Article In Brief:
- The Problem: The work grant professionals do is often not understood or comes with unrealistic expectations. The gap creates a mismatch between agency and staff and leads to burnout and turnover, both costly for nonprofits.
- The Context: Grants are the lifeblood for many nonprofits. Understanding the professional standards and work of grant professionals is key to creating better outcomes for nonprofit funding streams.
- The Solution: The author presents nine areas of grant writing that are critical for nonprofit executives to understand if they are going to move from a merely transactional to transformational grant writing program.
Are you comfortable doing things you don’t agree with?
As a relative newcomer to the nonprofit world after decades in the financial services sector, I didn’t realize that this interview question should have been a ginormous red flag.
Instead, I caved, eager for the job. I assumed the interviewer meant following contractually binding client service instructions or the difficulty of achieving consensus. I did not realize that they actually meant blurred ethical boundaries and unrealistic work expectations. I quickly learned that ethics and expectations are two aspects of grant writing that grant professionals must always contend with.
Today, I’m here to tell you what every grant writer wants nonprofit executives to know. But first, don’t call us grant writers. We do so much more than write.
And for the people in the back who think all we do is cut and paste—let me tell you that we dedicate countless hours to these specialized skills: critical thinking, data analysis, project management, and yes, writing and editing.
Instead, please call us grant professionals and see us for what we bring to the table. Our collaborative efforts with/in organizations keep the lights on, expand capacity, and/or simply change lives through well-aligned grant proposals.
Because we do so much work for nonprofits that is typically behind the scenes from the hoopla of fundraising events or the public face of an organization, grant professionals would appreciate some measure of reciprocity. So here are 9 things every grant professional wants nonprofit executives to know:
1. Compensate us fairly.
Before I transitioned to my encore career as a grant professional, I rose through the ranks of insurance and corporate life, wherein each role brought more opportunity, skills, and salary. Simply put, grant professionals should be afforded the same paths.
If you are a small, grassroots nonprofit and have a lean staff (maybe it’s just you!!!), the grant professional can offer valuable resources. Let the grant pro do the heavy lifting, but in a respectful, workable fashion.
For example, grant professionals can create solid foundations for organizations’ grant writing programs. Instead of reinventing the wheel for each submission, nonprofit leaders should help grant pros build strong foundations of essential language as well as yearly goals, objectives, and outcomes that can remain consistent for the fiscal year. As a nonprofit leader, the executive should be responsible for saying, “Breathe. Let’s do this right,” and allowing the grant pro the time, support, and compensation to build this foundation. However, leaders must also trust the grant pros to execute this foundation-building with excellence and refrain from micro-managing. Leaders need to strike the right balance of support and trust in order to ensure the success of grant professionals.
2. Don’t treat us like Cinderella.
Grant professionals are not the Cinderellas of the development team: we are not just waiting for Prince/ss Charming to whisk us into the position we’ve always dreamed of. Instead, many of us actually love the hustle and find grant writing to be a fulfilling career. We don’t necessarily want to grow up to be ED; instead, we strive to be subject-matter experts in our field.
On the flipside, it is often difficult for a first-time grant writer to get street cred. So, if you’re looking to help a potential grant pro grow, perhaps engage a strong volunteer to test their skills. In fact, the Grant Professionals Association encourages members to offer pro bono services.
Helping nurture a new grant pro can also be your opportunity to learn what is involved in preparing a compelling grant proposal. Once you are knowledgeable about grants, you will be able to create a culture that respects grant professionals. Plus, you just may have launched someone’s career through your leadership.
3. Understand we’re not Santa Claus.
In terms of other fictional characters, grant professionals are also not Santa Claus. That is, nonprofits’ wish lists should not be hastily crafted and dropped on their laps. You are setting up your grant team member to fail with this approach.
Instead, understand that grants are cyclical and so are awards. When there is a dry season and the grant pro hasn’t had a hit in a while, don’t blame it on their batting stance. Instead, look for ways that you can help them feel successful even when your nonprofit isn’t winning a deluge of grants.
4. Give us information.
Nonprofit executives must realize there is so much that goes into a strong proposal. Grant pros need verifiable data as well as success stories that empower clients without re-traumatizing them or harming their resilience in the community.
Executives should check the funder’s guidelines to make sure that the grant pro has everything they need. Don’t wing it, people!
Generally, the funder writes specific guidelines for a reason. Just because you know a board member who says you don’t need three quotes for the new proposal, realize that the grant professional must adhere to the funder’s guidelines. It is their job, and quite frankly, it’s not worth the risk of being wrong.
5. Invest in us.
Engage the grant professional at your agency and invest in them. Schedule a team-building workshop to determine work styles (I’ve found DiSC super helpful). Invite the grant pro to fundraising activities, and don’t leave them tethered to and/or abandoned in their cubicle.
Don’t wait until it’s too late. Schedule a “stay interview” with your grant team and find out what keeps them coming to work every day. What makes their day sing? What would make them walk out the door for good? Instill a culture of servant leadership to ensure high-performing team members. Remember, there is no “I” in team, and for a disillusioned grant professional, the “I” often stands for “isolation.”
6. Combat burnout at the organizational level by seeing us as transformational, not transactional.
Is the grant team at your organization churning and burning with no end in sight? Does one grant submission blur into the next? Or think about this another way: how do you celebrate a grant win? I remember asking that same interviewer years ago this very same question. “I send an email,” was their reply.
