What do grant writers do? 12 steps to help you explain.

You know the situation. A big grant opportunity comes out, and the bosses are all aglow. They see dollar signs, and not just any dollar signs – BIG dollar signs. 
 
You quickly organize a 15-minute meeting with the Leadership Team to discuss whether your agency will apply. It’s not a good time. Annual reports for existing programs are all due in the next 6-8 weeks. Your daughter is getting married next month. The staff retreat (that you are for some reason in charge of) is in 10 days. And there’s only one of you. But, personal concerns aside, you begin the conversation. 
 
Worried Girl“This may be a good opportunity for us,” you say, stressing the word “may” as you speak. “But we’ll ​need a really compelling project to be worthy of funding, to be truly competitive.”

 
“Absolutely! Certainly! Wouldn’t expect otherwise!” your colleagues all chime in. 
 
“Great! Then you’ve been thinking about this. Good to know,” you say, with a smile on your face. “So, what are we going to do?”
 
Crickets. No, worse than crickets. Crick-et (singular). After a long pause in the conversation, someone braves the silence.
 
“What do you mean, ‘what are we going to do’? We’re going to write a grant and get the money!”
 
You make eye contact with them all. They are of one accord. They’ve done their work by deciding to move forward and passed the ball to you. You are, after all, the grant writer, so get out there and write that grant!
 
All of us have had this scenario play out in big and little ways. And when this happens, we spend hours, perhaps days pulling the information out of the very smart people in our agency. And we wonder as we walk back to our cubicles, “I’m not supposed to be designing the program, too. Am I?”
 
Yes, you are. 
 
Or maybe not. 
 
It’s really all about the expectations
 
What do my bosses expect from me? In my own early days, it was simple. I was to write grants, get money, write grants, get money, write grants, get money, repeat.
 
I suspect your expectations are (or have been) similar. But here is something I find to be true nationwide: No one in your agency (no one!) wants to be you. None of them want to actually sit down and write the grant. So, they often sympathize a bit and try to help. They even think they are helping. Familiar comments from colleagues and bosses may include:

  • You just let me know if there’s anything you need from me.
  • I’d love to talk with you about it, but I have a meeting in …
  • Did you get the 14 journal articles I sent you? Everything you need to know is in there.
  • You got that thing written yet?

And those are not the only signs of ignorance, that is, the lack of knowledge your co-workers and bosses have about what your work entails or how it gets done. They don’t know the difference between objectives and activities, goals and milestones, character spaces and word counts. They really don’t care. They may even believe you simply sit in your cubicle day in, day out writing brilliant words that are gleaned from thin air. 

But again, is it your job to design the program or project as well as do all the writing? 
Not exactly? Maybe?

In truth, it is the grant professional’s job to craft the proposal. And the program is part of that proposal. If it isn’t getting done, then you must either get it done with help or make it up. This latter point is not an option, of course. We can’t just make it up.
How, then, do you end the nightmare? 

I suggest two simple solutions:  Professionalism and Fancy Footwork

The first is simple enough. Professionalism includes your attitude, confidence, work ethic, and determination, as well as flexibility, humility, service, and a can-do spirit. It does not include whining about or to your colleagues or avoiding difficult conversations. It does not include throwing up your hands and (uncharacteristically) being the first one out the door at the day’s end. Certainly, professionalism does not include the phrase, “that’s not my job.”

Professionalism is getting it done—finding strategies to get what you need, then getting it. Period. That’s where the Fancy Footwork comes in.

Fancy Footwork includes the specific strategies you can use to both get the job done and educate those around you about grants in general. There are, in my experience, at least a dozen things we can embed in our grant practices that will increase the understanding and, as a by-product, the respect our colleagues have for us. 

