What Is The Difference Between a Free Grant Writer and One That Costs $80 Per Hour?

zzzproxREVISED: SEPTEMBER 2014


Every day, I see online ads from people that indicate they have no understanding of how much work goes into a successful grant proposal … and, therefore, how much this process costs—or should cost—a non-profit organization. This is one area where you do NOT want to skimp on your financial investments. Looking for interns or volunteers to help you with this is a dangerous proposition considering how important the outcomes are to your program’s viability.

This is the content of my new document for prospective customers, which offers some food for thought for those shopping for a consultant. It also explains my particular process for serving non-profits.

 

PRICING & TIME FRAMES

If you already heard what I charge and gasped at my pricing, or the fact that I suggest several consecutive months of work with any given non-profit agency,  … here are a few things to consider:

1)  You truly do “get what you pay for.” The average national rate for experienced grant writers is $65 per hour (but I keep seeing ads from non-profits who only want to pay $10-40 per hour). However, not every grant writer is qualified to lead program and organizational development (or improvement). In fact, most aren’t. Yet, if there are problems of any kind in your operations, budgets, or implementation plans… you most likely won’t receive funding. This is what sets me apart from basic grant writers. As a Social Worker and former human services administrator, I focus on programmatic and organizational strength first. Funding is a by-product of exceptional programming and well-conceived plans for implementation of new efforts. If I see problems in how you currently (or will) operate, or your accountability systems, etc… so will funders.

I can help you resolve the issues that may stand in your way of positive funding outcomes. The changes we need to make may not impact on immediate applications since your previous track record, or lack of one at all, is something we cannot change. But, we can make strides that may affect today’s proposals to some or, possibly, a large degree (depending on the issue), and tomorrow’s proposals to a significant degree—such as introducing mechanisms for program/project/organizational evaluation.

2)  Grant writer fees can go as high as $150 per hour or more. While I am certainly worth this high-end pricing, it would defeat my purposes as a Social Worker to increase my rates beyond my standard $80 per hour (a discounted rate for non-profits). It would mean that I would not be able to support new or smaller agencies and would have to focus only on non-profit empires. I decided several years ago to cap my rate here so that I can continue to support the agencies that most need my help.

3)  I have yet to work with a non-profit that did not need a “grants program.” Although many newcomers think that “a” grant is all they need, this is unrealistic—especially if you are new. More established agencies that are going after big government contracts are the only exception to this rule. But, they, too, need to constantly chase after additional dollars because even government contracts fall short of covering all expenses for an agency.

4)  Grants are competitive. Even with a perfect proposal, you will receive rejections. There is not enough money to fund every application received by grantmakers. They only fund a small portion of grantees in comparison to the number of requests each year. They have to make some really tough choices. This is why you have to be the best you can be. You also need to send out multiple applications in anticipation of denials. Hence, a “grants program.”

5)  Keep in mind that an experienced grant writer can perfect a proposal in less time than an inexperienced or unqualified person. Therefore, the hourly rates may be worlds apart… but the outcomes may not be in terms of time frames for completion and total costs. Moreover, you dramatically reduce your chances of funding when you put that important responsibility in the hands of someone who does not know how to do this or is just learning. This is why I am saddened to see how many non-profits place ads for interns or volunteers for this critical role. I doubt many of them ever saw or will see a dime from grant proposal submissions. If any did, they certainly are the rarity. Writing a grant proposal for your agency should not be a learning opportunity for someone who is looking to gain experience. Maybe it is good for the intern, but it is definitely not good for the non-profit.

6)  If an agency is new … or is new to the grants game… there is a lot of preparation work in advance of submitting any applications. This is clearly where people become confused, as I have seen many online ads where someone says they will pay $50-75 per application or that they have a total project budget of $250-500. While I really hate to burst people’s bubbles or discourage them in any way, these budget numbers are completely unrealistic.

First off, a grant application is a written presentation to make your best case for funding. Although a few funders may have an application form requiring only limited narrative, this is not the norm. Applications can range anywhere from 3-100 pages, depending on the grantmaker/funding source. (Average foundation or corporate applications are somewhere between 5-20 pages of narrative, goals & objectives, activity schedules, etc.  Governmental applications are more cumbersome and lengthy. They are also far more technical in nature.)

There are also a number of attachments required with all applications, and most newcomers need to prepare (with consultant assistance) many new documents. For an average agency, this entire set-up process, prior to even sending anything out, will take 30-50 hours. This estimate does not include organizational assessment to determine strengths and needs (in terms of both internal systems and addressing potential red flag items before we approach funders), funding prospect research and fiscal development plan creation, etc. This is complex stuff, folks, and a winning proposal requires far more than good sentence structure. While you certainly CAN submit a first application that was put together in only a few hours, it probably isn’t one that is going to get any funding.

7)  At the lower end, I generally recommend that my customers commit to regular work that spans 3-6 months. Anything less than 10 hours a week would be considered by me to be slow-going. Progress will definitely be affected and outcomes, if any, take a long time. Momentum is lost as well, which leads to many groups quitting entirely… and prematurely.

8)  Every non-profit is different in terms of their readiness for this process. Most lack details when they come to me, and that is the first thing we deal with. Obviously, the more prepared an agency is, the quicker we can get to actual proposal preparations and submissions. And, of course, that means it will end up costing them less too.

 

In general, this is my process. As you read it, you will probably better understand why you cannot whip out an application without doing the necessary groundwork. I think it will also help you see why it SHOULD take at least 40 hours per month to see any positive results. How many applications you decide to submit will determine how many months you will need.

