What is grant writing?

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July 28, 2021
5 minute read

Are you thinking about becoming a grant writer, but aren’t exactly sure what it is or what it entails? To start, know that it’s a growing and lucrative writing niche for freelancers and employees alike. This comprehensive guide breaks down what grant writing is all about to give you the details on the job, potential income levels, skills needed, finding grant writing jobs, and much more.

What is grant writing?

Grant writing is a type of writing that helps organizations (and even individuals) obtain financial assistance for projects and ideas. The money typically comes from federal agencies that redistribute government resources to qualifying parties or from private foundations looking to help with initiatives beneficial to the community at large.

Receiving a grant often requires that interested parties go through a grant application process. Funds are limited and grantmakers want them to be used in ways that align with the grant’s designated purpose and specifications. Award recipients are chosen from the pool of eligible applicants based on the proposal they submit in the grant application process.

The job of a grant writer

Grant writers have a crucial role for organizations because they work to match a grantmaker with money to give for specific projects, to an organization, or individuals seeking money for a charitable initiative. These writers search databases and potential donors to see which grants are worth pursuing and which ones aren’t a fit with the organization’s mission and objectives.

Once they find a suitable grant to apply for, grant writers are charged with writing the grant proposal. A proposal has numerous components, such as a carefully crafted cover letter, an explanation of why the organization is interested in the cause, and how it has succeeded with other projects in the past.

Other items it consists of are a detailed account of how the entity will use the money and the measurable outcomes it expects. A grant proposal also includes curated attachments, like letters of support and one to two related testimonials or newspaper clippings that bolster the proposal.

Grants have precise requirements and guidelines. Grant writers must follow instructions to a T for a funder’s consideration. Within those guidelines, it’s essential for your organization’s grant proposal to stand out. Hundreds or even thousands of organizations may be vying for the same grant. Grant writers must infuse their writing expertise into the proposal to make something that is factual and rooted in hard data, but also tells a compelling story and sketches an enticing vision that motivates and inspires grantors.

Grant writers may also have different writing tasks within an organization, like documenting the project’s results if it receives funding. But they may also be responsible for other types of communication, such as building relationships with potential grantors and answering questions grantors have about the proposal.

Grant writers working as employees may also have other roles if the organization doesn’t need full-time grant writing. Many other grant writers are self-employed and simultaneously work on projects with several organizations.

How much do grant writers earn?

Fee structures and estimates for grant writing vary based on whether you’re an employee or are self-employed.

Employed grant writers

Average salary estimates for grant writers range from a low of $44,150 on Indeed to a high of $74,650 on the BLS. The BLS lumps grant proposal writers under technical writers, and estimates this field is growing faster than average. Salary.com also lists the average salary for grant writers as $72,517.

How much you earn varies by your experience, years in the field, location, grant success rate, and more. Payscale is a good website for personalized grant salary reports to find your market worth. It considers where you live, years of experience, skills and education, and other pay factors.

According to Payscale, the most popular skills that can increase your salary as a grant writer are:

  • Data analysis
  • Donor relations
  • Strategic project management
  • Proposal writing
  • Research analysis

If you’re planning on or are open to a move, ZipRecruiter lists these five cities as paying the highest average annual salary for grant writing:

City

Average Annual Salary

Lakes, AK

$64,675

San Francisco, CA

$64,412

Santa Clara, CA

$63,666

Washington, DC

$62,807

Los Angeles CA

$62,084

Note that average annual salaries don’t vary much between the top highest paying cities. If you’re planning a move to earn more as a grant writer, the cost of living may be what tips the scales.

Self-employed grant writers

Self-employed grant writers charge a flat rate of hundreds or thousands of dollars for each grant proposal, depending on their experience and the project’s complexity. According to Thumbtack, it’s common for writers to charge $200 to $500 to prepare and submit smaller grants. Federal grants, which tend to be much more complex and time-consuming, can cost about $3,000 and take over 30 hours to prepare.

Grant writers using hourly rates charge around $25 when they’re new or have fewer successful grants under their belts, to $150+ when they’re seasoned veterans with a record of winning large grants.

If a non profit frequently needs you to write a proposal, you may decide to work with them on a retainer. If you charge per project, it’s not uncommon to ask for a deposit upfront. Note that grant writers still get paid whether or not the grant is approved.

Commission pay for grant writers

Grant writers are either salaried, hourly, or project-based. Both the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) and the National Council of Nonprofits state in their code of ethics that commission-based pay for fundraisers is unethical. Grants are considered to be a type of donation because they are funds given by an entity. And as a grant writer, you are raising funds to carry out the organization’s initiatives. As the AFP writes, members cannot “accept compensation or enter into a contract that is based on a percentage of contributions; nor shall members accept finder’s fees or contingent fees.”

