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Yet Another Note on Grant Writing Training, Seminars, and Workshops

Most of the people who send us angry e-mails regarding our posts on the uselessness of grant writing credentials, workshops, and the like do so because they teach those workshops and are unhappy when prospective students send links to our work. We got another such e-mail recently, which starts with a rhetorical question we’ve answered in a dozen places: “How does a potential grant writer learn to prepare a proposal?” It’s not that hard: one learns, most often, in English comp classes that teach you how to write and journalism classes that teach you how to answer who, what, where, when, why, and how. The rest is described in the post linked to above.

Our correspondent continued:

“I firmly believe conducting a grant writing seminar is a great marketing tool for consultants who are building their practice. After all, it is the novice grant writers who need the greatest help from the grant writing experts…such as myself or Seliger + Associates.”

We firmly believe that the best way to learn how to be a grant writer is by learning how to write, which grant writing seminars can’t teach you, and then writing proposals. But grant writing seminars are a great marketing tool for people like the woman who wrote to us, since she teaches grant writing seminars and would be out of business if she couldn’t do so any more. If I sold hot dogs, I’d be very opposed to people who point out that hot dogs aren’t very good for you. If I sold grant writing seminars, I’d be opposed to people who point out that such seminars are a waste of time.

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Credentials for Grant Writers from the Grant Professionals Certification Institute—If I Only Had A Brain

A manager at the Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles, an agency we sometimes work for, recently sent me a link to the “Grant Professionals Certification Institute” (GPCI; link deliberately excluded), an organization that offers “credentials” for would-be grant writers. He wanted my reaction to the idea of grant writing credentials, which I gave him immediately: they’re (mostly) a waste of time. But I decided to take a look at this offer, since I’ve been writing proposals without a license for 35 years.

The GPCI was apparently formed just to offer credentials. The fee is $525 to take an “examination developed through rigorous national standards for professional credentials.” I have no idea what could be meant by “rigorous national standards” or who developed them, but a grant writer must have written this sentence because it is definitely proposalese: filled with vague citations to an unnamed authority and using many complex words where a few simple ones would convey the message.

Without going into the equally unintentionally funny “competencies and skills tested,” the best part is that a “writing exercise represents 20% of the examination score.” So, 80% of a test to prove one can write is not writing! This further confirms grant writers thought up the idea. You pay $525 to pass a test and get a certificate, presumably gilt-edged and suitable for framing.

Does this mean anything? My guess is not much to the recipient, but it’s a great deal for the people selling the credential, just like Tom Sawyer getting friends to whitewash a fence. Apparently, the GPCI never heard of such existing credentials as a baccalaureate, a Masters or a Ph.D. in English or journalism, so they decided to offer a degree of their own, but one with less rigor and no oversight. Let’s see—if they can get 1,000 people to sign up, that’s over $500K. Not a bad business proposition.

I’ve seen various versions of grant writing certifications over the years, along with endless self-help books, training seminars, and the like, but the bad news for those chasing such wills-o-the-wisp is that none will make someone a grant writer. For example, I recently received a notice from The Grantsmanship Center about a local training session, and the note proudly announced that “more than 100,000 people” have attended over the years. If their training was effective, thousands of qualified grant writers should roam the streets, but I don’t often run into them.

Despite the good intentions of some organizations promoting grant writing credentials and training, the only way to become good at grant writing is to write proposals—the more the better and the more varied the better. This is true of all kinds of writing. The challenge is, most people who want to be grant writers are not good writers to begin with or cannot write under deadline pressure. A five-day seminar or sitting for an exam is unlikely to solve this problem and make one a grant writer.

I’m constantly asked how to become a grant writer and I always give the same response: take English composition or journalism classes at a local college to sharpen your writing skills, find a nonprofit in need of help—not too tough to find—and start writing proposals. After a couple of tries, most people will give up, but a few will persevere and become proficient. It also helps if you can apprentice with a grant writer, which is one reason Jake is a good grant writer—he’s been marinating in grant writing for many years and whatever the “it” is, has soaked in.

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).

The whole idea of grant writing credentials reminds me of Professor Marvel in The Wizard of Oz, who awards the Scarecrow a “diploma” to compensate for his lack of a brain. As Dorothy understands, you don’t need a diploma to prove you have a brain and you don’t need a two-bit credential to prove you are a grant writer.

EDIT 2015: Despite all the invective above, we are willing to offer grant writing training / seminars, though they won’t be much like most grant writing training and our primary mission is still grant writing—not grant-writing teaching. They also aren’t quite as draconian as the suggestions above. We charge $2,000 per day, or $5,000 per three-day workshop, and Jake teaches the classes.

UPDATE: Isaac responded to some of the commenters in this post. Jake wrote another post about credentials and certifications. If you aren’t altogether sick of the topic, you can also read this.