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Grant writer vs grant manager: Two essential nonprofit jobs separated by a common word

George Bernard Shaw or Oscar Wilde allegedly said, “England and America are two nations separated by a common language.” “Grant Writer” and “Grant Manager” are two allegedly related functions separated by a common word: grant. Many nonprofits and public agencies combine the functions of Grant Writer and Grant Manager into a single position, often called the Grant Coordinator.

This is not a good idea.

This bit of common organizational stupidity was recently brought up by a faithful reader, frequent commentator and now-former grant writing consultant competitor (we’ll call him Milo). As Milo put it in an email, after several years of being a grant writing consultant, he’s given up* and decided to “come in from the [consulting] cold.” He’s been offered a job at a fairly large nonprofit ($13 million annual budget) as their combined Grant Writer/Grant Manager, even though he has no management experience.

Milo’s question: “At what size do nonprofit organizations typically make grant development and management separate jobs?” Unlike with new latest remake of Godzilla, size does not matter and I advised him that nonprofits and public agencies, small and large, usually combine these disparate functions, apparently only because the word “grant” is in both job titles. I assume this happens because most senior managers actually have no idea of what a grant writer does.

Having had the unenviable experience of having been the “Grant Coordinator,” albeit over 35 years ago when I worked for the woebegone City of Lynwood, I assured Milo that grant writing has little to do with grant management. As GWC readers know, a grant writer is essentially a Steppenwolf—a solitary figure who spends long hours alone sitting at a computer, churning out proposals. Coffee, snacks, and books go in and a proposal comes out.

To be a grant writer, one has to like working alone, be a good and fast writer, be unafraid of deadlines and have an active imagination about how to structure programs in the proposal world. The job of a grant manager, by contrast, is all about extracting fiscal and program information from line staff regarding existing grants and then regurgitating the info back to funders on convoluted forms and stultifying reports that nobody reads.

The grant writer is usually respected and/or feared by other staff, as they are the organization’s warrior, whose job is to conduct single mortal combat with a RFP dragon, over and over again, to keep the paychecks flowing and the lights on. The grant manager is typically hated and shunned by line staff, since the grant manager is always badgering them for performance data, and, even worse, outcome data. In military terms, the grant writer is the tip of the spear and the grants manager is a classic REMF (“Rear Echelon Mother Fucker”).

Assuming one has the skills and no fear of working without a net, it’s much more fun to be a grant writer than a grant manager. To use a scientific terms, being a grant manager blows.

* I wish Milo well. Having been in business for 21 years, we’ve seen lots of consulting competitors rise and and eventually give up. Being a grant writer is hard, but being a successful grant writing consultant is much harder, as Milo and many others have learned.

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Always Tell the Grant Writer: What We Don’t Know Can Hurt You

If you read legal thrillers, you know that clients chronically give incomplete information to their attorneys—which, in legal thrillers, inevitably makes the attorney look stupid in the eyes of people she respects (like, say, judges). Keeping secrets from attorneys also seldom works in the client’s favor: it’s almost always better for the client and the lawyer to disclose that, yes, you were sleeping with the wife, the sister, and the mother on the day in question. Besides, the lawyer has seen or heard or done worse anyway.

Better to look bad in the eyes of the lawyer than to be convicted.

We often analogize what we do to what lawyers do, because there are so many similarities: our clients are really buying our expertise more than they’re buying our work products; we prepare written documents on abstruse topics that nonetheless shape much of the world; we sometimes bill by the hour; and we often give opinions about courses of action. Those opinions may turn out to be wrong*, usually for reasons beyond our control, but they’re based on decades of experience in preparing grant applications.

In addition to those similarities, our clients should tell us as much as they can. If they don’t, we’re more likely to (unintentionally) make mistakes that could screw up their application. Or we’re like to stumble, accidentally,** into what they’re trying to hide. They’re rarely hiding anything as salacious as sleeping with the wife, the sister, and the mother—which is why people write legal thrillers and not grant thrillers—but what they do hide can scupper or weaken their application.

A mistake can lead to embarrassment and the potential loss of millions of dollars. So, when you’re in doubt, err on the side of honesty and disclosure to your grant writer. Save the dubious stories or evasions for your Board of Directors.

(There are stories behind the general principle above, but grant writers are also like lawyers in that we know when to be discreet. We don’t name names and, when it would hurt our clients to tell a story, we don’t tell it—even if the clients aren’t paying us anymore.)

* In The Fellowship of the Ring Frodo encounters a group of high elves tarrying in Middle-earth before they depart forever, and he asks one of them what he should do: he is being pursued by dark riders and Gandalf has not arrived:

‘… The choice is yours: to go or wait.’ [Gildor said.]
‘And it is also said,’ answered Frodo, ‘Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.’
‘Is it indeed?’ laughed Gildor. ‘Elves seldom give unguarded advice, for advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise, and all courses may run ill. But what would you? You have not told me all concerning yourself; how should I choose better than you? But if you demand advice, I will for friendship’s sake give it.’

“All courses may run ill:” it is true in Middle-earth, grant writing, and life.

** We don’t go looking for dirt and neither should you. For one thing, there’s plenty of it in plain sight.