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Why can’t I find a grant writer? How to identify and seize that elusive beast

(Editor’s note: this post deals primarily with employees. We’ve also written a post on the subject of grant writing consultants to complement this one.)

Last week’s post deals with the tools grant writers should have, and although it focuses on grant writing, it’s really about equipping almost any intellectual worker, or, in Richard Florida’s atrocious and ugly phrase, person in the creative class.* Likewise, this week’s post covers the peculiarities of finding a grant writer, but much of it applies to anyone recruiting intellectual workers, whether they’re software programmers, writers, professors, or policy wonks.

Despite the similarities between grant writing and other professions, some grant writing websites or blogs spew all kinds of misleading or silly advice about finding and hiring grant writers. For example, one of the top hits on seeking grant writers is a Chronicle of Higher Education article called “Debunking Some Myths About Grant Writing.” It says things like, “Grant writing is all about power.” No: grant writing is all about getting proposals funded. Power is at most another level of abstraction out from that.

As with many such articles, some of its advice is okay and some of it is idiotic, like this: “Myth 4: Meeting the deadline is the most important goal of a successful grant writer.” If you’ve decided to apply to a program, meeting the deadline is the most important goal, because, obviously if you don’t meet the deadline, you have no chance of being funded. Incidentally, that distinguishes Seliger + Associates from other grant writers: in 15 years, we’ve never missed a deadline. If you’re not going to place meeting deadlines above all other priorities, you shouldn’t be writing grants.

If you’re going to seek a grant writer, you’ve got a choice to make: whether you’re going to hire a consultant or a full-time person. If you’re going to hire a consultant, congratulations, because your search is already done. If you’re going to hire an employee, this article is for you; given the aforementioned plethora of bad advice, we’re going to start by suggesting you read Joel Spolsky’s article “Finding Great Developers” followed by “A Field Guide to Developers.” He says things like:

“Tell me: did you have private offices for your developers at all your startups?”

“Of course not,” he said. “The VCs would never go for that.”

This doesn’t sound like grant writing language, but if you replace “developers” with “grant writers” and “VCs” with “executive directors and donors,” you’ve got the same basic idea. Ignore comments specifically about programming and pay very close attention to the ways he recruits and the things he offers. And read the book Peopleware, which is perhaps the most brilliant and yet ignored book on intellectual organizations I’ve encountered. I don’t mean “ignored” in the sense of being poorly known—many, many people have heard of it—but rather in the sense that few actually take its important recommendations into account.

Anyway, Spolsky’s best contribution is observing that the individual variation between programmers is huge, and smart companies want the best ones, but it’s hard to tell who’s who. The same is true in grant writing; there can be orders of magnitude in difference between grant writers. It’s possible for a grant writer who is a fantastic writer and hard worker (note the “AND” conjunction—one or the other isn’t sufficient) to write dozens of proposals a year, depending on the nature of the proposals, the size of the organization, etc. Big federal proposals require more effort than small foundation proposals, but one per month seems like a reasonable, easy baseline for a single grant writer with limited support staff.

Conversely, a bad grant writer will be a drag: they’ll suck up the time of the executive director and board members with useless meetings and questions, botch applications for grants the organization needs, and irritate repeat funders, especially foundations. There’s a lot of what we call “doughnut eating” in the nonprofit world, which is a derogatory term for endless meetings and discussion in lieu of action. Bad grant writers love doughnut eating. Good grant writers tolerate it to the extent necessary but would rather be finishing proposals. A really incompetent grant writer could torpedo an organization that relies principally on grant funds to survive.

You obviously want the good ones want to avoid the less good. The bad news is that the difference between great and bad grant writers usually isn’t readily apparent before they start, and if you post public messages seeking grant writers, you’re almost guaranteed to be inundated with applications from bad candidates. Great grant writers will for the most part already be with or running successful agencies. If they write lots of proposals that get funded, their agencies will flourish, be flush with cash, and in turn their grant writers won’t be on the market. If they do, they’ll likely have lots of options: they can continue writing proposals, run useless grant writing training, become consultants, or the like. The reverse is true as well: bad grant writers are always out there, because they’re “let go,” or get fired, or their organizations go under for a lack of funds, or nonprofits won’t hire them for more than 90 days in the first place (more on this in a minute).

