Sunday, September 27, 2009

Some Advice About Volunteer Grant Writers

Any nonprofit that considers conducting its grant writing component of its fundraising through a volunteer grant writer either affords itself some extra cash or, well...a lesser outcome.

A nonprofit's volunteer is very prized and especially appreciated as they are giving, really, donating their time, their skills, and their dedication to the organization in a unique way, especially compared to a nonprofit's founders, staff, or collaborators. Dedicated, talented, committed, and reliable volunteers are prized and must be treated, in order to retain them (and keep them aware of how valuable and appreciated they are), as the organization's larger amount donors, board members, or beneficiaries are treated: with respect, professionalism, and gratitude. So, to be clear, I do not take any one's offer to volunteer or any volunteer's work lightly. Volunteerism is as much a donation to be as valued as any cash, item, or other contribution to a nonprofit.

From professional and volunteer experience (my own and colleagues' experiences), though, a nonprofit that rests its entire grant writing fundraising (program) on a volunteer's shoulders is potentially risking a fruitless venture, and perhaps not for the reasons that you might assume. Fortunately, volunteer grant writers are not, of themselves, a bad lot! The difference (as is true with a staff or consulting grant writer) between whether a grant writer (volunteer or not) is going to be successful has to do with the nonprofit doing its due diligence prior to formally agreeing to work with any grant writer. Also, you may be similarly surprised by me asserting that a volunteer grant writer may be very successful and work out well for your nonprofit, who has no grant writing experience, yet. So...this post is not going to tout that each volunteer grant writer must have ten years' professional grant writing experience behind them, before your agency even considers them. There is more to this...

The hopeful and best outcome for any nonprofit that conducts its entire grant writing work through a volunteer grant writer - is that the organization understands and truly knows how modern grant raising (grant writing) is conducted, what grant donors expect in applications, and what professional best practices include, today. For instance, if a nonprofit acquires an excellent volunteer grant writer but expects that the volunteer should raise $20,000 in grants in three months or less, and the nonprofit is new to grant writing - then the outcome will not likely be fruitful; and in this situation, it would be the fault of the nonprofit's - not the volunteer's. To my point, if though, a nonprofit acquires a skilled and capable volunteer grant writer, provides him/her with all of the source documents that they need to begin searching for grants, begin to write grant proposal drafts, and then finalize grant donors to apply to and proposal documents - and allow all of this work to occur over a realistic time line: then, over time, the organization will be out of its own way, and potentially really land grants and then, again.

The grant writer (volunteer or not) must have some basic skills that they can demonstrate real talent with (whether they are just attempting grant writing for the first time, or are long seasoned grant writer professionals). Anyone who will truly have 'the stuff' to be successful at grant writing must:

__ Know, understand, and appreciate modern professional-level grant writing work and its best practices. This means that the individual should understand what the typical documents are in the grant application process, how to locate grant donors to apply to (who are more likely to give to your specific organization than not), what should and should not be in any of the documents used to apply for a grant, etc.;

__ Be organized, attentive to details, communicative, good at listening and hearing others, and it doesn't hurt if they enjoy research, enjoy writing, and also enjoy working with others who are community-minded;

__ Be available over the realistic time line necessary for a new grant program to take hold and begin to raise grants (which can be as long as a year or more from work-start) and also be committed to actually seeing the entire process through, and then stick with it;

__ Be collaborative;

__ Ideally, it's nice too if they have some related successful experience in other fields if not in grant writing, such as more technical writing type experience, collaborative projects, and professionalism. Asking a potential hire for their writing samples, references, and referrals is O.K. - volunteer or hire.

If a nonprofit does not take the time to check into all of these basic but important attributes, before agreeing to work with anyone on its grant writing - then they have not done their organization's basic due diligence in working with their grant writer.

As I said, earlier, my suggestions, here, come from my own experience and colleagues' shared experiences. Executive directors at many nonprofits have shared with me, over the years, that their organizations attempted grant writing through a volunteer (and I do not think any one of them did not in any way not fully appreciate their volunteer, nor did they believe that their volunteer could not do it); but all found that above all, the time necessary to conduct grant writing work eroded either the volunteer's ability to see the work through entirely; or the long haul caused the volunteer's commitment to the project to wane if not altogether cease. I am certain that most if not all of these volunteers truly had the best intentions and envisioned seeing their grant writing efforts to the end (even if that's over a year out from the grant writing work start). As we all know, though, life happens. Some volunteers may take a new job, after beginning volunteer work, that requires more of their time. Others have kids whose schedules have changed theirs'. Still others can mean well but lose interest in their volunteer work as no grants have been raised, yet, but they've finished nine month's of work (which, again, is not unusual for a nonprofit that is just beginning grant writing). The amount of even the most modest requisite time to complete the upfront work, and then necessary time to complete a grant application cycle (and then go into the next) can frustrate even the most committed, confident, and steadfast volunteer grant writers.

