Penny Wise and Pound Foolish: Why Grant Writers Don’t Work for Free

By Corinne Marasco

A frequently-asked question I’ve seen recently is, “Can grant writers be paid on commission?” It’s a question that guarantees a very spirited conversation.The short answer is no. Don’t even ask.

If you take a nonprofit’s perspective, paying a grant writer on commission makes sense. If the nonprofit is brand new and doesn’t have the money to pay cash up front, then paying on contingency buys time because the bill doesn’t come due unless the proposal is funded. Paying on commission is an incentive for the grant writer to produce a superior proposal. If it’s a proposal for $250,000, for example, then the grant writer could receive a sizable payment depending on the percentage. It’s Darwinian: Only the fittest and winningest grant writers survive.

From a grant writer’s perspective, that perspective is penny wise and pound foolish to me.

First, I don’t want to be personally vested in the outcome of a grant proposal. That is different from taking pleasure in knowing that a proposal I wrote has benefitted an organization that offers compelling programs. However, I don’t want my self-interest taking priority over the nonprofit’s interests or the foundation’s interests.

Second, grant writers have no control over granting organizations; even the best written grants are unsuccessful for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the writing. A frequent reason I’ve heard for a grant not being funded is “too many proposals, not enough money.”

A related reason is the turnaround time to learn the outcome of a proposal. Sometimes it can take many months before the decision is made–how long are you willing to wait to be paid for your work? My utilities company expects me to pay my bill each month whether or not I’m being paid.

Still another reason is the organization can take a proposal I wrote and submit it again, either to the same funder in the next grant cycle or tweak it to submit to a different funder. Even though I may have put in a lot of time and effort with the original proposal, the odds are very good I won’t get paid for a proposal that is resubmitted elsewhere.

Third, if the funding request covers the fiscal year July 1, 2012, through June 30, 2013, and I wrote the proposal in February 2012, that’s outside the funding period so any payment for grant writing would be ineligible. No funder I know of will agree to cover any costs outside the stated grant period, much less any proposal that includes my commission.

Fourth, I don’t always hear if a proposal has been funded. In one case, I wrote some proposals toward the end of my contract with one organization and before I left, I explicitly asked them to let me know the outcomes. I still haven’t heard. As a solo practitioner, I’d spend more time invoicing current clients than obtaining new ones if my payment depended on outcomes.

Grant writers perform an important, professional service that should be paid at the time services are rendered. So what can be done if a new nonprofit doesn’t have the reserves to pay for grant writing and approaches you about writing on commission?

A good first question to ask is if the organization has no money to pay you, how will they address the sustainability sections of the grant proposal? Any grant proposal will ask for organizational and programmatic budgets, an audit, and other financial documents. If they can’t answer that, then the conversation ends right there. If an organization is not fiscally stable enough to pay for your services, they are unlikely stable enough to administer grant funds.

Are the members of the board of directors making financial contributions of their own? Is there financial commitment from the local community, either from local government, sponsorships from local businesses or fundraising events that demonstrate support and can build up funds to pay for your services? If an organization has solid community commitment, it can find the money to cover professional services, including grant writing.

You can also help the organization out by providing hourly rates and a project estimate so it can budget for your services. Provide a flat fee or something they can build into their budget if paying you by the hour isn’t possible. Grant writing fees don’t have to be horribly expensive; a small grant proposal shouldn’t take many hours to write. If you’re lucky enough to develop a long-term relationship with an organization, then the amount of time it will take to produce a grant proposal will be shorter as your knowledge of the organization increases.

If the organization is really new and you want to help them get started, write the first grant or two on a pro bono basis or donate your services as an in-kind contribution. You will need to provide an invoice to document the fair market value of the services provided if you donate them.

If none of the above arguments persuade a nonprofit organization to pay you for your grant writing services up front, you can gently point out that the Association of Fundraising Professionals Code of Ethics prohibits the payment of contingency fees.

Association of Fundraising Professionals Code of Ethics

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