Volunteerism organization, or University, would welcome such a talk as part of their production of seminars and community programs specific to non-profits, or general in nature. To stand up in front of a group comprised of individuals from non-profits, and deliver a talk on the process of grant writing, is one of the best ways for them to see and hear you in action.
  • “Speak!” Identify fund-raising consulting firms or individual fund-raising consultants at work in your area. Do some research “through the grapevine” to know of the best ones. Perhaps a firm needs you as a new grant writing consultant to add to its team, or perhaps an individual professional’s business is growing and she or he would welcome a partner/colleague such as you.
  • “Expand The Market Potential!” Write an article of the type which might be of interest to your local newspaper’s writer on things philanthropic. Offer an article, or articles, on grant writing to some of the non-profits at work in your area for publication in their newsletters. Look for any opportunity to have something you have written be published somehow, somewhere, in your community: i.e., Chamber of Commerce, Rotary, etc.
  • “Publish!” From your experience as a development professional, collect the names of the board members with whom were were associated, and get their addresses if you can, or you’ll need to do your own phone book research. Many of the board members whom you served, or otherwise knew, when you worked as a development professional, most likely are members of other boards of trustees for other organizations. Remind them of your good association during your development professional time with them, and ask that they consider your services when the need arises as they serve on the boards of other community organizations.
  • “Referrals!” Visit program officers and corporate contributions managers, or otherwise make known to them your credentials and availability to provide grant writing services. As they talk to grant seekers and grant getters, these stewards of foundation and corporate money many times want to be in position to name grant writing consultants for the benefit of those organizations to contact as a resource for their fund-raising needs. While it’s good to be mentioned in that way, we are especially blessed when those grant givers actually recommend us by name.
  • “Endorsements!” I’ve advertised, mailed, and otherwise distributed my consulting services brochure”Network!”all with limited success, relative to time and expense expended for relatively scant return. What worked best over time, and accounted for almost all of my engagements with clients, was the good old WOM (Word Of Mouth.) Do all you can to have your name readily recalled and mentioned—and better yet, recommended—when the subject of available, experienced, and capable,– –grant writing professionals comes up.

Additional Job Opportunity Resources

Job listing sites

Professional Associations

How to Find Grant Writers

  • Contact development offices of a few of the largest non-profit organizations near you (United Way, university, hospital, etc.), and ask to (personally and confidentially) talk to their grant writers. Many times, such professionals are eager to, and are allowed, by their employers, to “moonlight” by producing proposals for other, non-directly-competing, organizations.
  • When you contact those non-profits in your area and you find no staff grant writer employed, ask to speak to the Development officer and inquire about any grant writers he or she might have hired on a consulting basis. Many times, such organizations cannot justify a full-time grant writer, and do hire on a part-time, or special project, basis, thus being in a good position to make helpful referrals for your search.
  • Contact the nearest chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) in your area to search for a grant writer. Usually, there are many such leads to be found there. Use this AFP Web page to find the exact geographic location to your area:

Grant Writers’ Tool Kit

  • Common Grant Application Form
  • Tips For Proposal Writing
  • Be Ready For Questions A Program Officer Might Ask

Common Grant Application Form

(Courtesy: Minnesota Center For Nonprofits)

Use the following outline as a guide to your proposal narrative. Most grantmakers prefer up to five pages, excluding attachments, but be sure to ask each individual funder if they have page limitations or any additional requirements. Also, include a cover letter with your application that introduces your organization and proposal and makes the link between your proposal and the mission of the grantmaker to whom you are applying.

— Attachments & Proposal Check-list —


A. Brief summary of organization history including the date your organization was established.

B. Brief summary of organization mission and goals.

C. Brief description of organization’s current programs or activities, including any service statistics and strengths or accomplishments. Highlight new or different activities, if any, for your organization.

D. Your organization’s relationship with other organizations working with similar missions. What is your organization’s role relative to these organizations?

E. Number of board members, full time paid staff, part-time paid staff, and volunteers.

F. Additional information required by each individual funder.


(General operating proposals: Complete Section A below and move to Part III – Evaluation)
(All other proposals: Complete Section B below and move to Part III – Evaluation)

A. General Operating Proposals

1. The opportunity, challenges, issues or need currently facing your organization.

2. Overall goal(s) of the organization for the funding period.

3. Objectives or ways in which you will meet the goal(s).

4. Activities and who will carry out these activities.

5. Time frame in which this will take place.

6. Long-term funding strategies.

7. Additional information regarding general operating proposals required by each individual funder.

B. All Other Proposal Types

1. Situation

a. The opportunity, challenges, issue or need and the community that your proposal addresses.
b. How that focus was determined and who was involved in that decision- making process.

2. Activities

a. Overall goal(s) regarding the situation described above.
b. Objectives or ways in which you will meet the goal(s).
c. Specific activities for which you are seeking funding.
d. Who will carry out those activities.
e. Time frame in which this will take place.
f. How the proposed activities will benefit the community in which they will occur, being as clear as you can about the impact you expect to have.
g. Long-term strategies (if applicable) for sustaining this effort.


A. Describe your criteria for success. What do you want to happen as a result of your activities?

B. How will you measure these changes?

C. Who will be involved in evaluating this work (staff, board, constituents, community, consultants)?

D. What will you do with your evaluation results?


Generally the following attachments are required:

  1. Finances—Most recent financial statement from most recently completed fiscal year, audited if available, showing actual expenses. This information should include a balance sheet, a statement of activities (or statement of income and expenses) and functional expenses. Some funders require your most recent Form 990 tax return. Organization budget for current year, including income and expenses. Project budget, including income and expenses (if not a general operating proposal). Additional funders. List names of corporations and foundations from which you are requesting funds, with dollar amounts, indicating which sources are committed or pending
  2. List of board members and their affiliations.
  3. Brief description of key staff, including qualifications relevant to the specific request.
  4. A copy of your current IRS determination letter (or your fiscal agent’s) indicating tax-exempt 501(c)(3) status.
  5. If applying to a corporate funder only: if an employee of this corporation is involved with your organization, list names and involvement.