If you’re trying to hire good grant writers, you’ll need to identify and recruit them. A word concerning one popular method of finding them: writing samples. Writing samples are a mixed bag: if you’re hiring someone, a sample might not be a bad thing to see, but they’ll a) have no relevance for someone who knows how to write but hasn’t written proposals, b) are easy to fake, c) still might not mean the person can hit deadlines or write quickly, or d) can write about a topic about which they know nothing, which is the hallmark of a really great grant writer. The false positive rate on writing samples seems far too high; Costo gives free samples; grant writers usually don’t. For what it’s worth, we have never provided writing samples.

In addition, most employers will have a 90 day trial period, which is sufficient time to see if the would-be grant writer actually writes. You’ll get all the writing samples you need—and samples that can’t be faked, aren’t written by committee, taken from the Internet, or whatever, and are on point for your organization. Does that grant writer spend those 90 days or so “familiarizing” themselves with the organization instead of seeking and writing proposals? Do they talk about writers block? Or do they take your background materials, write whatever proposals you’ve given them, and maybe find a few RFPs you’re not familiar with and bring them to your attention? In those 90 days, you’ll find out whether your grant writer is really a grant writer. Oh, and you should also make it a binary thing. As Spolsky says in “The Guerrilla Guide to Interviewing (version 3.0),” “There are only two possible outcomes to this decision: Hire or No Hire.” He goes on:

Never say “Maybe, I can’t tell.” If you can’t tell, that means No Hire. It’s really easier than you’d think. Can’t tell? Just say no! If you are on the fence, that means No Hire. Never say, “Well, Hire, I guess, but I’m a little bit concerned about…” That’s a No Hire as well. Mechanically translate all the waffling to “no” and you’ll be all right.

Why am I so hardnosed about this? It’s because it is much, much better to reject a good candidate than to accept a bad candidate. A bad candidate will cost a lot of money and effort and waste other people’s time fixing all their bugs. Firing someone you hired by mistake can take months and be nightmarishly difficult, especially if they decide to be litigious about it. In some situations it may be completely impossible to fire anyone. Bad employees demoralize the good employees. And they might be bad programmers but really nice people or maybe they really need this job, so you can’t bear to fire them, or you can’t fire them without pissing everybody off, or whatever. It’s just a bad scene.

Grant writing diverges from software programming here because you can’t throw questions about subroutines or abstraction or recursion or the other computer science concepts any good computer scientist should know. You could spring an essay test on them, but that wouldn’t show much more than whether they perform well under “gotcha”-style pressure. We advocate for the trial period: it should give you the information you can’t just get from an interview. Grant writing, unlike software, also has a better defined, more easily delineated work product: a finished proposal. It’s analogous to the piecework versus salary debate, which you should read if you want to understand the problems. Software eventually has to ship, but judging output can be much murkier, which both Spolsky and Paul Graham talk about elsewhere.

Regardless, if you can’t tell who is good by writing samples, interviews, and the like, you can tell by working with them for a period of time. That’s why a 90 day trial makes sense. It will help you find grant writers who are not only good writers, but also take care of the corollary work that can actually take up most of a grant writer’s time. Good grant writers read Seliger Funding Report. They bring new opportunities to your attention. When you hand them an assignment, they start on it right away because there’s no reason not to. They read many newspapers and books that are likely to contain information about new research and ideas that could relate to grants. Bad grant writers ask for a meeting with key stakeholders in two weeks, and spend the intervening time playing Solitaire. They wait too long to start proposals and then rush to make the deadline, and as a result are missing a key letter of support and have proposals that are badly formatted and filled with typos. They will make excuses as to why they couldn’t complete the proposal by the deadline. Good grant writers get the job done without blaming others.

None or very little of this will be apparent from interviews and resumes.

