Grant Writer Guarantees – What Can Legitimately Be Promised To A Non-Profit

valuesBetween comments made by prospective customers and what I often read while surfing the web, the question of “guarantees” is fairly common. At least the majority of people who contact me about my consulting services have come to realize that grant funding involves fierce competition. It is also… a process. For those that don’t yet know this, I am happy to provide some insight.

What I see online is another issue altogether. Many mistakenly believe that they should only pay a grant writer if the organization experiences positive outcomes. Nonsense. A grant writer can only improve your chances of funding. They cannot magically secure monies “for you” if your program is only marginally successful, lacks proven impact, won’t appeal to most or any grantmakers, has a limited or poor track record, or doesn’t even exist yet. Ultimately, the responsibility for success is at least 80% that of the applicant agency.

Regardless of whether you are a new non-profit or one that has been around for 25 years or more, you have to fight for every dollar you receive. You must stand out among all applicants as one that is truly deserving of funding. And, you will receive funding because you do amazing things—NOT because you cannot provide services without funding. In other words, people will support you when you don’t need them to fund you. If your proposals reek of desperation or claims of organizational poverty, you pretty much just wrote yourself out of support.

So, let’s get right to the heart of the matter. If a grant writer promises that you will absolutely receive grant funding, you should run away fast. This is a vow that no grant writer can honestly make. There are too many variables attached to successful requests, many of which have nothing to do with the proposal itself. Every grantmaker has unwritten preferences and biases, and funding often is awarded based on personal and well-established relationships with non-profit organizations or their leadership. Then, there is the issue of lack of funds across the country—and around the world. It is basically a pizza that can only serve 8 when there are 200 hungry people in the room.

Back when I first entered the non-profit world, most organizations had little knowledge of grants—meaning, those available through foundations or corporate sources. I worked at one agency where a fella named Wally was the only person I had ever known to actively and successfully pursue this type of grant funding. Seemed pretty mysterious at the time, seeing him and his staff frantically scrambling against deadlines in their finalization and packaging of proposals.

All our other funding was from the state and county—which did cover the vast majority of the organization’s programming (with also substantial private donations and successful fundraising events each year). But, up until then, I had never known another organization to pursue money from foundations or corporations for programmatic needs (as opposed to sponsors for a golf tournament or other event). So, Wally was one of these people who got in on these grant opportunities before the entire crowded race heated up to the way it is today.

Now every non-profit is chasing this revenue stream—or they are starting to. The demand for money is higher, and the applicant pool is deeper than ever before. Especially with governmental budget cuts amid a dramatically increasing population of people in crisis, I think this will only get worse. Competition will soar, accordingly, and available funds will remain at the typical, required percentage asset allocation for each grantmaker, according to non-profit tax law. What this means is that foundations are required to distribute a percentage of their assets each year, through grants or donations, in order to keep their tax exempt status.  This used to be only 3%, but today I saw some information online that suggests this is now 5%. Either way, this is not a lot of money, especially when grantmakers are, like all of us, being harmed by stocks and other investment fails. Most foundation assets are driven by investments.

Considering all I have said…and the fact that grants are anything but “guaranteed”… let me share a few more thoughts with you today before I close out this particular blog post. If nothing else, I hope you will take a hard look at your previous belief systems related to grant writers and the fee structure that benefits you.

Here we go…

Because I charge by the hour, I can fully understand why my customers worry about total costs. A flat rate feels safer to them. Makes sense, from an emotional standpoint—or a fear base. But let me say a few things about “package deals” and promises.

I have worked with groups that came to me after working with another professional who claimed to be a grant writer or non-profit consultant. To this day, I have never reviewed materials prepared by such persons without experiencing some alarm. The materials were incomplete and totally worthless for any type of funding purpose. So, the client agency wasted valuable money and time. The sad truth is that I had to start from scratch with each of these new customers. Nothing was useful from prior applications and we had to begin from virtually a blank slate.

I also have subcontracted on projects where other consultants were the lead person. In these cases, I was a ghostwriter and the applicant agencies still do not know I exist. Now, one of these consultants was actually very good. In truth, despite my great relationship with her, I really can’t even gauge her skills. I never saw anything she produced independently. She did, however, always pass complicated projects my way—the programs that needed structure and a determination of “how” we would reach the specified goals. My guess is…she did this, like many others, because she had need of a person who can figure out how to make a new or expanded program happen. This happens to be my specialty.

This is NOT grant writing. It is program development. It is the work that is necessary in order to even begin to prepare a grant proposal. And, most non-profits require at least some degree of this work before they are ready to apply for funding support. Unless you can tell a funder exactly how you will implement your plan, and precisely what you intend to accomplish, you are unlikely to receive any money at all.

Fortunately, her clients paid by the hour. But, they got a huge payoff with a number of very high-level awards—the highest being 11 million dollars for a program where I designed the early programmatic structure.

There is no way around this. It “takes the time it takes” to perfect an actual program, and, then, effectively reflect that on paper. Anyone with only a small budget in comparison to substantial needs will never end up getting the results they seek—at least to any high level of quality. Shoestring budgets result in shoestring end products. I’ll compare it to a roofing contractor who can and should replace your entire roof when it is critical that this happen, but, because of your budget, only ends up doing a fairly minor patch job. Sometimes, our failure to “do it right” the first time only results in bigger problems down the road. We can absolutely compare this to non-profits and grants in the fact that… like a home… the soundness of your structure affects whether or not someone will “buy” what you are trying to sell.

