Last Monday, the executive director of a Community Health Center (CHC) in a western city called me for a HRSA New Access Points (NAP) proposal fee quote—a fairly routine call. I gave him the quote, told him how we do what we do oh-so-well, and he agreed to hire us. As my kids liked to say when they were in high school, “it’s all good.” Just before I signed off, however, our new client startled me by asking, “By the way, how come your fees are so cheap?”
Wow! This query surprised me, as I always thought our fees were relatively high compared to our alleged competition. So, I did a little riff on how we price jobs. I also offered to raise the fee, if he wanted to feel like he was buying the best, but he declined. In our view the fee is about right for this kind of assignment with about eight weeks to complete.
On Tuesday, I was on the loading dock checking in a new shipment of gerunds when the phone rang. I put down my bailing hook, took off my work gloves, and answered. It was a call back from a national nonprofit in Washington D.C. that wants to outsource their grant writing functions. I had talked to an underling the previous week, and she was calling back with the big boss man to grill me about what we do, how we do it, and what we charge. I spent a half hour giving my standard pitch and fielding rapid fire questions with aplomb. After 20 years of pitching, I’ve pretty much heard every possible permutation of questions and have ready answers. The queso grande, however, was going at me hammer and tongs and was giving me the verbal equivalent of what Elmore Leonard calls the Big Yard stare.
I thought I was doing all right when he said, “How come your fees are so high? You’re three times as expensive as the other grant writers we’re interviewing.” On Monday, we’re too cheap and on Tuesday, we’re too expensive! I said that he was in the Mercedes dealership and must have gotten lost on him way to the Hyundai dealership across the street. I told him what we think of our competition—which is not much, based on the websites we’ve seen and the proposals we’ve been given by clients. Finally, I reminded him that our fees are cleverly hidden in plain sight on our website. If he was looking for the 99-cent store of grant writers, he was wasting our collective time.
The interview ended shortly thereafter. I guess he thought I was going to collapse in the face of pressure and give him a two-thirds discount.* As John Wayne said in my favorite Western, The Searchers, “That’ll be the day.”
These two anecdotes show that one person’s cheap consultant is another person’s expensive grant writer. We post our fee ranges on our website in part to avoid sticker shock. Most of our competitors, however, either post nothing about fees or write in vague generalities. I assume this is because they don’t know what their time is worth or charge by the hour.** We’ve been in business for 20 years, so we must be hitting the sweet spot of pricing—or we would have disappeared along the way, as so many of our would-be competitors have.
When you’re seeking hundreds or thousands or millions of dollars in grants, you can hire a consultant because they’re cheap or you can hire a consultant because they’re good. But when the difference in fees is a couple of thousand dollars, and the difference in outcomes is measured in hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, you know who to call.
* He might also already have another grant writer he wants to hire, or he might be engaging in some weird interpersonal battle with his employee, or have some other consideration in mind. We don’t know enough to know what’s really going on, but in many situations nominal price considerations are actually a cover for other motivations. We’ve written about one example of this in “Why Seliger + Associates Never Responds to RFPs/RFQs for Grant Writing Services,” which we noted that “RFQs/RFPs for professional services are easily wired, with ‘wired’ meaning that one firm is going to get the contract regardless of who submits a response.”
** Charging by the hour makes sense in some circumstances—we sometimes work on an hourly basis—but for many assignments a flat-fee arrangement better aligns our interests and our clients’ interests. Many would-be grant writers charge by the hour because they know they can’t actually complete a full proposal, even if they say they can and will. For us, charging a flat fee for many assignments signals that we’re going to get the job done.