Still, you have to look at resumes and conduct interviews to remove the grossly unqualified. Spolsky once again has a useful article on the subject. Virtually all the criteria apply to grant writing with the exception of “hard-core,” and even that has some element of grant writing in it—preparing a HUD Lead Hazard Control or Section 202 proposal is more hard core than most foundation proposals, for instance. Nonetheless, it gives some idea of how to sort candidates and why resumes are not very good at separating the so-so from the great candidates. They’re effective for filtering out the weakest people (Can’t spell or write coherent sentences? Experience is entirely as a barista at Starbucks with no writing education? Toss ’em.) Once you’re through those, you’re still going to have a giant stack, and when you do have that stack, you should remember this:

One temptation of recruiters is to try and add a few extra hoops to the application process. I’ve frequently heard the suggestion of including a programming quiz of some sort in the application procedure. This does work, in the sense that it reduces the number of applications you get, but it doesn’t work, in the sense that it doesn’t really improve the quality. Great developers have enough choices of places to work that only require the usual cover letter/resume application to get started; by inventing artificial hoops and programming tests and whatnot simply to apply, you’re just as likely to scare away good programmers as weak programmers. Indeed, you may be more likely to scare away the best programmers, who have the most alternatives, and get left with a pool of fairly desperate candidates who are willing to do extra work to apply simply because they don’t have any alternatives.

That’s the equivalent of having a candidate write a proposal on the spot. It’s not really going to work, and it’s more likely to backfire than succeed in somehow weeding out more candidates. One thing you can do to make it easier to find and attract good grant writers is by making your office an attractive place to work, thus making it more likely that, if you do find a good writer, they’ll want to come to you.

Peacocks have big, attractive feathers that might help them attract peahens, or vice-versa, depending on which sex has the feathers. By a similar but more useful token, you also have feathers to display. Isaac discussed some, which is how this post got started. There are others: Does your office remind candidates of the Department of Education, or of a high-end law firm? Are they going to be shoved in a noisy cubicle next to the guy who cold calls donors all day, or are they going to have a door that shuts so they can concentrate on writing and get in the zone? This is essentially paraphrased from Spolsky’s articles, and with good reason: you’re going to spend an appreciable portion of your life in your office, so most people want one, consciously or not, that’s at least as pleasant as possible. Good candidates have lots of choices and will be able to find jobs that offer an attractive place to work. If not, there’s a good chance they’ll make their own jobs by starting businesses. Since such people are likely going to be the best grant writers, giving your grant writer nice tools is a major advantage.

It’s not even all that expensive an advantage—those tools are so cheap relative to the cost of good personnel. Think about it this way: if the one-time $4,000 expense for making sure your grant writer is comfortable enables her to write an extra proposal a year and even just one gets funded for a relatively small amount like $100,000, you’ve come out $96,000 ahead. Even then, you’ve probably come out ahead by a little bit more, since your grant writer will need at least some computer, desk, space, and supplies, and those probably can’t be had for much less than $1,000.

The marginal difference between a nice computer, desk, and supplies and shoddy ones is so small that it’s astonishing how many nonprofits will do with hand-me-downs just because it’s the nonprofit way. The shabby chic culture is not unique to nonprofits, as any visitor to Wal*Mart headquarters can attest, and Jeff Bezos was famous for making desks out of sawhorses and plywood in the early days of This structure could function for an organization, but only if it has committed and competent idealists. Even so, committed and competent idealists would probably be more efficient with better tools and a better environment, and both will help you get the much larger pool of the competent and idealistic who aren’t as idealistic as nonprofit founders.

In addition, the grant writer is often directly tied to the financial performance of your organization. Most skilled professions, whether they be lawyers, accountants, or doctors, directly tie compensation and status to the person who does the most to bring money into the organization. Law is an extreme example of this phenomenon: the lawyers who bill the most hours win. They’re treated accordingly. If you don’t want your grant writer to go to law school instead of working for your organization, you should give them nicer chairs than they get in law firms. Even doctors who run free clinics or who donate services will often have quality medical and personal equipment because they realize they can help the maximum number of people if they’re in an environment that allows them to use their skills optimally.

