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The Difference Between Being “Involved” in Grants and Being a Grant Writer

September 25th, 2011 · by Jake Seliger · 6 Comments

Most people who claim to be grant writers or “involved” in grants don’t actually write proposals. They’re more often engaged in things like grant management, the distribution of grant funds, or development (fund raising), which are important but very different things than grant writing.

Grant writing means you sit down and write a proposal. Grant management means you oversee funding; file reports; help with evaluations; hire staff; and the like. Notice that “write proposals” is not on the list. Also, some people who say they’re involved with grants are actually on the funder side of things, which means they might help write RFPs or evaluate proposals, but again: those skills are very different and of limited use when actually confronted by a proposal in the wild. Someone who writes proposals can of course be involved in grant management, but it seldom goes the other way around; if you’re going to be a grant writer, you have to be able to pass the test Isaac proposed in “Credentials for Grant Writers from the Grant Professionals Certification Institute—If I Only Had A Brain:”

If we ever decide to offer a grant writing credential, we would structure the exam like this: The supplicant will be locked in a windowless room with a computer, a glass of water, one meal and a complex federal RFP. The person will have four hours to complete the needs assessment. If it passes muster, they will get a bathroom break, more water and food and another four hours for the goals/objectives section and so on. At the end of the week, the person will either be dead or a grant writer, at which point we either make them a Department of Education Program Officer (if they’re dead) or give them a pat on the head and a Grant Writing Credential to impress their mothers (if they’ve passed).

You don’t need to pass that kind of arduous test to manage grants, issue RFPs, or review applications.

Last weekend, for example, I met a couple who said they knew a lot about grant writing and were “in” grants. Compared to a random person on the street, they did know a lot: one of them works for a regional government transportation authority and has probably helped disseminate hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars in transportation funding. The other works as a development director for a university. Together, they have about 40 years of combined experience in “grants.” It turns out, however, that neither have ever even once done what I was doing about twenty minutes before I began this post: writing a proposal. Development directors often do everything in the universe to shake money out of donors except write proposals; that may be why we’ve worked for a fair number of development directors over the years. And program officers, who pass out grant funds, might write RFPs, but never the responses.

I wish more people who worked “in” or around grant writing had the experience of actually writing a proposal, because if they had, I suspect we’d get better RFPs. I’m also reminded of the theory / practice divide that arises in so many academic disciplines. Psychology, for example, has a large number of people who do a lot of research but don’t see patients, and a large number who see patients and don’t do research. Naturally, the researchers often think of the practitioners as mere carpenters and the practitioners often think of researchers as mandarins who don’t understand what life on the ground is like. Both are probably somewhat right some of the time.

Something similar happens in English: a lot of English departments these days are bifurcated between the people in “creative writing” and literature. The creative writers—novelists, poets, and so forth—produce the stuff that the literary critics and theorists ultimately discuss; I suspect there, too, the world would be a better place if critics and theorists actually took a serious stab at producing original work. If they did, many might not hold the sometimes implausible opinions they do. They’re like RFP writers who know everything the world about grant writing except what it’s like to stare down a nasty, confused, contradictory RFP. You probably wouldn’t want to eat at a restaurant run by a chef who never tastes his own food, but that’s the situation one often gets with grant writing.

There’s a moral to this story: be wary of people who say they know a lot about grant writing, since they often know a lot about everything but grant writing.

Tags: Government · Grants · Nonprofits · RFPs · Stories