What Grant Writing Taught Me About Freelancing
I’ve been a grant writer for nonprofit organizations for 13 years. During that time, I’ve written hundreds of proposals, raising over $6 million in grants in support of arts programs. I’ve also served as a grants panelist for government agencies in both California and New York.
All those years of submitting narratives to donors in the hopes of getting financial support, and reading proposals written by those seeking support, taught me invaluable lessons I rely on every day as I embark on a freelance writing career.
Follow the Rules (duh)
Early on I submitted a grant proposal for $10,000 to a foundation that specifically stated they only supported programs taking place in Orange County, California. I thought, naively, I could win them over by describing how our organization served people from Orange County through programs taking place in the heart of Los Angeles, nearly 50 miles away.
I was wrong.
This is a pretty common rookie mistake: not following the rules to a T. But it’s critical. If you’re looking for support for an animal rescue organization, do not apply to a foundation that funds universities. If the guidelines specifically state that the proposal must be two pages or less, don’t think the reader won’t notice your narrative bled over to the third page. And if your programs take place in Los Angeles, Sandra of the Past, don’t think you can pull one over and get funding from a foundation supporting programs in another region of the state.
The same fundamentals apply to freelancing: if a client needs you to write a 500-word blog targeting middle-aged women, submitting 1,200 words on the best nightclubs in your city is probably not going to go over well.
It sounds obvious, I know, but years of experience has taught me that following basic criteria seems to be the trickiest part for newbies.
It’s the Writing, Stupid!
You can’t submit a grant proposal full of typos and expect the program officer, panelist, or board member to gloss over them. Sure, everyone makes mistakes, but if your submission is riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, it’s going to reflect poorly on your organization’s ability to facilitate its programs.
Ditto for your work in freelancing. If you can’t write a compelling, coherent narrative devoid of inaccuracies, then you shouldn’t seek work as a writer.
As I’ve said in previous posts, when you’re done writing, read your work, read it again, edit it, then read it once more. Then, after you’ve read it multiple times, find a trusted companion to proof it before you publish or submit it to the client. My husband, aka my beta reader, has caught a few errors I missed, simply because I was too close to my own writing to notice them.
Having an outsider — specifically someone who has a good eye for consistency, spelling, grammar, and punctuation — read your work is critical to ensuring nothing slips through the cracks.
Know Your Audience
Not every proposal I’ve written has been in the same voice. Many were written in “grants speak.” That is, they read more like technical documents — clear, concise text written in the third person and meant to convey the basics (need for the program, audiences served, demographics, etc.). Some, however, were written in the first person, and full of emotive, flowery language intended to move a specific individual to donate to the cause.
My writing style always depends on the reader; a proposal to the National Endowment for the Arts, with its strict character limit and panel of anonymous arts professionals, is not going to be written in the same language as a proposal to a small foundation with a board member who has a longstanding relationship with the organization. The former will be technical, and the latter personal.
Freelance writing should be treated the same way. Writing a post for Medium is different from writing an instruction manual — reaching different audiences requires different styles. Have an idea of who will be reading your work before you begin writing. This will help you map out the work’s tone, jargon, and salient points.
The Work Doesn’t End with the Writing
Very rarely have I had success simply submitting a proposal and calling it a day. The work continues long after the submission is complete. Prospect cultivation and donor stewardship are significant parts of a robust moves management strategy — that is, the steps the fundraiser must take to “move” a relationship from awareness of the organization, to interest in its mission and programs, to involvement as a volunteer or patron, to investment as a donor. It’s primarily a tool for individual donors, but can work just as well for foundations and corporations. Site visits, lunches, phone calls, and in-person meetings can, depending on the funder, be what makes or breaks an organization’s ability to get the grant.
The same applies to freelancing. If you’re running a copywriting business, for example, you’re not going to do one job for a client and move on. You’ll touch base with former clients from time to time to remind them you still exist. You’ll send a short, casual email to check in, see how things are going, and hope they’ll keep in touch. Sometimes you’ll get a response, sometimes you won’t, but you’ll do the due diligence to make sure your clients know you care…and maybe, just maybe, you’ll get a job or two out of your efforts.
I’ve loved my work in fundraising. It’s gratifying to know that my efforts have resulted in the funding of critical theatre, film, and arts education programs. The interesting aspect of late is how much of this work and all that I’ve learned — about researching, writing, and stewardship — can be applied to my burgeoning freelance career.