As an insightful nonprofit executive, it’s your job to model behavior that celebrates the work, the effort, and the result—no matter the financial outcome. And stop asking that cliché question, “What is your win ratio?” during grant writer interviews. A grant professional is only as successful as the collaboration that goes into the overall funding proposals; they are not solely responsible for whether a grant is awarded or not. In fact, this intense focus on winning more and bigger grants can lead to grant pro burnout.
In 2020, four burnout survivors—Bethany Planton, Johna Rodgers, Pat Duboise, and Trish Bachman—launched Healthy Grant Pro to research the prevalence of burnout in the grants profession. They found that “[m]ore than three in four grant professionals experience physical symptoms, socio-economic symptoms, or both, due to burnout at work.” They also found that half of all grant professionals they surveyed “do not know if they would recognize burnout” in their colleagues. Their findings may be especially surprising to leaders who see grant professionals as transactional, not transformational.
7. Understand the costs of high turnover.
Pre-pandemic, Healthy Grant Pro (HGP) also found the turnover rate for grant writers to be under two years. Today, it is likely much less. Many nonprofits either allow for turnover or even build this into their business model. And this high turnover rate comes at a cost, as these same nonprofits might be forced to engage grant consultants to fill those staffing gaps.
However, HGP also suggests that losing a grant pro at a nonprofit means losing so much more than simple cost effectiveness. You are also costing your nonprofit opportunities, including missed grant deadlines as well as the historical knowledge that cannot be recaptured when a team member leaves.
HGP also suggests that nonprofit executives can work to remediate this crisis by inviting a grant team member to leadership meetings. While grant pros may not have all the answers about nonprofit programming, they can share the ins and outs that will make grant submissions go smoother and bring a different perspective to the table.
8. Recognize that a grant is a contract, not a work of fiction.
The duties of a grant professional can be challenging (including the ever-common deadline snafu), but that does not give us freedom to freestyle with language, statistics, and/or program information that simply doesn’t exist. An awarded grant is a binding contract. As such, grant professionals must engage in the spirit of good will and do the right thing. Every time.
This means that nonprofit leaders have to understand this contractual obligation when insisting their agency go for an enticing grant, particularly if it involves a considerable sum of money. Do not put your grant professionals in the uncomfortable position of either being successful at their job or maintaining their ethical boundaries. That’s a lose-lose situation for any grant professional and will no doubt result in burnout and/or high turnover.
9. Value big and small alike.
For grant professionals, each submission carries the same value. When a nonprofit executive minimizes the tasks involved in a smaller grant (let’s say $5,000), it also diminishes the dignity and value of the grant professional. Simply put: it cheapens our work.
Instead, try to celebrate any win as just that. Make sure your grant professional knows that this just confirms what you already knew (and hopefully routinely vocalize): they are good at their jobs and are valued members of your organization.
In summary, try to make us feel like we belong before we start to feel uncomfortable.
You don’t want to be the organization that forces its grant writers to either adhere to unrealistic expectations or compromise their moral integrity. Neither of those are why anyone gets into nonprofits in the first place.
To combat this, I share the Grant Professionals Association’s comprehensive Code of Ethics with all of my employers and clients, mostly to make sure we are on the same page, so to speak. One of these standards is the understanding that a true grant professional NEVER works on commission. If an entity is asking for professional assistance in writing a grant with the promise of payment once awarded, RUN!!!
This code of ethics also includes precise language on plagiarism, which is so refreshing since it is a frequent request by nonprofits looking to hire grant writers to send over copies of past grants. If employed by an organization, all grants are the property of the issuing nonprofit. As such, nonprofit leaders should not ask to see copies of that work unless the grant professional has received explicit permission from the original entity to share it (possibly with redactions).
However, even this expectation of proof shows how transactional (instead of transformational) nonprofit leaders frequently view grant professionals. It again reduces grant professionals to their win ratio instead of seeing them for the hard-working, multi-faceted collaborators that they are.
So, we have to ask: what is the right thing to do to elevate the role of a grant pro at your agency?
Let’s empower grant professionals who already demonstrate the skills and aptitude to succeed. Let’s make sure that they can be comfortable and engage in this field’s best practices. Only then will we be truly welcoming the change our industry seeks.
 “Burnout in the Grants Profession” (page 14)
 “Burnout in the Grants Profession” (page 15)
 “BIGGER than Burnout: Strategies for Winning the Silent Battle” (page 21)
Colleen Engelbrecht, is a grant professional who enjoys seeing a budget first! She brings decades of insurance experience to her encore career in the fundraising and development field, where alignment and financial acuity are paramount. A trained journalist and principal of McNatt Media, she works with local and national organizations in the human services and faith-based sector. Her mission statement is Communication for the Public Good.
Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.
Vickie Johnson, GPC says
Great article with a lot of good insight. As a grant pro who works on federal proposals, one thing I might add is that sometimes it’s important to celebrate SUBMISSIONS. For some federal grants, it feels monumental to pull together the full proposal, learn a new submission system, and get it in by deadline. If the project isn’t funded, there’s so much to be said for the learning that happened, and for being in a solid position to re-apply, especially when so many proposals aren’t funded from a first attempt.
Teresa de la Rosa says
I find this article extremely helpful in understanding the field of grantwriting. As a newcomer to this field, I need all the advice possible to make grantwriting easier and fulfilling.