 

a.)  At least 10-15 hours of organizational assessment (review of any pre-existing materials, website, budgets and financial statements, etc.), several phone calls with agency leadership to establish funding priorities, and a lengthy written document prepared by me that poses questions and considerations related to programming … and both short-term and long-term funding goals. Early strategy is set.

b.)  Ten (10) hours of preliminary prospect research, at a minimum. If an agency is located in a rural area or one without foundation/corporate presence, we may need to extend the research phase. Most organizations end up with 24-50 grant targets during this 10 hour time frame. I will also note that proper grant research involves deeper investigation of each grantmaker’s prior giving. We want to know as much about them as possible so that we truly CAN tailor our materials to their precise interests.

c.)  Ten to twenty (10-20) hours to create a comprehensive fiscal development plan. (For a fairly basic plan.) This is where the prospects are compared to each other, matched up with your line-item funding needs, and scored according to “best bets” to only “good” or “fair” opportunities. The plan also indicates when grants are due, which helps us identify how busy any particular month(s) will be in the future. For the record, grantmakers have review cycles. Applications may be accepted on an ongoing basis (rolling), bi-monthly, quarterly, twice a year, or only once a year. This plan also includes other revenue strategies, such as plea letters, corporate sponsorships, Major Gifts, and special events. It further specifies best arguments for funding, and what we should highlight or downplay. When an organization is really strapped for consulting fees, we skip this formalized step and just work off of the prospect list. I do not recommend this since it is harder for us to truly visualize the larger picture and plan a better strategy, but sometimes we have to when the customer can’t afford it.

d.)  Twenty-five to fifty (25-50) hours. If you have no previous documents, you should be prepared for the higher estimate. The 25 hour target is when you are very ready for grants and have previous materials available for incorporation. (NOTE: These estimates are NOT for governmental applications. Also, if we are creating a brand new program or organization, it takes much longer to prepare for the grants process because you actually have to HAVE a program (on paper) before you can ask someone to fund it.)  

Based on the development plan, we prioritize the funders in the order of which will be approached and when. This helps us to determine our work schedule over the coming months and where we may be taking a breather since nothing will be due. We select our first target based on a couple of things:  1) It is a good bet.  2) The application is pretty standard, which means it will serve as our template tool. 3) Turnaround time to hear of funding determination is shorter than others, etc.

We work our way through the application guidelines, inserting what we DO have… and identifying where we are still falling short in terms of evaluation plans, activity schedules, organizational documents, and so forth. We determine who will produce new materials we may need, whether that will be me or a member of the organizational team. This is the stage where we begin building our “core materials.” Although all proposals must be prepared specifically for the targeted funder… and tailored accordingly… our core materials can be utilized as a boilerplate, or template. Some of what we develop will be incorporated in one form or another into practically any application we craft.

e.)  Subsequent applications are prepared similarly. New applications will, no doubt, pose questions we have not yet answered. This means that your new grants program is a process. It will continue to evolve, with new applications even better than the ones before it.

If a funder’s guidelines and interests are very close to what we have already prepared for another application, this submission will go fast. As an example, one of my recent customers (an agency that has been around for 25 years, but is undergoing major transformation) required 50 hours to finalize our first proposal (meaning, we needed this much time to get through points a through d of this list). Their second application was prepared in only 2.25 hours since the format and content was almost identical to the first proposal.

You will need a different set of “core materials” for each funding need we are targeting, i.e.; various/separate programs within your agency, program development, capital campaigns, capacity building, equipment, general operating support, etc. The proposals have to highlight the specific funding purpose. This means that only parts of a project-specific proposal can be used for another funding type. If you are going after a number of support types, we need to build a set of documents specifically for those purposes. Only standard organizational template information will remain the same.

Bottom line is this; no grant writer can legitimately predict what your total costs will be until they have reviewed all your organizational materials and completed funding research. Even after doing the funding research, it takes getting into the actual proposal guidelines in order to determine what still needs to be created in order to satisfy the application requirements. For agencies that ask for an estimate of time, proposal by proposal, I charge for the evaluation of that particular opportunity as I compare it to your current materials and assess what may be missing. This activity is beyond the research phase—which only identified solid fits and a prospective funder’s interests/giving history in order to determine how much to ask for… and for what purpose.

There are a lot of unknowns in this process. Who you are targeting for funding will have a lot to do with how long it will take and how much it will cost. Every grant is different, even if some parts of what we create can be used for almost any application. In my experience, most agencies think they are more prepared to go after grants than they are. I try to get them to step back and take an honest look at what might stand in their way of funding. Routinely, we end up spending a lot of time on realistic budget projections, staffing and implementation plans, and evaluation tools—which are, more often than not, non-existent or weak when a client first contacts me. I also push for more innovation when possible and introduction of best practices when necessary.

Every non-profit can operate at its own organizational best. Don’t skimp on this aspect of funding success. A proposal can only be as good as the applicant agency. It is about efficacy, sound service delivery systems, proven successes, and impact. If you already have this squared away, you should see a healthy amount of approvals from your grant pursuits. If not, step back and address your barriers. I can help you with that, and this is what makes me different from basic grant writers… and those who charge less per hour.

About Cos

Mary E. Costello (a.k.a. "Cos") is a Social Worker by education, trade, and spirit. A former human services administrator and advocate in the disabilities field, Mary started Creative Edge Consulting in February of 2005. As an independent non-profit consultant, Mary now helps organizations start, improve, expand, and sustain their critical services. In her "spare time," she feeds her addiction to politics and policy, advancing social justice, and trying to find the funny where she can. Life is short. Do something meaningful.

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