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Help Wanted: Considerations for Grant Seeking Assistance

It’s no secret that the practice of grant seeking is pretty involved. It consists of countless hours of work: researching state, federal, and foundation funding sources; sorting through various opportunities to choose those that best match your project’s goals, funding needs, and timeline; figuring out what aspects the funder specifically requires for your project; collecting partnership agreements; not to mention actually writing the proposal! Moreover, few organizations are fortunate enough to have the means for keeping a full-time grant professional on staff. So what is an organization to do?

One option is to share the responsibility for grant seeking among several staff members. The advantage of this “in-house” approach is that what once seemed like an insurmountable amount of work, has now been broken down into digestible portions for various individuals within the team. Each staff member is able to contribute to the process based on his or her area of expertise and availability to take on additional work.

Using this team-based approach for grant seeking can sometimes lead to unforeseen challenges, however. For one thing, progress might slow when staff members have more pressing priorities to attend to. Further, if a leader is not designated to coordinate activities among the grant seeking team – certain items may slip through the cracks, be duplicated, or debated endlessly (i.e. having “too many cooks in the kitchen”). Additionally, it may become difficult for the team to see the proverbial forest through the trees. Meaning, that because the team is so entrenched within your organization and passionate about the grant project, they may miss possible weaknesses or challenges within the proposal that are obvious to someone from the outside.

For these (and other) reasons, there may be times when it is better for your organization to seek outside help! After all, you don’t want to end up limiting your organization’s potential access to available project funds simply because of a desire to keep things strictly “in-house”. Outsourcing certain, non-primary functions of your organization can open many new doors. Especially in the world of grant seeking.

Following, we’ll cover how bringing in an outside grant consultant and/or writer can strengthen the language of your proposal, increase your ability generate new and innovative ideas, and even assist with enhancing your grant seeking efficiency and overall effectiveness!

Proposal Language

Grant funders come from all walks of life, and it is not always a guarantee that they will have a background in the area (e.g. electric vehicles, rural healthcare services, k-12 literacy programs) for which you are requesting funds. As such, there is a certain linguistic finesse to proposal writing that many organization-based grant writers might to overlook given their comfort level with sector-specific terminology. Requests which are entrenched with jargon always run the risk of alienating a funder who doesn’t understand the lingo or profession specific acronyms used. An outside grant consultant can assist your organization with presenting your project in a way that is accessible to everyone. She or he can point out where layman’s terms for key ideas are most beneficial to your case, and where certain concepts should be explained in greater detail.

Seemingly contrary to this first point, while you should avoid use of your own field’s jargon you should also be aware of and make appropriate use of grant funding related verbiage. For example, Letters of Support, Letters of Commitment, and Memoranda of Understanding might be used interchangeably in certain professional sectors. However, each name indicates a distinct type of documents to a grant funder and (depending on the context) one may be appropriate whereas another may not. Working with a grants professional on your project will ensure that your proposal uses the proper terminology for maximum clarity.

An additional benefit of having an individual outside of your organization write your proposal is that he/she will ensure a unified voice is used throughout the document. Often times, when several team members are responsible for writing different sections of the proposal verb tense and tone of voice might change from paragraph to paragraph. This “Frankenstein” approach can be jarring for the grant reviewer as he or she attempts to make sense of the story that is trying to be told.

Challenging You to Generate New and Innovative Ideas

Bringing in an outsider also affords organizations to see themselves through a new lens. Outsiders shake things up. As mentioned earlier, too often those deeply involved in a project cannot “see the forest through trees”, meaning, they are unable to impartially view your organization and project the same way a potential funding organization ultimately would. Because of their immersion within the field of grants and grant seeking, an outside grant writer or consultant can often challenge members of your organization to consider new ways of thinking.

Many grants tend to focus on projects involving innovative approaches or ideas for solving specific, long-standing problems. Proposing to do something a certain way simply because “that is how it has always been done” in your organization, is not enough for funders. Grant funders want to see that your proposed project or program is well thought out and intentionally designed based on what current best-practice literature is available. Funders, especially those concerned with innovation, want to support projects that are “game changing”, that expand what we know about a given solution in different contexts, or come up with (and test) an entirely new solution to a particular problem. In their quest to translate the justification for your project from thought to paper, grant consultants and writers may inspire you and your team to reflect on your justification for other practices as well. Moreover, an outsider’s feedback in relation to a funder’s requirements might even be applicable for general organization improvement or enhancement of current practices beyond the scope of the proposed project.

