Hiring a Grant Writer

Foundation & Corporate Grants Alert:
November 2008
Funding Q & A

©2008 LRP Publications

Funding Q&A provides readers the opportunity to ask experts questions about a variety of funding activities.  This month, Tony Silbert, President of Silbert Consulting Services, Inc., addresses the issue of grants goal development.  Founded in 1996, Silbert Consulting Services is a Los Angeles, CA-based firm that provides grant development, research, strategy and evaluation services for nonprofit organizations of all shapes and sizes.
Question: My agency is looking to hire a grant writer.  What questions should we ask?
Answer: As with any new hire, it is important to understand a prospective employee or independent contractor’s background and qualifications.  And, it is essential to set clear expectations about what is to be accomplished in the position.  “Grant writing,” for lack of a better term, seems like a straightforward activity whereby proposals are written and (hopefully) money comes in.  Consequently, many agencies approach the hiring of a grant professional with questions that seem to make sense on the surface, but actually reflect a misunderstanding of the field.The following are some of the misguided questions commonly asked and better approaches to evaluating a grant writer’s abilities:

  • Common Question:  What is your “success” rate?  There is virtually no answer to this question that would be meaningful.  Clearly, 0% would indicate a lack of experience, but not necessarily a lack of skill.  100%?  Well, that could also mean a lack of experience, i.e., going 1 for 1.  Alternatively, it is an indication that the grant seeker is playing it too safe, only applying for sure things and thereby leaving money on the table.  Moreover, grants are approved and rejected for many reasons, very few of which are in the proposal writer’s control.
  • Better Approach:  How many successful grants have you written and who funded them?  This gets at the breadth of the individual’s experience.  Attention should be paid to whether the candidate has been successful with the kind of funders your agency is likely to attract, i.e., family foundations, big foundations, corporations, government, etc.  Are the funders local, regional, or national?  Specialized in a certain field or broad-based philanthropies?  Follow up by asking what role the candidate played in securing the grants.  Aside from writing, was he involved in program or evaluation design, convening partners, obtaining letters of support, budgeting, packaging, etc.?
  • Common Question:  How many grants will you submit each month? and, the related, How much money will you bring in?  This attempt to gauge “productivity” misses the point.  If all of your dreams can be realized with one grant, would you care that you didn’t submit more?  And, conversely, if a thousand proposals yielded nothing, would you care that you were so “productive”?  As for the funding one might expect, the answer is completely reliant on the vision of the organization, the size of the projects it seeks to complete, and the underlying fundamentals that make an agency “grant-worthy.”
  • Better Approach:  Lay out your priorities, strategic plans, budgets and ask what role grants might play in achieving them.  Let the candidate demonstrate his expertise by analyzing your situation and presenting a case for grant seeking.  Which projects might be most appealing to grant funders?  What else is necessary to maximize the potential for grants, e.g., other fundraising, needs assessments, partnerships, board leadership?  See if the candidate is capable of developing a grant strategy or if is he just a writer who will do what you tell him to.
  • Common Question: How much do you charge per hour?  Hourly rates vary wildly, as does the amount of time individuals might take to complete a project.  So, for determining the cost of hiring a contractor for a project, hourly rate is not necessarily helpful.  It is equally counterproductive to use the rate as a way to compare grant writers like cans of beans or DVD players.  Success in grants relies on having a rapport with the writer, a fit that is unique for each potential candidate.
  • Better Approach:  What are our next steps and what do you expect it will cost?  Again, the goal is to understand how the candidate thinks, get a sense of how you will work together, and set mutually agreed upon goals.  If you can accomplish that, then learning what it will cost is not about price-comparisons, but whether the proposed course of action is worth the investment.

Underlying all these approaches is the understanding that grant seeking is a team sport.  It is not something the grant professional does for you, but something he does with you.  Use the interview process as an opportunity to learn how you can work together to realize your agency’s vision for the future.