On the other hand, I have subcontracted for other consultants who offered flat rates for projects. How they calculated these rates is simply beyond me because they always ended up taking a bath. And, the client suffered as a result.

These consultants paid me by the hour, which is my only accepted billing framework. And this is when I decided to stop working as a subcontractor. I was frustrated because I routinely saw how these consultants would immediately pull the plug on writing as soon as they hit the point where they felt they were starting to lose money. Meanwhile, I would adamantly voice that the materials would not meet the standards of the given application without more work. (Many of these projects were tied to compliance with state or federal statutes/regulations.) Needless to say, without going that extra mile, the client agency just lost—probably without knowing it. I happen to find that unethical.

I charge for my time. No more; no less. But if a potential grant writer offers you a package deal to write a certain number of proposals for a set amount of money, you have to ask yourself a few questions:

1)      Did they offer this to you without knowing anything about you or reviewing your materials? And, did they offer this without doing prospect research?

2)     Who identifies the funding targets?  Seems to me that any person offering you a package deal will choose the shortest proposals regardless of their funding promise. In fact, I see this all the time, with programs that told me they sent proposals to funders that I already knew don’t fund in their region or their program area. In a few cases, I have talked with new customers who told me their former grant writer sent out applications, but they have no physical record of them at all—let alone any proof of acceptance or denials. WAIT, I take that back. There was no proof of approvals because there were none.

Not every funder will bother to notify you of rejection. That is becoming more common these days. But to not hear from anyone? That is not just strange, but probably shady.

Many red flags go up for me here, since …when working with ME… everything goes through your office and we require your signature on the cover letter of every application. (And sometimes on other documents within the proposal.) HMMMM.

Just know what you are getting into. If something sounds too good to be true, it is.

What I CAN guarantee is that I will always be honest with you about your chances. If you probably won’t see a dime in grant funding, I will say that to you. Believe it or not, your success is as important to me as it is to you. Hearing rejections takes the wind out of my sails as well.

I have worked with groups where I was convinced we would win (or at least be a very strong contender for) certain grants—but we were turned down—and others where I was delighted to learn, when we were a major underdog, that we were, in fact, awarded high-level funding. Point is; this is so hard to predict that no grant writer can promise successful outcomes. (Unless they happen to be a fortune teller on the side.)

When I evaluate the strengths of an organization before pursuing any funding, I look at how you may match up against your competition. And this is on a national level. Taking a look at best practices and exciting new trends in service delivery. Innovation. These are the things that interest grantmakers.

If I tell you that your potential for success would increase if you did x, y, z… and you instead choose not to go in that direction, I am not responsible for lesser results. You will, however, be fully aware of any and all things that could go against you. Whether or not you want to try to resolve those things is up to you.

So, the “guarantee” is that you will receive plentiful written and verbal encouragement to strengthen your chances of funding by making programmatic and organizational adjustments, if they are needed. I will also tell you when your materials are not sufficient and where we need more details or better answers. If, like some of my former customers, you say… “good enough” … I have to at some point respect your decisions on that, as well as your fiscal limitations. So far, I have never been wrong when I have said to a customer that a certain application will not be funded, as is. But, as a non-profit consultant, I cannot force you to take the next step toward excellence.

What a grant writer should be able to guarantee is that they will work as quickly as possible to produce the best written products. That guarantee can only be honored if the non-profit organization holds to that same standard and can foot the bill for exceptional versus good or somewhat average presentations. In this funding climate, average or simply good are not enough.

A grant writer should also guarantee that targeted prospects do actually fit your program. Makes me sad to hear of groups that received their packages back in the mail because the funder had either moved locations or no longer existed. I suppose this could happen, but it should be such a rarity that it comes as a great surprise. If multiple mailings come back, you are definitely working with a grant writer that does not know how to research funding opportunities.

Another guarantee is that the proposals will be written in accordance to the specific funder’s guidelines. I have seen previous applications from many new customers that weren’t customized to the particular funder… and, this is, again, something that I consider highly unethical. But, there are “grant mills” out there that do this on purpose. Their guarantee is that you get 10-20 grant proposals for a ridiculously small amount of money. Such a guarantee is worthless if the applications are never going to get funded. Still, they fulfilled their obligation to you, didn’t they? At least in terms of what your contract said they had to provide! Nothing said the proposals had to be any good.

So, we can target appropriate funders, make sure that everything that needs to be included in each proposal is in the proposal, and that we prepare documents that best highlight your merits. For me, I also will tell you what is wrong with what I see—if I see something wrong. That is my personal guarantee—though some people would prefer not to hear these things. Based on that, my greatest advice is to look at the grants process as an opportunity to be the best you can be. An opportunity for necessary growth that will impact on both today and tomorrow.


My final GUARANTEE: Program and organizational improvement is never wasted time. With or without funding success. It should be an ongoing activity and a never-ending process. If you push yourselves to consistently outshine other organizations—both on paper and on the ground—grant funding is far more probable.

It is all about the program.


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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