Careers series: How do I become a Grant Writer?


Is grant writing for me?


To get a sense of what it takes to be a good grant writer, we spoke to three people who are currently working to fund their particular organisations. We started with Leeza Tierney, director of US-based non-profit organisation Cup of Change, which creates partnerships with local NGO’s in developing nations. For Tierney, the top three things a good grant writer needs are strong writing skills, the ability to research, and creativity.

“Be sure you acquaint yourself with the field for which you are writing grant proposals,” Tierney advises. “If you’re writing a grant regarding funding for an after-school program, it helps to provide accurate statistics on the benefits of such programs. ‘Such-and-such report states that after-school programs decrease neighbourhood gang activities by 20 percent,’ for example.”

“Though seemingly simple, it’s essential to follow directions,” Tierney adds. “Be sure you understand what the question is asking and provide specific details directly addressing it.”

Mei Li Ooi, associate director of development and grant writer for Save the Bay in San Francisco, echoes Tierney’s advice. “Do your research and ensure you’re tailoring your message to your specific donor,” Ooi says. “For example, corporate grants are more press release oriented, while government grants are far more technical.”

Ooi adds that organisational skills are key. “Grants are time-sensitive and require assembly of many different materials. Be a good project manager and adhere to the timelines.”

Emma Kirwin, a rock climber who founded Peaks Over Poverty to raise money for mountain communities, says the final ingredient is passion for the cause. As her organisation’s only fundraiser, Kirwin knows how useful outside help from skilled freelance grant writers can be, but emphasises that they need to be extremely familiar with the organisation they work for.

“To receive a grant, an organisation must sell its cause and express the urgency for funding, which is no easy feat for an ‘outsider,’” Kirwin explains. “With that being said, grant writing is time consuming and having skilled, compatible help enables an NGO to move forward with its mission.”

How do I get started?

If the above job descriptions sound like they might suit you, the next step is to understand that getting a jobs as a grant writer isn’t an exact science. There are options for those who want to add a specialised grant writing course to their CV, but there are also plenty of people who have worked their way into the field without a specific qualification.

The Foundation Centre, a US-based non-profit that has been in operation since 1956, is one organisation that does offer courses in grant writing, aiming to cover the skills necessary to create a solid proposal. “Our day-long proposal writing seminar provides attendees with a base from which to succeed in foundation fundraising,” says Caroline Herbert, the Foundation Centre’s manager of multimedia and on-demand training.

Herbert adds that the skills covered in a course like this include how to use a story-telling technique to bring a proposal to life, how to clearly describe the issue the project addresses, how to add supporting data, and how to create a comprehensive budget that clearly reflects the proposal’s narrative.

One counter-example is that of Australian Steven Brady, who has been offering his grant writing services under the banner of his own company, CRE8BIZ, since 1994. While Brady has three degrees to his name, he says getting started in grant writing was a matter of working his way in.

“The reality is, the overall grant process of establishing a grant program, finding a grant and applying for a grant is a process where anyone can quickly and easily learn the ‘what to do,’ Brady argues. “However, the ‘how to do’ comes down to business experience, maturity in dealing with commercial business documents, a capacity to cover off essential information, and to make a compelling case.”

Save the Bay’s Mei Li Ooi has a similar story, having landed her role through previous experience. “My bachelor’s degree was actually in theatre, but I’d written public service announcements, an employee manual, abstracts and newsletter articles at various non-profits,” Ooi explains.

Her next move – working as a development associate at De Paul University in Chicago – wasn’t directly related to grant writing either. But that’s where her next opportunity opened up. “I learned about the grant writing work available in the corporate and foundation relations department, and when a position opened up, I applied for and landed the job. I took on the smaller portfolios in the beginning to prove myself, and gradually took on the larger donors. I’ve had other employers comment that it was really helpful that I have a development rather than just a writing background.”

What do employers want?

For an even closer look at what would-be grant writers need to land a job, we contacted Australia’s Grants & Funding Institute, which is currently looking for “bright, capable and experienced freelance grant writers” across a range of sectors.

“We find that in a broad sense, people with skills and experience in communications, PR, management, marketing, community or stakeholder relations are well-placed to prepare strong grant applications,” says the Grants & Funding Institute’s director, Tehla Bower. She adds that specific experience in the particular industry where the grant is being offered will also give a would-be grant writer an edge.

The word “experienced” will appear more often than you might like in any job search for grant writing positions. But even if you’re not sure about signing up for a course and have no way to gain relevant experience in your current job, there is one more option: volunteer grant writing.

You can find volunteer grant writing online, or you could go directly to an non-profit and volunteer to contribute to their next grant application in whatever way you can. Then it’s up to you to cultivate those three key skills – writing, research, and creativity – to set yourself up for a grant writing career.

In the next part of our careers series we will be looking into Advocacy, a career path where you can influence public-policy and resource allocation decisions within political, economic, and social systems and institutions.

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