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How to Break Into the Lucrative World of Grant Writing

by | Nov 10, 2020

As a freelance writer, you’re likely constantly searching for well-paying, recurring gigs. But often the pickings are slim. You might feel stuck with one-off assignments that pay only meager returns.

That’s where grant writing offers a huge opportunity.

I started grant writing as a college intern, then for a small after-school nonprofit program, and never looked back. Now, 13 years later, I run a seven-person team at Professional Grant Writers, and we work with organizations around the world to develop and maintain robust grant writing programs.

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Why you should consider writing grants

Grant writers are in high demand for nonprofits hoping to raise money for operations, capital expenses, events and programs. 

This type of work can be incredibly rewarding. You could have the opportunity to work with a nonprofit that is impacting the world, affecting change on a local, regional or even worldwide basis. You can work for causes that speak to your values, and perhaps have opportunities to learn more about certain social issues and meet amazing agents of change. 

Even better, as a grant writer, you’ll help fund that important work, making it possible for these changemakers to continue or even expand their efforts.

Do grant writers make good money?

Yes! This work pays well: as a freelance grant writer, you can start out charging about $25 an hour and work your way up to $100 an hour, though this varies depending on the organization you’re working for. 

Even better? Nonprofits often look to enter into long-term contracts with a reliable grant writer. They may have a large volume of grants due every month, so you can earn good, steady income – all while working from home.

If you dip your toes into this arena and want to turn it into a full-time career, a typical grant writer salary is about $49,825/year according to Payscale, and $67,399/year according to Glassdoor.

Here’s something to watch out for, though: while some nonprofits may ask to pay a grant writer a commission, or a percentage of the grant award, this is considered an unethical practice. Instead, look to earn an hourly or project rate for your work. 

What is grant writing?

Before we get into the details of how to write a grant, let’s take a step back and review some of the basics.

Grant writing is the process of filling out a grant application for funding from an entity like a foundation, corporation or government body. The process can be straightforward, involving simply writing a few sections of text and disclosing some basic financial information, or it can be complex, with lengthy guidelines that require nuanced, well-crafted responses. 

Grant writers need to have a keen eye for detail, a love of research, and a working knowledge of nonprofits, finances, sociology, politics and more. It’s a trade that requires a wide-ranging skill set  and a sense of curiosity. With all of these components, grant writers can craft reasoned, compelling applications that help their clients win crucial funding.

How to become a grant writer

Keen to launch your grant-writing career? Here are a few tips for getting started.

Consider a grant-writing certification

If you’ve never written a grant before, consider taking a grant-writing course and even earning your grant-writing certification.

Introductory grant writing classes are usually available at community colleges and universities, or you can find online training that will cover the basics over the course of just a few weeks. Nonprofitready.org offers several free courses on grant writing, and GrantSpace and the Grant Training Center offer instruction, too.

From there, you may want to pursue a more strenuous course through the Grant Professionals Certification Institute. Lots of grant-writing certification programs exist, but this one is the most extensive and well respected.

I decided not to get certified because I had significant experience in grant writing before launching my business, but if you’re just starting out, certification can help you gain credibility and overcome a limited background.

Person filling out a grant application -- grant writing

Connect with organizations that rely on grants

One way to get started is volunteering at a nonprofit, even if your tasks are nowhere near grant writing. Assist at fundraising auctions, help an office with data entry, join a board, work a phone bank, solicit event sponsorships — any of these options will help you get a foot in the door with a nonprofit and learn about the organization’s needs.

If they host any conferences, you’ll want to attend and start to meet people face to face.

Contributing your time to administrative and fundraising initiatives will help you see the inner workings of this type of organization, more so than direct-service volunteering. You’ll build connections as you build your business.

Nonprofits often form a small, tight-knit community, so your volunteering will help get your name out there — and maybe even turn into a paying gig. It might even be worth it to spend some time doing nonprofit research in similar fields.

Finally, consider volunteering your grant writing services to a local nonprofit as you’re starting out. While I wouldn’t recommend doing this for long, it will help you build a solid portfolio. Having a few grants under your belt and a nonprofit or two to vouch for you will help you sell your services as a paid grant writer when you’re ready.

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Build your network in the fundraising community

In addition to lending a hand at a specific nonprofit, join your regional professional fundraisers organization or local nonprofit employee organization. Any professional organization along those lines that meets regularly is a good place for you to meet other people in the industry and eventually shop your services.

Other professional groups can be helpful, too. Maybe there’s a young professionals group that meets for cocktails and networking, or something similar. These won’t be as directly helpful as shaking hands directly with nonprofit professionals and other fundraisers, but it can’t hurt to get your name out there.

Make business cards, build a website, and add your grant writing work to your email signature; these are all great ways to create a legitimate business and to market your services effectively. And when you attend networking events, hand out as many business cards as you can.

I find that even though grant writing is a growing profession — especially among freelance writers — there’s still lots of room for more writers.

How to write a grant proposal

How do you write a grant proposal? Each grant proposal is its own beast. A grantmaker like the Gates Foundation, for example, does things differently than the small family foundation based in rural Kansas. Each has its own worldview, and its own process of vetting potential grantees.

Most grant applications do have some similarities, though. The application will likely ask for an organization’s mission statement, vision, and program details. It will also ask how much money the applicant is requesting, and you’ll need to include a detailed budget that shows how the funds will be put to use.

The most challenging — and important — parts of any grant proposal are the outcomes section and the accomplishments section. Here, grantmakers want to know: What are you planning to accomplish with our money? What exactly is going to change in society as a result of your work? And, have you done this work before? If so, prove to us that your organization has a long and impressive track record of moving the needle for a specific population or in addressing a specific problem. 

The grantmaker wants to see detailed, well developed statistics that the applicant organization is capable of making changes in the world, in accordance with its mission and vision. Most grant funders receive piles and piles of grant applications, so those with proof of their efficacy are the most likely to be funded time and again. It’s your job as a grant writer to lay out all of this proof and argue that your client deserves the money. 

Want more ideas? We write frequently about the various aspects of grant writing and offer tips and best practices on our Professional Grant Writers website.

Looking to take your writing to the next level? Join the Freelance Writers Den!

This is an updated version of a story that was previously published. We update our posts as often as possible to ensure they’re useful for our readers.

Photo via Tero Vesalainen/ Shutterstock