  1. The RFP or NOFA or whatever it’s called (the guidelines). This is the grant pro’s best tool; we are the experts on this document. Appropriate colleagues should read it, yes. But you and I are the real experts in the guidelines. Sharing the RFP with co-workers helps create conversations that benefit program design as well as proposal submission.
  2. The Grant Team. It is never “my” grant; it is always “our” grant. Ask agency leaders to choose a small team to help you with the grant. Yes, the grant pro is responsible for 80-85% of the work, but others are needed to provide content expertise and program ideas. Share the success and accountability, and build colleagues’ knowledge about grants in the process.
  3. Task Schedule. Make a list of everything that needs to be done from now until the due date, then lay the tasks out on a timeline or Gantt Chart. Listing the dozens of things that must be done is an impressive way to say, “Hey, I’m not just sitting in my cubicle writing.” In addition, you can assign some of the tasks to others. Finance, for example, can help design and proof your budget. Someone needs to edit. Others can work on letters of commitment. And each person’s name is on the chart.
  4. Conversations. Don’t have meetings. Nobody likes meetings. Instead, have conversations about specific, targeted parts of the grant project. You continue to guide the discussion with your planned questions derived from the RFP’s criteria, the timeline, or the budget. 
  5. Homework Calendar. Once you have people assigned/volunteering to work with you, be clear about the tasks you ask them to do. Never ever, ever never tell them the due date of the grant itself; be general, saying something like, “Oh, mid-May, I think.” Then keep up with the tasks on a Homework Calendar that can be shared at least once a week with the “team.” Finally on this point, if someone is struggling to get something done, jump in and help them. You are the pro, after all. 
  6. Other Templates. Help your helpers. Don’t ask them to start from scratch. Almost every grant has its own budget format; create a template in Excel that helps them work through it. Or, prepare a one-page project summary for the boss as s/he is asking partners to come aboard. The more you “help,” the more likely the tasks will be completed and completed to your satisfaction.
  7. Chart Paper et al. Look busy. Look creative. Look like you’re doing the heavy lifting. After working nearly 15 years with educators, I have come to appreciate their love for chart paper on the walls, for stacks of books and articles, for a closed door, and even for editing by the copier (as if you’re really in a hurry). These little things make a big difference. They may not understand what you do, but the absolutely see you’re doing something. Everyone respects hard work. No whining necessary.
  8. Updates. Let folks up and down the chain know the work is continuing via formal and informal updates. For example, in a staff meeting, talk about a really cool (or dismal) piece of data you’ve just come across; apprise the team on the letters of commitment received; or relay a comment from one of the partners in the project. 
  9. Regular Communication with Leaders. Regular briefings are preferred; panicked phone calls are not. Strategic 3-minute “quick question” sessions work more often than not. And, establishing an emergency “no grant” code word or phrase may help your colleagues step in to get a letter from a reluctant partner or a budget estimate. 
  10. Debrief. This is perhaps the #1 professionalism tactic. After a large project is submitted, have a brief feedback meeting with all involved to make the process better for your team (and yourself). I know, you don’t have time for that. I say you must have time for that. 
  11. Time. Help your colleagues see that you understand and respect their time. The Gantt Chart, your conversations, the use of templates – these all contribute here. Feel free to cancel a conversation if it’s not needed; when you give people back a few minutes, they will love you forever (or at least until the end of the day).
  12. Program Development/Facilitation. Designing the guts of the proposal – the program design or methodology along with the goals and objectives – can be done using conversations; but developing the timeline and the budget really pull things together. We all make plans according to our own internal timeline, whether it’s planning for vacation, a holiday, or dinner; it works for grants, too. And the budget is the shopping list. Who doesn’t like to go shopping? 

In summary, remember who you are. You are not a researcher, a firefighter, a surgeon, a preschool teacher, an ecologist, etc. You are the grant professional. No one wants to be you, and no one has the skills set you have. Every grant professional has had the same issues and challenges you have had, and many have learned to overcome them. Likely, there is no single solution to your challenges, but if you wisely choose two or three of the Fancy Footwork strategies and continue to be a true “professional,” you can successfully educate your bosses and colleagues about grants and the work you do.

About the Author

Johna Rodgers

Johna Rodgers, GPC, has been there and done that. And almost every step of her divergent path included grants. For nearly 30 years, Johna has helped organizations of all types and sizes address their most critical needs—at the federal, state, corporate, and grassroots levels. In 2015, she opened Johna Rodgers Consulting, LLC, a full-service consulting agency. With more than $162 million in grant awards, she has the competitive experience needed to ensure proposals are fundable; as importantly, she has learned to work efficiently with dozens of partners and their conflicting ideas, missions, and concerns. Johna is a Board Member of the Grant Professional Association (GPA), a member of the National Grant Management Association, a national trainer for Grant Writing USA/Grant Management USA, and a GPA Approved Trainer. She is also a former board member and exam administrator for the Grant Professionals Certification Institute (GPCI).

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