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By Waddy Thompson - May 15, 2013

An actor who can play equally well Prospero, Willy Loman, and Felix Unger or Lady Macbeth, Amanda Wingfield, and Lady Bracknell, is highly valued by any theatre company. Likewise, grant writers who can flawlessly execute diverse roles bring real value to their nonprofits.

Those roles bring you into contact with the dedicated people who run programs, the nonprofit’s board of directors, foundation staff and trustees, volunteers, and those served by the nonprofit.

“Grant writer” is an insufficient label for what you do. Being skilled in writing clear, concise prose that can be understood by and appeal to anyone with an interest in the topic at hand comes high on the list of roles at which you must excel. But, there is much more involved in the process, sometimes requiring a chameleon’s natural ability to adapt to a variety of situations. Let’s take a look at the many roles you will be called on to play.

A good grant writer is a skilled journalist. In fact, journalists can easily transition into grant writers, the skills sets being nearly identical. Rarely when asked to prepare a grant proposal will you have at your disposal all the information you really need. Ferreting out the “who, what, when, where, why, and how” of a program is your first responsibility.

Beware a grant writing assignment where you are told that “the program is the same every year — just freshen up the text from last year.” Sure, it’s much easier to freshen up and reshape an existing proposal and call it a day. To do justice to your organization you need to go deeper. It’s unusual for a program to run exactly the same way year to year. If you describe past practice in a grant proposal, that becomes the standard against which future results are judged. It creates a nightmare when a report is due.

Be sure to question any statistics used in past proposals. When were they compiled? Using the most recent statistics and research is just as important to describing the clients you serve (income levels, ethnic breakdown, etc.) as it is for the predicted results of your program. Don’t let old information create incorrect assumptions that will make it impossible for your program to appear successful when you report on the grant’s impact.

Once you’ve gathered information from staff, another role frequently comes into play: translator. Both nonprofit program workers and funders have a fondness for special jargon. As the translator, you will make both groups intelligible to each other. Appropriate the funder’s jargon only enough to demonstrate that you understand its priorities and requirements. And, completely avoid your nonprofit’s jargon. The last thing you want to do is make the funder feel puzzled. Writing in plain, straightforward English will eliminate the jargon. Do a great job of it and neither group will realize they speak different languages.

The most readable grant proposals illustrate programs with narrative stories, which is why you must also be a storyteller. Who doesn’t like a story? Stories make your programs come alive by relating what you do to real people. Moving stories can come from anyone on your staff. Don’t forget to talk to some of the people served by your organization. First-hand accounts of how you have changed a life illustrate the importance of what you do like no other method.

As you gather information, you assume another role: researcher. Research is the often under-utilized step in the grant process, and it’s the most important. Funders’ most common complaint is that grant seekers have not spent time learning about application requirements and programmatic interests. Leave out this step and your proposal is sunk.

You will gather your prospect list by delving into foundation databases and reviewing which funds similar organizations, and reading closely funders’ websites. You need to go deeper to be successful. Here are some questions:

  • Who are the people connected with each foundation?
  • What are their personal interests?
  • Do they have any connections with your organization?
  • Does anyone on your board know any of the foundation’s trustees?

Distributing lists of the trustees of prospective foundation funders to your board is an important step, but don’t forget to research your own board. You might discover valuable connections they don’t realize can be useful. Universities they attended, clubs they belong to, and schools their children attend can all be important links to people making decisions at foundations and corporations.

Being a grant writer often requires you to also be a diplomat. Board members, volunteers, and program staff will sometimes bring you names of funding prospects — some good, more often, not. You want their involvement and don’t want to discourage them in any way. It is your job to assess which are strong prospects and let them know, in the nicest possible way, that you have stronger prospects to pursue. Try making it a “teachable moment,” and help them understand the difference between an ability to give and a proclivity to give.

It doesn’t hurt if you can also be a mathematician or financial analyst. Even if you are lucky enough to have finance staff to prepare the program and operating budgets, it remains your job to make sure the numbers add up. They must add up literally, of course, but also add up in relation to what you have written in the proposal. That math should include:

  • Is everything in the budget covered in the narrative (and vice versa)?
  • Do the names of the budget categories use readily understandable terms and avoid in-house jargon?
  • Does one large number (in income or expense) stand out and need explanation? Plain language is just as, if not more, important in the budget than in the proposal narrative.

Playing all of these roles prepares you for your most important one: advocate for your organization. This role brings together all the other parts you have played. Armed with thorough knowledge about your nonprofit and its programs, possessed with moving stories of the difference your nonprofit has made in people’s lives, and equipped with detailed information about the funder and the people associated with it, you are ready to raise significant funds to make the world a better place.

Playing the many roles of a grant writer doesn’t require costumes, mastery of an accent, or wigs and makeup, but just as an actor prepares for each role, so too will the professional grant writer invest time in preparing for each role by gaining the skills needed for each and devote all of his or her energies to fulfilling the many roles required.  NPT

Waddy Thompson is the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Fundraising and is the executive director of the InterSchool Orchestras of New York City.

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