Training for Grant Professionals

Foundation & Corporate Grants Alert:
July 2008 – Vol. 4, Iss. 3   
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: I am a new grant writer looking for additional training.  How do I choose which class to take?
Answer:  There are a wide variety of educational and professional development opportunities for grant seekers – running the gamut from half-day workshops to semester-long courses at the graduate school level.  Courses are offered by for-profit and nonprofit organizations alike, including universities, nonprofit management support organizations, consulting firms and venerable national institutions that focus exclusively on grant seeking such as The Grantsmanship Center, Inc. (a for-profit) and the Foundation Center (nonprofit).  There are also an increasing number of courses available online with a variety of interactive formats.

As is the case with any educational opportunity, there is no right or wrong – just what is the best fit for you.  Your learning style, time limitations, and location may be decisive factors.  However, there are a few elements specific to grantsmanship training that you should consider when making your choice:

Trainer Experience.  While there are best practices and general principles that are applicable to all grant seeking, you will find the course far more rewarding if the teacher can draw from experience that is relevant to your grant hunt.  If you work for an art gallery and your trainer’s experience is with an international relief organization, it is likely she will use examples and describe strategies that are not particularly engaging or helpful for you.  Ideally, you want to learn from someone who has faced the same challenges you are now facing – and has successfully overcome them.

You should find out as much as you can about the background of the person who will actually be conducting the class.  If you work for a local organization, you will probably want someone who knows the local funding landscape.  (Geography, after all, is the foremost determinant of grant funding.)  A trainer from a national organization that is flying in for the day may not give you the nitty-gritty you really need to be successful.  After all, foundations are an extraordinarily eclectic group and there is no substitute for personal experience in dealing with them.  You will also want to know that the trainer is at least familiar with your segment of the nonprofit world.  Otherwise, you may find that you are literally speaking a different language.  What does “audience development” mean to someone whose career has been in “disaster response?” 

Scope of Funding Sources.  Grant writing for foundations and government is very different.  Particularly now that government grant programs are being consolidated into the framework, there are distinct elements of that process that merit a separate training session.  And while certain avenues of corporate funding parallel the grant making process of foundations, corporations typically have other modes of charitable giving that require a different approach, e.g., sponsorships, matching gifts, in-kind/volunteer contributions, etc.  One training session may not cover all the areas of fundraising you need, but it is important that the class you do attend focuses on a type of funder suited for your organization. 

If funding searches are part of the program, what resources does the class make available to you?  Everyone has access to the Internet and it is valuable to know how to access the free research resources available.  However, it may be even better if the course includes access to proprietary databases that are typically available only for a fee.  As a grant professional, you should know what the best searching resources have to offer. 

Teaching Methods.  It is always preferable to learn by doing rather than by sitting passively through a lecture.  To truly improve your grant writing, a course should require you to produce a grant proposal that can then be critiqued by the instructor and other members of class.  This offers the kind of candid and constructive criticism that you will almost never get from funders. 

Ultimately, successful grant seeking is all about seeing the world from the funder’s perspective.  A good grant course will help you do that.  One way is by having foundation representatives come to class and answer questions.  Another way is to have the students in the class act as a grant committee, reviewing and awarding grants on a competitive basis.  While there may be no real money at stake, there is a lot to be learned by stepping onto the other side of the table.  The importance of formatting; the frustration of sentences that don’t make sense or budgets that don’t add up; the complexity of group decision making – these are just some of the issues that are best elucidated by being part of the grant review process.

Increasingly, private foundations are actively trying to improve the grant writing skills of prospective applicants.  Some have developed courses of their own, while others support classes offered by nonprofit management support organizations.  In seeking out recommendations for grant training, you may want to contact one or more of the foundations from which you expect to request funds.  Who better to guide you in the development of a winning proposal?