Enhancing Grant Seeking Efficiency & Effectiveness

Perhaps the greatest benefit of engaging an outsider grant professional, though, is that it frees up the time that you and your colleagues need to instead focus on strengthening partnerships, thoroughly plan projects, and other “big picture” action items. This is because grant seeking, done well, is a time-consuming and on-going process. Organizations that “put all of their eggs in one basket” are inevitably setting themselves up for disappointment – or worse – if they are not successful in that single grant application. As such, working with an outsider to develop an intentional grant seeking strategy can help organizations avoid what we like to call “grant burn-out” (the feeling members of an organization have after unsuccessfully pursuing grant funding for the first time, despite high levels of effort and time invested in developing the proposal).

As stated earlier, leveraging an outsider to conduct grants research and working with you to narrow the scope of options saves you and the members of your organization massive amounts of time. A large benefit of outsider assistance (in the form of a grant consultant) is that she or he brings to the table an enhanced level of knowledge that someone within your organization only writing grants part-time may not yet have had the opportunity to develop. Types of available funding and the processes for pursuing these funds varies greatly among state, federal, and private or corporate foundation sources. Funding trends can also change based on the state of the economy or current political environment, thus someone who is 100% dedicated to the observation of these trends will be able to help you develop a realistic strategy for future grants pursuit. After all, it’s rather disheartening to hear about a grant opportunity that is perfect for your project only after awards have been made, all because your organization’s staff were not aware of where to look/did not have the time to dedicate to continuous grants research.

Grant professionals are well versed in where to look for various funding opportunities. In fact, any grant professional worth his/her weight can instinctively say if an identified grant is a good fit for your organization after hearing your initial project idea. This is important, of course, in helping to abate the dreaded aforementioned “grant burn-out”. A grant-knowledgeable, impartial outsider can help you identify which grants are worth your organization’s time and energy, and which grants are not. They can help you: hone in on which of the funder’s priorities are most applicable to your project, point to information regarding the types of past projects the funder has a history of funding, and even reach out to funding agencies on your behalf if your organization has a question! Some grant professionals may even have “insider knowledge” about a specific opportunity (e.g. having been previously employed by the funder or served as a grant reviewer for the program, thus knowing “both sides of the coin”).

The two biggest obstacles that most organizations face with the choice to outsource their grant seeking are: (1) the cost of the grant writer consultant and (2) that this individual lacks the institutional knowledge that would be needed to effectively communicate who your organization is to the funder.

To the first point, there is little that can be done about this other than shopping around for the best deal. Very few grants allow for a grant writer consultant to be paid from the awarded funds, most writers and consultants must be contracted with up front. Furthermore, the Grant Professionals Association (a national organization whose membership consists of industry standard certified grant writers) generally considers it unethical for compensation of a grant writer or consultant to be based on a certain percentage of the awarded grant (i.e. commission), or included in as a proposed budget line item unless specifically allowed by the funder. Knowing this, paying a writer for their services – despite the grant funds not being a guarantee – is simply too great a risk for some organizations. Having on hand the solicitation or application instructions for the target grant you want to pursue, a general project idea, and knowing exactly where you would like help (e.g. drafting the narrative and budget justification, loading forms to the application portal, etc.) should be enough information for a professional grant writer or consultant to provide you with an initial quote for their assistance.

Overcoming the belief that no one outside of your organization could fathom the extent of the issues at hand in order to effectively conduct grants research or communicate your need for support can sometimes be a bit more difficult to abate. This second area of concern can actually be exacerbated when the organization has someone on staff who writes grants either part-time or full-time. Often, this anxiety is amplified when mixed with fears over one’s job security. An important thing to keep in mind, though, is that when you do decide to outsource and ask for assistance in your grant seeking, you are ultimately in control. You have the ability to determine the extent to which the outside party will provide support. If it helps, think of the outsourcing like hiring an advisor. You are interested in obtaining their expertise, but ultimately not required to rely on it in all aspects of the project unless you so choose. Have you already identified a grant and developed the project idea, and now all you need is someone to translate your plans to the page? Great. Need a little more assistance when it comes to developing and refining your project idea before your own internal grant writer puts pen to paper? All you need to do is ask. Or perhaps all you’re interested in is a quickly survey the funding landscape for your project area, so all you’ll need from the outsider is grant opportunities research.

Again, it’s ultimately your choice how you wish to engage your grants consultant, and any grant writer or consultant is more than happy to work with you in the way you want to be supported.