From my own personal experience, as a volunteer grant writer, the other side of this can be equally as fruitless. I have many times attempted to offer my professional (and usually payment-required) experience, skills, and talents to a few nonprofits, over the years, and in no situation was I able to see the program through, yet (for different reasons). In one instance, the executive director didn't seem to understand that not only did I have nearly ten (contiguous) years (at that time) professional, successful, grant writing experience; she never even allowed me to get going. Instead, she kept sharing with me which fundraising gurus' books she appreciates (which, in and of itself are always great colleague recommendations) - but then she asked me to sign and fold donor thank you letters and sit in on a board-led operations committee. I don't think that she was a poor director or that she didn't ever intend to conduct grant writing. I think, though, that she was overwhelmed at work (or perhaps even burned out), had 'fires' in the day to day work to put out, and saw a 'warm body' in me, and simply filled organizational holes or gaps - as any nonprofit leader will. She missed, though, an opportunity to instead focus my energies on another of the organization's needs: its fundraising. I wound up leaving the organization, as a volunteer, because I was doing work that was important but it was not what I wanted to do (which is a key mishap in poor volunteer management). The other common experience that I've had, as a volunteer grant writer, is that grant writing really does require a team effort (from the organization's executive director, bookkeeper, and the programs management, if not others such as the board, etc.); yet, many well-intending executive directors, once they have an able person in the grant writing position (volunteer or not) can not themselves follow through. Much of successful grant writing requires that the grant writer understand the organization, its history, and its work and goals; but also have key source organization documents (such as program budgets); and more importantly their time and their ear. Many grant proposal go through drafts and revisions. If an executive director expects to review drafts (as they should) but doesn't make the time to do so in a reasonable amount of turnaround time and get it back to the grant writer; or if an executive director can not seem to get all of the requisite organizational documents to the grant writer (that perhaps either inform some grant application content or are required by a grant donor that the organization is applying to, as an attachment to the grant application); then the executive director (or whomever fails to be a team player in the grant seeking work) has gotten in the way of success. It may sound cynical, but I have found that the one true way to be fairly certain that work will flow as it should - is if a nonprofit is paying for a professional service that it is receiving from a professional. Money seems to, if nothing else, remind all involved in the work that waste will be created if a commitment is not made (by all involved) in the entire process. Do I think that all successful grant programs are conducted by paid grant writers (staff or consultant)? No, I don't. As I said, though, in my experience it seems to certainly ensure focus, commitment, reasonable turnaround time in team work, and a clear understanding of what the real grant raising process is and what to expect.

At a minimum, a nonprofit can help itself succeed at raising grants through a volunteer grant writer with some clear, current, and professional understanding of the grant writing process, time line, and if it does its due diligence when finalizing who will conduct the volunteer grant writing work.


Marilyn F said...

I left part-time lawyering to take up grant writing because I do enjoy research and writing. I did some "pro bono" grant writing to gain experience but did find, as you mentioned, that in one organization, the Exec Dir expected me to extrapolate what I needed from the website and promotional materials rather than work directly with me and provide the documents I requested.

I did do one grant for them but that was it.

Arlene M. Spencer said...

Marilyn, Hello and thanks for reading and commenting! It is not unusual for former lawyers to take up grant writing and I'm glad that you have. There is a common misconception that 'the grant writer will do it all' and those organizations miss the opportunity to further their own interests by working as a team with the grant writer. Keep at it, don't let the 'zeroes' get you down and when it's wise, educate your clients. Otherwise, move on looking for more knowledgeable/experienced clients to work for (or become a staff grant writer). Good luck! Arlene

Jessica C. Baker said...

Thanks for this article. I am a new grant writing professional for a non-profit organization that I have worked for over the years. I am looking to diversify my experience and build my portfolio and am thinking about volunteer grant writing. This article gave me some good points to consider as I make my decision.

Arlene M. Spencer said...

I'm glad that you found my blog and that you found the post helpful. There is more, here, that will potentially help you as you grow in your career. Be sure to look over my Labels (lower right side of web page).

You are welcome and I wish you the best in your new endeavor! Arlene

Anonymous said...

I received a law degree in 1999 and have about 20 years of office manager experience working all over the place. I signed up to take a grant-writing course today and only then realized how beneficial it will be. This site was fantastic for considering alternative options. Thank you very much for having this blog and inspiring me to make my life a lot better!

Arlene M. Spencer said...

Dear Anon,
You are a natural, holding a law degree, as so much of prepping is writing and research.

I am so pleased that you've found this blog helpful (and I do appreciate your sharing that - thank you).

I wish you the very best in your new work.

Joshua Asel said...

Hello Arlene, I read your article and was wondering about groups that are trying to raise money for themselves? I have an environmental conservation group which is not yet 501c3 official but we still need money for projects. Is it possible to raise money for us even though we're not an official non-profit?
here is my group's website:
i would also like to talk about this more extensively through email if you could please.

Arlene M. Spencer said...

Hello and thank you for reading, commenting, and for your proposed work for the community. I apologize that it's taken me a bit to get back to you but here I am.

I urge you to take this start up time to read, learn, and learn some more. Talk with others you know working for/with successful nonprofits and ask how they started. Take a class from a local professional nonprofit affiliation or a local community college. Read my posts, on this blog, under the "How To" and "Start Up" Labels (see to the lower right hand side of this web page). Do all of this and then do some more. Learn, learn, learn.

I urge you to research free (but reputable) resources like, check out the resources I suggest on this web page, in the middle right hand side. Too, ask other successful nonprofits in your region what their successful experiences have been.

Begin with my two blog posts located at and then the blog post at

I wish you luck in your work! Best, Arlene