Nice tools will help with retention—the recruiting process is long and arduous, and to avoid having that person jump ship, you should give them a pleasant working environment. It’s probably not going to be money that causes them to leave, unless you aren’t paying them enough to start with.

So far we’ve discussed how a) there’s tremendous variation between grant writers, b) why it’s wise to recognize this and look for the good grant writers, c) why it’s hard to tell the difference between them and d) some of the things you can do to try and e) some of the things you can do to make your organization more attractive to prospective grant writers.

Once you’ve gone through your resume pile, conducted interviews, and have a short slate of candidates, you’ll eventually have to hire one. The problem is that you probably won’t know whether you’ve actually found a good grant writer or whether you’ve found a doughnut eater until you test someone out on a couple of proposals. Isaac wrote:

If we ever decide to offer a grant writing credential, we would structure the exam like this: The supplicant will be locked in a windowless room with a computer, a glass of water, one meal and a complex federal RFP. The person will have four hours to complete the needs assessment. If it passes muster, they will get a bathroom break, more water and food and another four hours for the goals/objectives section and so on. At the end of the week, the person will either be dead or a grant writer, at which point we either make them a Department of Education Program Officer (if they’re dead) or give them a pat on the head and a Grant Writing Credential to impress their mothers (if they’ve passed).

Do the same with your new grant writing hire. If they don’t produce proposals, go back to that slate you’d drawn up previously. By the end of 90 days, you’ll know whether that person can write proposals. If they can’t, send them on their way and see if the next person on it is still available. This requires being “hardnosed,” but if you want to run the best organization you can, you have to be. If the person you’ve hired can’t write proposals, you might have to start the recruiting process over again. As with searching for software developers, there’s a real chance that you’ll constantly be recruiting grant writers. Be ready for that, and be ready to release any supposed grant writers who are really doughnut eaters in disguise.

We’ve had e-mails along the lines of one that goes, “I also appreciate that you know that there is more than enough grant work to go around so that you are not threatened by posting other opportunities for us to investigate.” There are more grants to be written than there are qualified writers to write them, and that will always be the case because there is always a shortage of talent at the top of any intellectual field since most people lack the skills, tenacity, fortitude, and internal training drive to reach the top. Those people are very good at blending it with those who do have those qualities, and this article is an algorithm for sifting through candidates so you can distinguish one from the other. The only real metric is whether the candidate, when faced with a computer, an RFP, and a deadline, can produce a finished proposal.

The rest is mere commentary.

What you’ll notice about this advice regarding grant writers is that it’s time consuming and demands lots of work—unless you want to hire a contract grant writer, in which case, as we said previously, you’re already done with your research. Just reading and digesting this post and all the relevant links in it could take a few hours. Like many things, however, work you put into the process of finding a grant writer is proportional to the quality of the grant writer you’re going to find as a result. One reason to hire outside consultants is to minimize these problem by a) making it easy to fire bad consultants and b) minimizing donuts eating and related problems by having a person with a single purpose: writing and submitting a proposal.

If you find a good consultant, you can hire that company over and over again and make an offer to one of its people to become a full-time staff member. If you don’t go that route, remember that smart organizations are going to offer Embody chairs, Mac Pros, and lower-case-w windows. They’re going to keep their ear to the figurative physical and Internet streets. If you want to maximize your organization’s reach through grant writing, you should be prepared to do the same and more. The trouble is implementing all this advice; just as it’s relatively easy to describe how to become a good writer and really, really hard to actually become one, it’s easy to read this advice compared to making it part of your organization’s plan. At the very least, you have a blueprint about how to become a grant writing powerhouse, and you only need to build the house so you can provide the services your organization offers.

* For a truly self-indulgent bout of navel gazing, read his book, The Rise of the Creative Class. If you’re interested in a more readable treatment of the same general subject, David Brooks’ Bobos in Paradise is worthwhile. Both quarry different veins in the same mine as Spolsky and this post.