Take it for Granted
Non-profits need your writing skills
Non-profits (NGOs, charity organizations, etc.) need writers. They need skilled storytellers who compel readers to take action. Could you be the champion to demonstrate their impact to the world? I have worked with non-profits for the past twenty years as staff, Executive Director, board member, and providing freelance writing and capacity building support.
Non-profits are like any other category of business. Some are large, sophisticated, money-generating machines with marketing departments. Many are scrappy, understaffed, and behind the times with their technology. The ideal candidates for writers to work with are established organizations with programmatic success but need support with their fundraising and marketing efforts. These organizations would benefit from partnering with freelance writers, and the right writers would find success and meaning in this niche.
Lessons from a Grant Writer
I ran a grant writing business for five years. Establishing successful working relationships with non-profits and applying for grants requires more than writing skills. Here’s what I learned from my experience and how it could help you as a non-profit writer.
Understand the Role
Applying for grants is a multi-step process. There is research to know what funding sources are a good fit. You must gather all the necessary information to complete the applications and keep it current. Applications must be completed and submitted according to deadlines. Final reports are often required as well.
Additionally, there is relationship building with funders, workshops to attend, and recognition to dole out. The grant writer role can focus on one aspect or stretch to meet numerous needs. I was a role stretcher.
As a former Executive Director of a non-profit, I loved being an integral part of the organization. Most of all, I enjoyed utilizing the grant writing process to discover areas for growth and work in partnership to strengthen the organization and proposals simultaneously. This is optional for the position and some organizations may prefer for you to stay in your lane. The critical piece is being on the same page about where your responsibilities begin and end.
As my business grew, I brought on a team member to keep track of deadlines and write the first drafts so that I could focus on communication with the Executive Directors and funders. She was more detail-oriented than I was, and our skills complemented each other. I urged directors and board members to be the primary relationship builders with funders. Every aspect was covered and orchestrated without it all being my direct responsibility.
Communication is Key
Communication between the grant writer and teh non-profit works best when it is clear, organized, and timely. Organizations new to grant writing may need help understanding the application requirements and funder perspective. I found it helpful to explain my questions’ reasoning, the funder’s perspective, and detailed specifics of what I needed.
It did no one any good to have dozens of emails flying back and forth, so I created systems for gathering information. Some of these included:
- Putting all the application requirements into a shareable, editable place such as a Google Document.
- Using consistent highlighting to indicate where I had a question (yellow), needed more information (blue), or wanted new text to be reviewed (green).
- Adding comments for specific questions or needed information.
- Linking to attachments, so everything was in one place.
- Using a grant spreadsheet to track deadlines and contact information.
- Adding deadlines to shared calendar invites.
My communication started as far ahead as possible from deadlines to give the organization ample time to gather information. This usually prevented stressful situations. However, more times than I liked, we submitted grants just under the wire. After these situations, I’d take the time to review what went wrong and how to handle it differently in the future, taking responsibility for any miscommunication or poor timing on my part.
Boiler Plates are Your Friend
Each grant application has different content and submission requirements. Some required printing and mailing. Please submit seven copies was always my favorite! More often, they were emailed or submitted through an online portal. It is crucial to follow the directions to avoid the grant being denied for a technical reason.
What worked best for me was keeping a boilerplate of all the typical requirements for different funding requests and application lengths. For example, each program would have a short and long description. After applying for a few grants and adding that information to the boilerplate, we could easily pull text for most applications.
Most of the time, grant application space is limited. You may be requested to describe the whole organization in 200 words. This was one of my greatest challenges, but I treated it like a game. I’d write out the answer in my usual, long-winded way. Then trim, trim, and trim some more. Sometimes it felt like key points were left out, but more often, the writing was stronger in the end.
Deadlines are No Joke
Funders receive way more applications than they can fund. So, late applications are an easy way to weed out applicants. Missing deadlines is heartbreaking. You never know when something like an illness, technology glitches, or a missing-in-action director will come up last minute. It’s always best to submit proposals early.
Every Attachment Tells a Story
One of my favorite attachment to work on was the budget. The trick was to use it not to show a bunch of numbers but to tell the organization’s story. This was particularly helpful when the narrative sections were limited. The budget story told funders how many staff members work in the organization, what programmatic supplies they use, and how lean they keep administrative costs.
Ideally, I would work with bookkeepers to track expenses in ways that mimicked the story I was telling. I’d encourage them to be detailed and mindful of program expenses. Were those flyers an administrative printing cost, or were they marketing for an upcoming parenting class? We could ask for more money for a program when we showed that more expenses supported it.
Focus on the Audience
Helping organizations understand the audience for their proposals was sometimes the most challenging part. I needed to remind them that funders cared less about the how and what of programs and more about the why and the impact. It is also important to avoid jargon and terms that won’t be familiar to the reader.
Non-profits put a lot into building their organization and programs. This can cause them to get bogged down in the details. The writer’s job is to cull out what is unique, successful, and compelling about the work.
Relationship Building Matters
Most importantly, relationships matter as a grant writer. Building trust and connections meant I could reach out to staff and board members if a director were too busy. Local funders knew me and that I selected organizations doing good work. I can’t say for certain that this led to more grant approvals, but I believe it helped. They were also willing to provide feedback when grants were declined so we could improve and have a better chance in the next round.
What other types of writing do non-profits need?
If all of that scared you off of grant writing, there are plenty of other non-profit writing needs. Here are a few ideas:
- Blog Content
- Newsletter Writer
- Annual Report Writer
- Website Copywriter
- Social Media Content
- Fundraising Campaign Writer
Do you write with hopes of positively impacting the world? Are you skilled at telling a compelling story? Is relationship-building one of your best attributes? Then, writing for non-profits might be the right niche for you.
How to find jobs?
Ready to look for a non-profit client? A few ways to find them include:
- Relationships. Ask your network of friends and colleagues if they have any non-profit connections.
- Volunteer. Build a trusting relationship by spending time in an organization before asking for a paid position.
- Online Platforms. I only take a few grant writing clients these days and the most recent ones I found on Upwork. Want to specialize in writing blogs for non-profits? That is a excellent skill to list on Fiverr.
- Grant Writing Firms. Established grant writing companies are an excellent way to get started as a beginner. They already have clients and systems in place and can provide on-the-job training.
A couple of quick notes. Grant writers should receive hourly or per each proposal pay, do not accept commission-based positions as it is unethical and can prevent some grant approvals. Finding funding for new programs and organizations is challenging. I recommend seeking out organizations that have been in business for at least two or three years and have kept good records of who they have served and how they have raised and spent money.
How to learn the skills?
You can find grant writing courses on Udemy, Skillshare, non-profit education sites like nonprofitready.org, or through Universities. There are also many books on the topic. Don’t feel like you need to spend months on courses and books. Often the best way to learn is to jump in!
Here is another Medium article to learn more:
How To Build A Recession Proof Grant Writing Business
Take it for Grant-ed was originally published in The Writing Cooperative on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
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Author: Gail Sawchuk