Seliger + Associates works with the full spectrum of nonprofits, from newly minted ones to some that have been providing services for 150 years (this is not an exaggeration, as we have one client in Chicago that was formed in the 1860s). We’ve seen how nonprofits morph with respect to their grant writing opinions and practices as they careen through their life cycles. As I pointed out in One, Two, Three* Easy Steps to Start-Up a Nonprofit Upstart, most nonprofits don’t begin life through grant funding; instead, they rely on a loan/gift from the founder and/or an angel “investor.” As the nonprofit gathers steam, however, and begins to expand the services it delivers, the need for grant writing grows, because few nonprofits can offer a wide array of services to a large number of people while operating on a shoestring.
Since new nonprofits usually have extremely limited resources, most cannot afford to hire a grant writer, either as a staff person or consultant. This leaves a conundrum, as the nonprofit has increasing grant writing needs that are tempered by lack of resources. Or, as in the hoary aphorism, “it takes money to make money.” At a basic level, young nonprofits must function like emerging small businesses to meet capital needs to expand service delivery while supporting ongoing operations. Essentially, they have three options if they want to supplement donations and capitated revenue streams with grants:
1. The founder needs to quickly learn how to be a grant writer. Unless the founder is already a skilled writer—and few people are, though many more believe they are—this option is unlikely to produce immediate results because she would have to first learn to write and then learn to grant write. As we pointed out in aCredentials for Grant Writers from the Grant Professionals Certification Institute—If I Only Had A Brain, one can’t will oneself to become a grant writer by going to a three-day training seminar.
Some founders,** however, have the writing skills and the passion to churn out good enough proposals. But they may not want to be stuck with grant writing tasks; few people decide to save the world, or at least their corner of it, by spending a lot of time alone with their computer and an RFP, just as many science professors are dismayed by the sheer amount of grant writing they have to do to keep a lab funded.
2. The organization finds a person who loves it and/or its mission and already happens to be a grant writer and will volunteer her time. This is even less likely than option one, since there are so few grant writers you’ll be looking for the proverbial hen’s teeth.
3. Scrape together enough resources to hire a grant writer, most likely as a consultant, since this is usually a more effective option than trying to find an employee who also has or can quickly develop grant writing skills. The hen’s teeth problem again.
As the organization moves into adolescence, usually through a combination of donations and some success with grants, it will naturally gravitate toward option three. Many nonprofits try to build an internal grant writing capability by hiring at least one employee with grant writing skills (or grant-writing potential) and also providing in-service grant writing training to existing staff.
Sometimes this even works.
But when grant writers are grown in-house, they often move to other nonprofits or universities that offer more money, or the grant writer achieves sufficient status within the organization that he or she doesn’t want to write proposals any more—which isn’t surprising, given how difficult writing proposals is. Nonetheless, in-house grant writers are quite common.
When the nonprofit achieves adulthood, this internal capacity is generally supplemented with the external resource on a consultant like Seliger + Associates. We are frequently hired by organizations with internal grant writing capacity. An entity that already has a grant writer on staff usually hires a hired gun for three reasons:
1. The internal grant writer is terrified of a particular RFP—and what’s anybody else to write it.
2. The internal grant writer is swarmed over by RFPs and and can’t keep up.
3. Finally, there is the ever popular “shoot the consultant” motivation used by Executive Directors who want somebody to blame if the grant is not funded, or if the organization is experiencing some other kind of turmoil and needs a common enemy to create unity within it.
* Buckaroo Bonzai in one of my favorite movies from the 1980s, the curious The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.
** Including myself, as I described in my first GWC post, “They Say a Fella Never Forgets His First Grant Proposal.”