July 28, 2023

Oh… The Places Grant Writing Will Take You

Oh… The Places Grant Writing Will Take You

According to Zippia.com, there are approximately 10,546 grant writers in the United States and over 70% of them are women, with an average age of forty-five. Grant writers are a small but mighty group and come from various educational and career backgrounds, with varied skill sets.

I, like so many development officers and grant writers I have met, did not go to college to work in a development office. In fact, I do not think anything like development or fundraising crossed my mind before I started my career. I earned a degree in Early Childhood Education in 1995 and my first position was in a community in rural Indiana with Head Start, a federal program that provides early childhood education, health, nutrition, and parent involvement services to low-income children and families. But as I started my career and soon became the executive director of a small, non-profit childcare center, it was not long before fundraising, and later, grant writing were essential components of my job. Even after I took a position with a larger organization that had a full-time development officer, I was often asked to write grants for my programs, complete reports for our donors, and I often filled in or submitted grants when our development officer was out of the office. Later, after continuous turnover in our development office, I took the development officer position for Early Childhood Alliance, a mid-sized, non-profit organization in Fort Wayne, Indiana. To say that I had no education in the field of fund development or grant writing would be a severe understatement. I had no formal training whatsoever related to writing, communication, or raising funds for a non-profit organization. What I did have was more than 20 years of experience in early education and a lot of time working alongside our numerous development officers.

It is not uncommon for grant writers and development professionals to enter the field through a variety of paths. The important thing is that they bring their skills and experience to the table. Although some of us may have never imagined a career in fund development, we have entered the field with enthusiasm, zeal, and commitment toward fundraising, grant writing, and the organizations we serve. While our educational background may not be related to fundraising, we learn as we go, we attend fundraising conferences and professional development opportunities, we earn professional fundraising certificates, and many of us find that there is nothing we would rather be doing.

Writing that first grant is an experience you will always remember. I remember my first grant quite well. Written in 1997, it was a grant request to the State of Indiana to update our playgrounds as we needed safe ground cover. I had no idea the types of questions I would need to have answers for—questions about our organization, our mission, our annual budget, our board members, and then questions about the playgrounds (total square footage of each playground, fall zones, the best type of ground cover, why it is the best, how much is needed for safety purposes, and a full project budget—including delivery and all the logistics of getting the ground cover properly installed). I felt utterly unprepared and out of my league writing that first small grant, but once I received the money I asked for, I was completely hooked. I was also a playground safety genius (or so I thought)!

Grant writing takes us to places we never imagined.

While I may have landed a career I never imagined, I am grateful for the experiences, education, and relationships that I have built in this field. Last summer, I completed my Certificate in Fund Raising Management with the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. I enjoyed my time with a small cohort of development officers from a variety of non-profit organizations.

This experience taught me that grant writers are a unique group of professionals. A grant writer must be business-minded, creative, a strong writer, a researcher, an excellent communicator, organized, computer savvy, meticulous, patient, and CALM. The process is always an adventure and often takes us to new and unfamiliar places, allowing us to explore new opportunities and imagine new possibilities.

Last year, I started a new position with The Grant Plant where I have had the opportunity to work with multiple grant writing professionals who write grants every single day. I am honored to have the opportunity to work alongside them, learn from them, and further develop my skills in grant writing. This experience has provided me with new insight related to the process of requesting funding from a private foundation or obtaining state or federal funding. I have learned a ton of grant writing tips over the past 11 months with The Grant Plant, but the area that I have grown the most relates to reviewing and editing grant documents.

A few of my takeaways from the past few months:

Writing a grant should never be a solo endeavor. Make sure you have ample time to request a thorough review from a colleague or a co-worker. The review process is essential to ensuring that you have answered each question appropriately, clearly, concisely, accurately, and thoroughly. Often, we know what we mean, and we believe our answer is clear, but another reader may be left with questions. Additionally, sometimes the question posed by the donor and the answer from the writer may not be fully aligned. Ask a reviewer to make sure you have completely answered each question that is being asked.

Expect Revisions. I generally write the first draft and then go back later to revise, edit, and elaborate if needed. I revise again after the peer-review process, and still again before submitting. Strangely, there are often typos and edits that I do not see, and this is where the extra set of eyes can come in very handy. Going back a day later also helps me to see where I can be more succinct, or where I may not have fully answered the question asked. I recently found the quote below and find it to be very accurate— edits and revisions are a critical part of the process.

“Writing without revising is the literary equivalent of waltzing gaily out of the house in your underwear.” ― Patricia Fuller

If two questions seem to be asking the same thing- look at each of them again. It is possible that you misunderstood what the funder was asking with one or both questions. Never answer a question with “see question 2b above” or copy/paste from another section. Generally, the funder will not be looking for the same answer more than once. When I go back and re-read, I often find that I misunderstood one of the questions, or that I need to elaborate on a point in another section. This is where another reviewer comes in handy too— sometimes that extra set of eyes can better understand the differences in the questions being asked. Additionally, many funding organizations offer question-and-answer opportunities, either online or in person. If you do not fully understand what the donor is requesting— ask.

Start writing. You cannot revise until you have something on paper. Sometimes, the most difficult part of the process is just getting started—the blank page full of unanswered questions often seems overwhelming and my mind starts swimming trying to figure out how to answer each one. Start at the top, focus on that one specific question, and start writing. Remember, you will be going back to revise a few times, so start by getting your thoughts down and then you can make changes later.

Give yourself plenty of time. I am more stressed and often lack clarity when I feel rushed, which results in more mistakes. Make a plan and give yourself plenty of time for the first draft, a review from a colleague, and then multiple revisions. It is never worth waiting until the final hour to begin the grant writing process. Sometimes you find that you need key components and attachments such as budgets, letters of support, resumes, or business documentation—these items may take days to pull together, so start early!

Writing grants is an art—an art that can lead to amazing opportunities, opening new doors, and building better futures for our communities. As Dr. Seuss once said, “Oh—the Places You Will Go!” Grant writers are fortunate to have the opportunity to imagine a better tomorrow, plan the way forward, and plant a seed that will grow into a brighter future.

“You’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So…get on your way!”
― Dr. Seuss, 
Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

Contact: Tricia Willard, Resource Development Officer



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