You’re a what?
When it comes to writing with a purpose, Shelia McCann knows what to say. As a grant writer, Shelia applies for grants that help community health centers improve the quality of their clinical care.
Each year, public and private foundations award billions of dollars in grants, sums of money that are intended to advance a specific objective. Grant writers help to match funders with projects they want to support. “Whether it’s for people, animals, or the environment, you are writing for a cause,” says Shelia.
What they do
Grant writers research, draft, and submit proposals that help organizations or individuals receive grant funding.
To be eligible for funding, an organization or individual must have an objective that aligns with a grant’s specifications. Many grant writers, like Shelia, work for nonprofit or charitable organizations. Others are self-employed and take on projects from a variety of sources, such as museums and schools.
No matter whom they work for, most of these writers research grants, write proposals, and have other tasks.
Researching grants. To find available funding, grant writers identify grants that match the objective of the organization or individual seeking money. They often scour detailed lists, databases, and donor websites.
Part of researching grants is determining which ones are not worth pursuing. “In my program, we research a lot of opportunities that come our way,” Shelia says. “Some work for us, and some are not a fit for who we are and what we do.”
Writing proposals. Grant proposals often require a variety of documents, such as a cover letter, project narrative, and supporting information, which might include things like letters of endorsement from members of the community. Through these documents, grant writers explain why a cause is important and how the funds will be used. “The writing tells a story,” says Shelia. “It’s factual, motivational, visual, and inviting.”
For example, grant writers might describe the past, present, and planned activities of the grant-seeking individual or organization. In drafting the proposal, writers must follow the grant’s guidelines, such as ensuring that the organization meets eligibility requirements, and provide a budget that outlines how the grant money would be spent.
Incorporating all of these elements into a successful proposal takes time and expertise—especially when there are hundreds, sometimes thousands, of organizations competing for the same funds. “Your writing needs to convince funders that your organization is profoundly worthy of their trust and support,” says Shelia.
Other tasks. Grant writers’ other tasks may include responding to funders’ questions about a proposal, developing relationships with prospective donors, and documenting a grant’s impact at the conclusion of a project.
Some grant writers have other roles within their organization. Shelia, for example, is also a program manager in the healthcare network for which she seeks funding.
What it’s like
Grant writing offers opportunities to earn a paycheck while helping a cause. But as with all occupations, the work has its challenges, too.
Employment and wages. Much of the employment and wage information about grant writers is anecdotal, because the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not collect data specific to this occupation.
BLS counts many grant writers among other types of writers and authors. But a worker like Shelia—who does more than write grants—may be counted in other occupations, including social and community service managers and postsecondary teachers.
Many grant writers are self-employed. Self-employed grant writers usually charge a flat fee or an hourly rate for their services. Anecdotal information suggests that self-employed grant writers charge fees of between hundreds and thousands of dollars per project, while hourly rates range from $20 to $100, depending on experience and other factors.
Challenges and rewards. One of the things Shelia likes best about grant writing is the writing process itself. “I like the development of the story, pulling together the elements of programs and activities, and then telling that story to someone for funding,” she says.
But part of writing is meeting deadlines—and for Shelia, that’s among the most difficult parts of the work. “Making sure it all comes together at the same time can be stressful,” she says. “You could spend many days working on your application, but if it’s not in on time, they won’t accept it.” Getting rejections, also part of the job, can be discouraging.
Self-employed grant writers face additional challenges, such as finding enough work and running their own business. Income is often inconsistent, especially when they’re starting out.
Grant writers enjoy unique rewards too, though, such as the independence to choose a variety of projects for causes they believe in. Often, that project variety becomes its own perk. “It’s amazing,” says Shelia. “When you’re self-employed, you could end up writing anything for anybody.”
How they prepare
Grant writers usually have a range of skills, a college degree, and other training or experience.
Skills. Research and writing skills are essential for grant writers. Research helps writers find grant opportunities. Good writing expresses ideas clearly and succinctly, with creativity and persuasiveness helping a proposal stand out.
Interpersonal skills are important, too, because grant writers interact with clients, colleagues, and donors to gather and relay information.
Grant writers also need to be detail oriented and have multitasking and organizational skills. These skills allow them to juggle multiple grant applications and adhere to each grant’s guidelines and deadlines.
Education and training. Grant writers, like other types of writers and authors, typically need a bachelor’s degree to qualify for entry-level jobs. Often, the field of study doesn’t matter, but helpful courses include marketing and English.
Some colleges and universities offer programs specifically in grant writing. Classes and workshops are also available through community colleges and professional associations.
But many grant writers learn from online resources, books, and on-the-job training. And years of practice help them develop the skills for writing successful grant proposals. “You learn by doing,” says Shelia. “And the more you do it, the better you’ll get. You also learn from your rejections.”
Experience and more. Experience in a related occupation is generally not required for entry-level grant writing jobs, but it can be helpful to have. For example, many grant writers start out in another role in an organization before transitioning to grant writing. A background in communications, fundraising, or budgeting is valuable.
Gaining experience isn’t limited to employment, however. Networking with other grant writers and doing some unpaid work may help you learn more about the occupation. “Talk to folks involved in the funding and application process,” says Shelia. “And volunteer with small organizations to learn how grant writing is done.”
Experienced grant writers also might opt to earn certification, which demonstrates a level of proficiency and could improve their employment options.
And, although success is not guaranteed, grant writers have a better chance of writing a good proposal if they’re passionate about the causes for which they seek funds. “If you feel it, then you can write it for others to feel as well,” Shelia says. “If you aren’t motivated for the cause, you can’t motivate anyone else.”
Elka Torpey, "Grant writer," Career Outlook, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, September 2014.