PSGA Ken's Corner

Observations and advice on grant writing from the other side of the desk

Be the best grant writer you can be

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A friend asked me the other day what her organization should be looking for in a new development/grantwriter. I’ve been asked this question many times. I have some general suggestions, but I always consider what I know about the organization. Organizations that rely upon government grants/contracts need skills that are different from ones looking for foundation and corporate giving program grants.

This time I gave the question more thought as it coincided with drafting an outline for a session at the Nonprofit Conference for Coastal & SW WA in September (Details here). I began the outline by updating a list I’ve collected over several years. Looking at a half dozen new sites pushed the list up over 30 items. While each observation was good, all the lists seemed disjointed. The traits didn’t flow together. Then I found something surprising. My aha?

All the lists mixed personal traits and skills.

I rewrote the list, creating two columns:

Personal Traits                                                                  Skills
• Autonomous                                              • Knowledge of the organization/area of service
• Persistent                                                   • Able to write clearly
• Enjoys writing                                          • Time conscious
• Creative/flexible mind                            • Learns from past performance
• Process/team oriented                            • Researching
• Detail oriented                                         • Balance perfection with good enough
• Personable                                                • Balance passion with practicality
• Ethical                                                        • Organization skills
• Organized

On the surface it might seem that this list relates to any job. Yet the first three personal traits and skills are certainly critical to succeeding as a grant writer.

What does this list mean to you as a grantwriter? First, don’t expect to check all these boxes. No one will. But you should acknowledge the conflict between two items on the list: the ability to work autonomously and the ability to be process/team oriented. You’ve got to be a self-starter and able to work on your own, that’s critical to writing and rewriting your work to get your best results.

Yet you also rely upon others in your organization for critical information as you prepare a grant, and to carry out the real work once a grant is awarded. In the end, success belongs to the whole organization, and you need to honor that.

Second, while the order of these lists is flexible, some personal traits are critical. You can learn to write more clearly—that’s a skill– but you won’t work at it if you don’t enjoy writing.

Third, you can use the list to evaluate how you might fit in an organization. Some organizations encourage creative thinking and flexibility; others stifle it. Some organizations know how to balance perfection with good enough while other’s will frustrate you because they strive for perfection, even at the cost of losing an opportunity.

Finally, the list may help you see what skills you might have to work harder. If you’re a bit disorganized by nature, you may have to concentrate harder on organizational skills. For example, rather than just noting a grant submission deadline, you may want to set up a series of reminders.

In the end, this list may also help you understand how to thrive in your job. Figuring out what skills your job demands the most, and how your personal traits match up with those, is a way to set goals for your personal growth as a grant writing and within your organization.


Author: Ken Ristine

Over 40 years experience in the nonprofit sector; Senior Program Officer for a Pacific Northwest family foundation. Co-author with Goodwin Deacon of the recently published Grantsmanship for the Genius.

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