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Tools of the Trade—What a Grant Writer Should Have

June 15th, 2008 · by Isaac Seliger · 7 Comments

A budding grant writer who is enrolled in a Nonprofit Management Masters program recently e-mailed me to ask if she should spend $4,000 on grant writing classes. Regular readers know how little I think of grant writing training, so I advised her to take some undergrad courses in English composition/journalism and spend her $4k on a good computer and comfortable chair instead. In addition to being infinitely more useful than grant writing classes, she’ll also enjoy them for activities other than grant writing. This led me to think about the useful tools a grant writer should have, including:

1. A great computer. After years of frustration with Windows, Jake converted the rest of us to Macs about 18 months ago and they’ve mostly been a pleasure. Mac OS X has two particularly helpful features for grant writers: “Spotlight” and “Time Machine.” If I’m writing a proposal about gang violence in Dubuque, typing keywords in Spotlight lets me easily find an article on my hard drive from the Dubuque Picayune Press about gangs that I saved two years ago. If I manage to muck up a current proposal file, Time Machine lets me go back to yesterday’s version to recover it. Trying to do these tasks in Windows XP is so difficult that having a bottle of Scotch handy is a good idea if you try, although Windows Vista is supposed to have improved the search experience.

As to which model is best, I prefer the Mac Pro because it is easy to add multiple video cards—meaning you can also attach lots of monitors. I use three and might add a fourth if I can find a good rack system. You’re thinking that I must imagine myself as Tom Cruise flipping images across displays in Minority Report,, but it is actually very handy to have multiple monitors because I can arrange relevant data on all of them by having the proposal I’m writing on my 23″ primary screen, a file from the client on the 20″ screen to the right and a pertinent website on the 19″ screen to the left. The fourth monitor would show the RFP. Avoiding opening and closing windows saves time and, for a grant writer, time is literally money. Jake prefers his 24″ iMac, which only accepts one additional monitor, but looks oh so elegant on his desktop. He can also have two windows open simultaneously:

Others like the MacBook Pro, but I’ve never liked writing on a laptop, unless forced to on a plane.* Grant writers who travel should be aware that a MacBook or MacBook Pro is easier to use in coach class because both hinge at the bottom, as opposed to most laptops, which hinge at the top. You have a somewhat better chance of using it when the large person in front of you drops their seat back into your lap.

2. A comfortable chair. Grant writers spend much of their lives sitting, so don’t skimp on the chair. Jake and I like the Aeron Chair, Herman Miller’s gift to those of us trapped in offices but dreaming of working on the command deck of the Starship Enterprise. Others prefer the Steelcase Leap Chair, but whatever you get, make sure its adjustable and makes you want to sit in it for 12 hours a day when under deadline pressure. Slashdot recently had a long discussion of the relative merits of various chairs, and the differences might not seem important—but if you spend endless hours in your chair, the value of a good one quickly becomes apparent.

3. Sound system and headphones. I like to write wearing headphones, as listening to Nelly rap “Midwest Swing” at high volume gets me in the mood for writing a proposal about East St. Louis, which I have to do as soon as I finish this post. There is no substitute for Bose QuietComfort 3 Noise Canceling Headphones, which also come in handy on planes. When everyone has left the office, you can fling off the headphones and listen using Bose Companion 3 Computer Speakers.

4. A large desk with an ergonomic keyboard holder. Any desk will do, as long as it has lots of space for papers, books, pictures of kids, empty diet coke cans, etc. But don’t forget to attach a high quality adjustable keyboard tray. We love Humanscale trays, which can be attached to most any flat top desk. Spend $20 on the desk and $300 on the keyboard tray and your wrists will thank you.

5. Desk stuff. Jake likes annoying, noisy, clicky keyboards with great tactile feel, but the rest of us are happy with Apple wireless models. Although it is no long necessary to have a stack of reference books (e.g.,dictionary, thesaurus, etc.), a copy of Write Right! and On Writing Well isn’t a bad idea. A ruler, handheld calculator, lots of post-in notes, assorted desk jewelry to play with, a message pad, speaker phone, cell phone with Bluetooth earpiece lots of markers and pens are nice accessories.

6. A window. Writing grant proposals is too confining a task to do so without a view of something. Just make sure there’s a blind, so you can shut it when you find yourself daydreaming.

7. Companion. Personally, I like a dog nearby to pet when I pause to take a break (I know, there could be a bad pun here). Our faithful Golden Retriever, Matzo the Wonder Dog, was our constant office companion until she laid down her burden last winter, but she was often in a festive mood:

We now have Odette, a frisky seven month old Golden Retriever puppy, who keeps us laughing with her office antics:

About $4,000 should set up a first class grant writer’s office. It is not necessary to have one, but it is nice. When we started 15 years ago, we used hand-me-down desks, $5 chairs and PCs bartered for grant writing services. If you have a bit of money, however, the grant writing experience can be made vaguely enjoyable with good tools. After all, we are nothing more than wordsmiths and any craftsperson can make due with what they have, but a good set of tools helps speed the job and make it more pleasant.


*I’ve never understood why TV shows and movies always show writers using laptops, a lá Carrie in “Sex and the City.” If there are any writers out there who actually use laptops everyday, I’d like to hear from them.

Tags: Advice · Clients · Grants · Questions