That said, there is no issue with accepting bonuses and other performance-based compensation. But it must be part of the organization’s prevailing practices, and still can’t be based off a percentage of the grant awarded.

Grant writers must also give a detailed account of how the organization will spend the funds in the grant proposal. Funders are likely to not favorably view using a portion of the grant to pay your fees. So, your pay should come out of the organization’s budget and not the grant’s.

How to estimate grant proposal costs

Here are 11 questions to consider when pricing a grant writing project:

  1. Will I do more than just write a grant proposal? What is the scope of work?
  2. Do I have other roles in addition to grant writer, such as project manager?
  3. Are there any materials or templates I can reuse from the organization’s previous grant proposal activities, or will I have to create everything from scratch?
  4. Do I need to research prospects? Build relationships with foundations?
  5. Do I have to attend any meetings to complete any part of this project?
  6. Am I helping to create a budget?
  7. Is this a foundation grant or a state or federal grant? (State or federal grant proposals can cost as much as four times more because of the extra work involved.)
  8. How long do I have to complete this grant proposal?
  9. Will I need to do any follow-up work after the grant’s submittal?
  10. How big is this organization’s grant-writing budget? Can they afford to pay higher fees?
  11. How long do I estimate this project will take?

Still having trouble coming up with a figure?

Talk to other freelance grant writers either with the same or similar qualifications and experience as you. You can easily find them by joining a professional association for grant writers. These associations often have local chapters, small groups, conferences, seminars, and other events where you can rub shoulders with and ask questions to more experienced writers in the field. You may even find someone open to being a mentor. Some popular associations for grant writers are:

You can also reach out to a nonprofit organization to ask how much they usually pay for a grant writing proposal. Your state’s nonprofit association is another place to ask for this information.

Keep in mind that freelance grant writers don’t have many of the benefits and perks of full-time employed ones. You likely don’t have subsidized health insurance, paid vacation time, paid time off, and other smaller (but equally valuable) benefits like administrative help, office supplies, and equipment. Rather than aiming to make the average grant writer salary, you’ll need to account for the monetary value of these benefits in your fees for comparable earnings.

What does it take to become a grant writer?

Grant writers typically have certain skills, traits, education, and experience. Here are the most important ones you’ll need to become a successful grant writer.

Skills and traits

Research: You’ll identify grant opportunities, vet funding agencies, identify needs, research a funding strategy, ensure the organization’s approach is viable, and more.

Writing: You’ll not only fill out grant applications, but you may be involved in creating the budget, feasibility analysis, sustainability plan, funding strategy and more.

Solid proofreading skills and the ability to write persuasively are also essential. Not all clients have an editor do the final review, and it’s up to you to use the proposal to show funders why the organization should get the grant above all other applicants.

Tech-savvy: You’ll need to be proficient in Microsoft Office, Google Workspace, and other professional productivity tools your clients use. When trying to find available grants, you’ll also be combing through numerous private, state, and federal resources to find a grant match.

Communication skills: Grant writers regularly need to communicate with grantmakers, clients, and other members of the organization to write a proposal successfully and conduct follow-up activities. Sometimes they’ll also need to speak to members of the community. It also helps you professionally to build a network of contacts in your industry.

Detail-oriented and organized: Grants often come with precise directions and requirements that you’ll need to follow exactly to have grantmakers consider your proposal. Larger grants and federal grants also come with many moving pieces that you must stay on top of.

And whether you’re a freelance grant writer or an employee, you’ll likely be working on multiple proposals across a variety of organizations. So, it’s crucial you’re able to keep all the information organized.

Emotional toughness: No grant writer has a 100% success rate. It’s not uncommon to go through multiple grant proposal rejections and denials when trying to land clients or after submitting proposals. It’s tough even for seasoned veterans. But with each proposal or prospect rejection, you’ll learn something new that you can apply the next time around to improve your chances.

Education and experience

Overall, your education and training count less than your record of getting grants approved. But when you’re starting as a new freelancer and still building your portfolio, having a solid education listed on your resume is essential to show an organization you know what it takes to write a winning grant.

Some higher education institutions do offer a formal degree in grant writing, though other related fields like English, marketing, or contract management are also acceptable. Experience in any of these fields will make you a more attractive candidate to clients and employers.

You don’t have to go and get a degree to become a grant writer if yours is in an unrelated field or you never went to college. You can take individual courses and training programs either online or in-person that are just as acceptable. Even if you do already have a degree in a related field, taking a grant writing course shows you’ve had some training specifically in the field of grant writing.

Prices for courses vary wildly, but more expensive doesn’t always equal better. In fact, some grant writing courses are free. Use your research skills to vet programs and scan reviews to see which programs are a good fit. Here are a few online courses to consider:

Who hires grant writers?

