If you grew up reading the Choose Your Own Adventurebook series, you recall the low-risk thrill of making choices that shaped your character’s fate. Fast forward to being a grown up in a nonprofit, and the decisions you make aren’t so easy!
One choice that is decidedly high-stakes for the nonprofit professional is the question of whether to outsource vital fundraising functions, including the important work of grant seeking. When does it make sense to bring in an outside grants expert? Will it be worth the investment? Follow the plot line below to assess key factors that should underlie the decision to hire a grants consultant.
Chapter 1: Map where you are in your grants journey
Ultimately the goal of investing in your grants program is to increase your grant wins and grow your grants revenue. How you get there (and how quickly) depends on where you’re starting.
Which of the following is truer for you?
A. My organization has a history of receiving grants. B. My organization is new to grant seeking and has never received a grant.
If you chose Statement A, go on to Chapter 2.
If you chose Statement B, consider whether the investment in a grants consultant is an immediate priority. That’s because the money you pay a consultant won’t necessarily translate into grant dollars right away. The process of getting a first-ever grant can be long and it’s reasonable to expect declines when applying to funders for the first time. Many funders are reluctant to “be the first” and want to see a track record of getting grants.
This doesn’t mean you absolutely shouldn’t hire a consultant when you’re new to grants. It does mean you should enter into grant seeking with realistic expectations, whether or not you hire a consultant to help you. It’s also worth taking steps on your own before hiring a consultant, like developing a solid individual donor program to increase your funding stability.
Chapter 2: Pinpoint why you are seeking help from a consultant
Why are you seeking to engage an outside grants expert? Your answer must be more precise than: “Because we need a grant!”
Choose which of these statements better matches your organization’s needs:
A. We have a list of potential funders and need help meeting grant proposal deadlines. B. We need help finding funders for our organization.
If you chose Statement A, go on to Chapter 3.
If you chose Statement B, the immediate help you need is not grant writing, but grant research to identify appropriate grant funding prospects. If you seek help from a consultant, ask hard questions about what they promise to provide. You don’t simply want a list of funders that match to a set of keywords—that’s a list you can easily generate on your own using Foundation Directory Online. You want to work with an expert who will carefully vet each funder’s website, their Form 990, and their giving history in order to give you detailed and customized recommendations.
There are steps you can take on your own. Start by making a list of your current and past grant funders—that’s because the best prospects for your organization are the ones already invested in your success. Assess what happened in each relationship. Create a plan of action to repair trust wherever expectations of a grant were not met and to restore any relationships that have gone cold. Click here for more tips on finding the best prospects for your organization.
When you’re ready with your funder prospect list, go on to Chapter 3.
Chapter 3: Identify a winning grant writing consultant
Outsourcing the time-consuming work of grant writing is often a wise investment. That’s because the most valuable place for members of your staff to be is not behind a desk slogging through a grant application, but out in front funders to cultivate relationships. Plus, an external grant writer can provide a dedicated focus on grants to continually drive the grant seeking effort forward.
What should you look for when seeking a grant writing consultant?
Prioritize experience over academic credentials
Don’t pigeonhole your search by assuming you need a grant writer with a PhD. What’s important is finding someone who understands the grant seeking process and has a pulse for how funders think and how they make decisions.
Look for evidence of clear and compelling writing skill
A grant writer’s goal should be to clearly communicate ideas and tailor the proposal to the guidelines and priorities of the funder. Ask to review samples of proposals the consultant is most proud of. You may have a winning grant writer if you can answer yes to each of these three questions:
Is the writing clear, easy, and even enjoyable for you to follow?
Do you gain a sense that the organization is credible and that the proposal presents a compelling solution to a palpable need?
Even without knowing anything about the funder to which the proposal was written, do you pick up on clues that the proposal was written through a filter of the funder’s mission and interests?
Don’t get too swept up in “win rates”
It’s appropriate to ask a grant writing consultant about their track record. But if you ask for their “win rate”—the percentage of grants they’ve written that were successful—take the answer with a grain of salt. There are factors outside the grant proposal, like the organization’s reputation and its relationship to a funder, that influence a funder’s decision, meaning a decline doesn’t automatically indicate a poorly written proposal. Furthermore, a grant writer can drive up a success rate by only choosing to write “safe bet” grant applications.
Focus more on understanding the breadth and depth of their experience. Here are some key questions to ask:
Do they identify as a “generalist” who is comfortable writing about any type of organization or do they specialize in certain issue and topic areas? Some kinds of highly technical grants, like medical research grants, are best managed by a specialist.
If you’re seeking help on a federal grant, make certain this is a consultant with that expertise—government grant writing is a special kind of monster.
Do they have experience writing grants to specific foundations you are interested in submitting to? That’s a plus.
Hire a confident project manager
You’re not just hiring a “grant writer.” You need a project manager with the skills to orchestrate a smooth process from start to finish. When interviewing a consultant, ask these questions to understand their process:
Will they outline a project timeline that builds in key meetings and progress milestones ahead of the deadline?
How will you communicate? Virtually or in-person?
How do they propose to gather details from program staff and organizational partners?
When can you expect to review drafts and what is the process for editing?
Who will handle the final submission: you or the consultant?
Deciding to outsource grant seeking can add tremendous value for organizations without a dedicated grants team and also for those whose in-house grant writer needs extra muscle to keep up with a hefty grants docket. What’s key is finding a trustworthy grants expert with the experience to help you maximize your opportunities and provide solutions to your challenges. Follow this road map to finding a grants consultant, and you’ll be on the path to a thrilling and successful adventure!
Lauren worked as a filmmaker, attorney, college instructor, and nonprofit development executive before founding Grants Plus in 2007 to help more worthy causes raise more funds. With Lauren’s leadership, Grants Plus has received the Weatherhead 100 Upstart Award for three consecutive years, a 2016 Smart Women "Progressive Organization" Award from Smart Business, and an Inside Business Northeast Ohio Success Award in 2014. Lauren is past president of the Grant Professionals Association Ohio–Northern Chapter as well as an active member and former board member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) Greater Cleveland Chapter. She is an alumna of Cleveland Bridge Builders and was named one of the “Top 25 Under 35” in 2007 by Inside Business Magazine. To fulfill her childhood dream of becoming a puppy washer, she volunteers at Love-A-Stray dog shelter where she walks dogs and cleans cages. Lauren holds a BS in Telecommunications from Ohio University and a JD from Cleveland State University, Cleveland Marshall College of Law, where she remains active in the Alumni Association.