For The Love of Mankind
The word ‘philanthropy’ entered the English lexicon around the year 1600 CE. The word derives from the Greek, Philanthropia, which translates as“for a love of mankind.” The practice exists in many cultures with various interpretations. From Harambee, or synergy, in Kenya to Haoshi, or fondness for giving, in China. Many indigenous cultures have unique forms of giving that share the same belief that giving is an honor and an obligation, a way to promote balance within the community, with nature, and with the creator (1).
Philanthropy in the United States is a systematic practice that identifies needs, resources, methods of giving, channels of distribution, and mechanisms that keep the system fluidly functioning. The grant writer operates within this system as a conduit that conveys information between an organization, individual or group, and a potential funder.
Examples of funders are government agencies and private and corporate foundations organized at the international, national, regional, countywide, city, or town level. Potential grantees come from the nonprofit sector (eg. education, arts and culture, environment, social services), or from schools/school districts, religious entities, universities, research institutions, or civic/community groups, among others.
Within an organization, a development manager or project director might perform grant writing as a direct or oversight responsibility. Grant writer or grants manager is often a position that includes writing, research, reporting, file and data management, and tracking/calendaring proposals. Grant writers also work independently as contractors with varying levels of responsibility.or
Teamwork for the win
It is possible to write a winning proposal as a solo grant writer or with another person, but a small team greatly increases the probability of success — a fully funded proposal. My biggest successes with six figure and smaller awards were the result of collaborative efforts with each person performing one or more roles: writer, editor, budget manager, and supplementary documentation coordinator (photos, videos, internal/external research results, letters of support/testimonials, etc.). The grant writer typically combines these elements to engage the reader with a clear, vivid picture of the work described.
So, who reads grant proposals? Often it’s a panel of individuals with specific expertise. A panelist might be on the staff or board of a foundation or possess necessary expertise to assess proposals, especially budgets. Numbers tell stories and people trained in building budgets know how to read them. A budget is a key aspect of your proposal and needs to be realistically assessed in relation to the proposal and to the larger organization before a grant panelist reads it.
Early in my career, I once mistook an invitation to apply for funding from a longtime individual donor, who now had a private foundation, to “tell us what you need” as carte blanche to bolster the entire organization’s financial standing. After the initial shock of the request amount wore off, she gently reminded me to scale my ambitions to the foundation’s resources and giving guidelines. Note taken!
Chagrined, I took a deep breath, tried again, and secured significant multi-year funding. The moral of the story is to align your text, visuals, and budget to the project. If you seek general operating support for the entire organization, the same tip applies — align the elements of your proposal accordingly.
Grant writing is rewriting
Working in drafts allows a writer to develop a proposal from the bones of the story to a fully fleshed out narrative using descriptive language and persuasive storytelling techniques. Much like the journalist, the grant writer learns how to balance dry facts with anecdotal stories and supporting documentation. Relevant data collected by the organization or from a reputable external source (e.g. book, magazine, peer reviewed journal) lends credibility to your proposal and connects it to broader trends, practices, and outcomes.
In the process of aligning all the elements of a grant proposal, the grant writer learns effective ways to motivate and guide a team to shape a cohesive narrative within the constraints of time, character and/or word counts, and other material limits, while facing a hard deadline. This work requires focus, integrity, and the ability to work under pressure. The healthiest approach is to plan over time, allowing for new thinking/input, rewriting, editing, and polishing, down to the file names and captions of supporting materials.
Identify early on who is going to submit the grant online, so that the deadline is not missed. Once submitted, everyone can breathe a sigh of relief. When awards are announced and your proposal is on the list, high fives are in order. So is doing the work funded by the proposal! An integral part of this process includes maintaining excellent records. This is good practice, in general, and it’s important preparation for interim (progress) or final reports.
On the other hand, if the proposal wasn’t selected, find out if and how the funder offers feedback. Reflecting on this is extremely valuable for future efforts. Take it in with an open mind.
However, don’t disregard your work! Even if a proposal isn’t funded, it still contains fresh, polished language, solid research, and evocative visuals that tell a valuable story for marketing and development departments, program managers, and board/staff liaisons.
There are many reasons that grant writing is important and fulfilling work. Perhaps the most meaningful one is that your writing can change people’s lives for the better, including your own.