There’s a wide variety of grant applicant organizations usually eligible for the federal grants given by a particular government department. A qualified grant applicant organization typically falls under the category of:

  • Government (Native American tribes, city, local, state, etc.)
  • Nonprofit (doesn’t always need 501(c)(3) classification to qualify)
  • For-profit (excluding small businesses)
  • Small business (the US Small Business Administration offers grants for companies in specific industries)
  • Education (school districts, higher education)
  • Public housing (public and Indigenous housing authorities)

There are also private-sector corporations and foundations with grant-making programs. They are much less plentiful than government grants, but they may be an option for an organization that isn’t eligible for government grants. The most attractive types of organizations to private grantmakers are nonprofits, especially those doing research and development.

Keep in mind that grants usually aren’t awarded to help startups fund their business. Likewise, there aren’t private-sector grants to help with business expansion.

How to find grant writing jobs

Now that you know the types of organizations eligible for grants, here’s how to find grant writing jobs.

Direct reach

You can network directly with prospective clients and employers on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and other social media platforms.

Cold pitching campaigns can also be effective. Slightly customizing cold pitch templates can make your pitches sound original and thoughtful without much extra work.

You can also check out individual websites to see if companies have posted grant writer job openings. Additionally, don’t be afraid to call a local organization directly to see if they need a grant writer.

Job boards

Companies needing grant writers are likely to advertise on job boards, so you should have an account and resume ready to go. Niche job boards with potential opportunities include:

But don’t neglect general jobs like:

Job board aggregators like Google can help you search multiple job boards at once.

Previous grantees

Grant research websites have databases for funding sources. It’s designed for organizations looking for a funding opportunity, but some of them list previous grant recipients. These organizations may need other grants, so it’s worth checking out.

The best site to search for past grant recipients is the Foundation Directory Online. You’ll need to pay a hefty membership fee of $200 (monthly option) to access recipient profiles. Its website has a sample recipient profile you can view. The detailed insights provided should be enough for you to find organizations likely to need more grants and that are a perfect fit for your industry and expertise. You can cancel your membership at any time.

Another way to find grantees is by looking at individual grantmaker websites.

Online presence

You can have clients come to you if you have a solid online presence. Work on creating a simple site with your portfolio and contact information. If you’re passionate about grant writing, you can even post articles on your site sharing grant-writing tips, tricks, and nuggets of wisdom as you learn them.

You can also share your blog post on your social media accounts, along with celebrations of grant approvals. You’ll stay top of mind with your connections, and prospects will start to see you as an industry expert. The next time they need a grant writer, they’ll be more likely to think of your name first.

How do I become a grant writer?

If you’re looking to break into grant writing, here are the three steps to becoming a grant writer:

Step 1: Consider grant writing courses or certification programs

If you don’t have any prior experience with grant writing, taking a course or certification program will make you a more attractive candidate. It shows prospects you at least have the foundational knowledge necessary to write a proposal. It also helps bolster your resume with relevant items.

If you’re serious about grant writing, certification programs are generally the better path. They’re more comprehensive than a single course or random cluster of classes. You’ll be able to add the certificate’s details to your resume, but only the AGWA’s Certified Grant Writing Series allows you to take the title of Certified Grant Writer®. See the “Education and experience” section above for recommended programs of study.

Step 2: Join a professional association

Memberships to professional grant associations are well worth the expense. They often have local chapters that support new members by helping with networking, educational resources, and more. The grant writers you network within these associations may have inside knowledge on entry-level grant writing opportunities you can apply for, or the association itself may connect members to organizations hiring grant writers.

Membership to the AGWA, for instance, includes access to an online membership directory and participation in interest groups that could help you network with others in your field. It also partners with various organizations needing grant writers.

Becoming a GPA member also allows access to member directories, professional publications and resources, continuing education opportunities, and financial benefits like discounts to grant training and software.

You can also list membership to one of these associations on your resume to show prospects you’re interested in professional development and adhere to a code of ethics.

Step 3: Gain experience

One of the best ways to quickly gain experience and on-the-job training is to join a grant-writing team as a volunteer or intern at an organization where you’d like to work. It’s an easy way to get your foot in the door and gain hands-on experience. Moreover, it’s relevant experience you can add to your resume. Having at least one completed proposal in your portfolio can also significantly boost your credibility.

You can approach an organization directly and ask to volunteer, or you can look for paid and unpaid grant writing internship positions on Indeed and other job boards.

There’s a good chance the organization will hire you for a future proposal, but even if it doesn’t, a letter of recommendation from them can go a long way in making you stand out from other candidates when you apply for grant writing jobs.

Do rewarding work with grant writing

If you love writing and helping others, grant writing can be a gratifying field to work in. You’ll have an integral part in getting initiatives launched that improve the lives of others. It’s also an in-demand type of freelance writing that can grow into a lucrative career. You can jump in with just some courses to learn the basics of a proposal, and gain experience through grant writing volunteer work and internships. From there, you can build and shape your grant writing business into something you’re proud of.

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