Be sure to check each funder’s guidelines and use discretion when sending additional attachments.

Proposal Check-List

___Cover letter.

___ Cover sheet.

___ Proposal narrative.

___ Organization budget.

___ Project budget (if not general operating grant).

___ Financial statements, preferably audited, showing actual expenses, including:

  • Balance sheet.
  • Statement of activities (income and expenses).
  • Statement of functional expenses.

___ List of additional funders.

___ List of board members and their affiliations.

___ Brief description of key staff.

___ IRS determination letter.

___ Confirmation letter of fiscal agent (if required).

___ Additional information required by each individual funder.

Writing Letters of Inquiry

It’s a good idea (and sometimes it’s required) to send a letter of inquiry to a foundation before submitting a full proposal.

A letter of inquiry is just what its name implies — a letter asking if the foundation is interested in receiving a full proposal in order to consider the project for funding. Sending a brief letter (try to keep it under two pages or less) can save both you and the foundation valuable time.

What Should the Letter Include?

  • The amount of the request
    How much money do you need?
  • The total project budget
    What is the total cost of doing the project?
  • The total organizational budget
    What is the annual cost of running your entire organization?
  • Other project funders, if any
  • Who else is supporting the project?
  • The project objectives and the time frame
    What do you want to accomplish and how long will it take?
  • Methods to be employed
    What approach will be used to accomplish the objectives?
  • Organizational background
    What experience does your organizational have?

Tips for Writing Letters of Inquiry

(or anything else)

  • Proofread carefully. Spelling and grammatical mistakes will not make a good first impression.
  • Avoid jargon. Use simple, straightforward English.
  • Don’t overstate your case or make unsubstantiated claims.
  • Include a brochure if you have one but don’t attach every publication ever created by your organization.
  • Ask at least one other person to read the letter before you drop it in the mailbox.

Tips For Proposal Writing

Courtesy: Akron (Ohio, USA) Community Foundation

  • The shorter, the better
  • Talk to others about proposals to a funder. Ask about their experience with funders’ proposal preferences regarding:
    • Length
    • Complexity
    • Budget detail
    • Statistical support
    • Personal contact before submission
  • Don’t write by committee. Project initiator – manager should draft with guidelines provided by the grants writer. Final proposal should be written by the grants writer.
  • Prepare the budget first – then make sure your proposal supports each item in the budget.
  • Write the summary last. Emphasize beneficiaries’ benefits, and why the project should be funded at this time.
  • Before you write, determine your project’s features and emphasize throughout your proposal.
  • Write in the third person – easier to “brag.” (Don’t have the good work you do be a “well-kept” secret).
  • Choose a project title of ten or fewer words. Suggest in your title results, rather than a plan.
  • Include a table of contents if the proposal exceeds ten pages.
  • Use contractions for ease of reading.
  • Accentuate the positive. Stress opportunities over needs.
  • Avoid “iffy” and “hopeful” statements. Be positive.
  • Use simple words. Avoid acronyms, literary references, and jargon.
  • Use strong verbs. (hint): Eliminate forms of “to be.”
  • Use emotional words. Describe the emotions and the well-being of your beneficiaries.
  • Write short paragraphs of four to six lines, if possible.
  • Strive for strong 1st-sentences for each paragraph.
  • Use the active, rather than the passive, voice.
  • If you have trouble getting started, go back to your budget. Money has a way of helping to refine methods and objectives.
  • Fill in the blanks on an application form. Write “n/a” (not applicable) where necessary.\
  • For increased credibility, let a beneficiary or expert state your need through a quote.
  • Use a few clear statistics – rather than a number of ineffective ones.
  • Use graphs and charts wherever possible.
  • Always include a plan for funding the project after the grant ends. Assure that there will surely be “life after (their) grant.”
  • Never miss deadlines, including progress and follow-up reports.

Be Ready For Questions

A Program Officer Might Ask

Courtesy: Akron (Ohio) Community Foundation

  • Who are you?
  • What do you want? How much, and for what?
  • What is the purpose of your organization? How old is the organization?
  • What is the average age and income of those whom you serve?
  • What service(s) do you provide?
  • How many beneficiaries of your programs and services did you serve last year?
  • How much does it cost per-beneficiary to provide your service(s)?
  • What makes you unique?
  • Who is you chief executive officer? What are his or her qualifications?
  • Who is chairman—president of your Board of Trustees?
  • Who are the members of your Board of Trustees?
  • What kind of “track record” does your organization have?
  • What is the general financial condition of your organization?
    • Operating budget?
    • Any deficit? How much?
    • Long-term obligations?
    • Principal areas of expenditures?
  • How is your income generated and what is its percentage of you total annual expense?

1. Earned Income:

Fees for your service(s) ____ %

2. Contributions:

Individuals ____ %

Foundations ____ %

Corporations ____ %

Government ____ %

United Way ____ %

Net from benefit events ____ %

Other: ________________________  _________ %

  • For what will grant funds be specifically used?
  • What difference will it make?
  • What will you do if we give you half?
  • What will you do if we give you nothing?
  • Will you be back again? If so, when?
  • Why do you think we should make this grant?