How to Be a Grant Writer Part 2: Never Write a Grant “On Commission”


by Lisa Jo Rudy

I once wrote a grant that won $4,000,000. If I’d earned a 10% commission, I’d’ve been a wealthy woman.

I didn’t. I was paid a nice fee, but no commission.

The reason was simple: professional grant writers don’t earn commissions. They are paid fees.

So why, you may wonder, do so many online ads offer grant writers a hefty commission if and when they “earn” a grant? The reasons for that are simple too: either:

(a) the client is broke, and they think this is a terrific way to get money for nothing and/or

(b) the client has no idea what a grant really is (except that they’ve seen Google ads for “free grants” all over the Internet), and/or

(c) the client has the idea that grantwriters are really fundraising gurus who know where and how to dip into free pots of money (it doesn’t occur to them that anyone with that kind of knowledge surely doesn’t need to work for a startup on commission!).

There are two basic reasons why grant writers don’t work on commission.

The first is that grant writers have no control over the factors that make a “sale.” Sure, they can write a persuasive proposal. But once the proposal is sent out into the wide world, the quality of your writing won’t be enough to help it succeed.

The reviewers have to love the project, be impressed by the people involved with the project, and believe that the project fits their guidelines and is BETTER than the 100 other projects that have been pitched to them this quarter. In the best of all worlds, too, your client went out there ahead of time and did some spadework. They met with the granting agency, took all the advice they could, selected the right people, and put together the budget with great care.

If they didn’t do their up-front work, or if the reviewers don’t love their idea, or if their personnel aren’t impressive enough, or if they’re just unlucky…they lose.

If you were paid a fee, you don’t.

But the biggest and most important reason why grantwriters don’t work on commission is that grants don’t work that way. Grants are donations to do specific work as described in a written document with a budget attached. NO grantmaking agency will allow “pay the grantwriter his fee” to be a budget line item. So where does that “extra” money come from to pay you?

The only way to find the grant writer’s ten percent in a grant budget is to monkey with the budget numbers, and then doctor their books.

For example, your client could claim it will cost them $20,000 to rent buses to take disabled kids from school to their afterschool special needs recreation program. But it really only costs $10,000. So if you win the grant, they pay for the buses with $10,000, pay you $10,000, and then doctor the books to make it look like the money was legitimately spent on bus rental.

Not only did the money come to you in a highly questionable manner, but you, in essence, just lifted $10,000 of money that was intended to support the needs of disabled children.

Oh – and one other point to consider.

When you write a grant proposal, it can take months (or even a year) to get a final decision out of the grant making agency. Then it can take months for money to come through. Sometimes, the client has to request their money in chunks as they need it. As the grant writer, you have to depend upon your client to let you know “oh! We got the grant – and your cash will be available in a few weeks.”

If you met your client online, worked for them once, and then went on your way – how likely is it that they’ll be in touch when and if the cash comes through? And if they don’t, you’re out that cash forever.

Up next: What Does a Grant Proposal Look Like?

Also see: How to Be a Grant Writer: Part 1 – What’s a Grant Writer and Why Would I Want to Be One


9 responses
  1. Allena Avatar

    Thank you thank you thank you!

    Also, I did an internship in grant writing, and I think another thing that writers looking to go into the field should know is that it’s MUCH more math and research than it is writing. Most grants want more tables, charts, graphics, flow ideas, etc, than they want written promises. You’re also looking at a massive amount of meetings with the client, so if you’re one of those writers who write at night and spend your day raising a family, grant writing may not be for you.

    But thank you for this, I cannot tell you how many new non profs think they can pay a grant writer from grant monies. It’s ridiculous!

  2. LIsa Avatar

    Huh. Your experience is very different from mine.

    I do very very little math when writing a grant – and have never created a flow chart. Basically, I let my clients know “I’m a writer, not an accountant,” and that seems to cover it. I have the client do their own budgeting, too.

    In addition, I almost never meet with clients: almost all of my clients are far too distant to make that practical. We meet by phone; they review drafts. So I am absolutely a WAHM!

    I think it depends largely on what kinds of grants you’re writing, and for whom. But the federal grants I’ve done (the biggies) are almost exclusively in the cultural and educational realms (with a bit of science tossed in) – and I’ve written plenty of smaller and/or foundation grants that are straight narrative.


  3. Caroline Reeder Avatar

    Great article Lisa Jo! Thank you for covering the commission issue as it is one of my pet peeves as a grant writer. There are so many factors that determine whether a proposal will be funded and most have nothing to do with how well the proposal was written. I’ve found that most organizations that try to get away with paying commission have no business trying to get a grant in the first place. I look forward to the rest of your series.

    Caroline Reeder

  4. Skippy Avatar

    Can you recommend any grant writing courses? When I google “grant writing courses” I get a pretty big chunk of confusion. Does it matter if the course offers some kind of certification? Is there any company/school that would help on a resume if a person is just starting out? Thanks!

  5. Tania Mara Avatar
    Tania Mara

    Lisa, many thanks for this post! I’m sure this will spare many writers from falling into the commission trap. I also like it that you’ve paid attention to the ethics (or lack thereof) of taking money that isn’t really meant to pay grant writers.

    Now I’m looking forward to the next part of this series.

  6. E. Peevie Avatar

    I’ve gotten more requests for commission-based fundraising in the last year than I got in 10 prior years put together. Sign of the times, I guess.

    I always tell them no thanks, and I link them to the ethics statement of the AFP (Association of Fundraising Professionals).

    However: I believe some government funding sources allow applicants to build the cost of grantwriting into the budget. I have not encountered this myself, but I’ve talked to a couple of people who have written proposals with this unusual non-standard standard.

    I still don’t think it’s a good idea, though–for all the reasons you mentioned.

  7. Jackson Avatar

    I’m so glad you addressed this topic. I can’t tell you how many times people’s eyes light up when I tell them I’m an experienced development/grantwriting professional only to have them follow up with, “do you write on commission?”
    These same folks seem completely taken aback that I won’t consider a commission structure.

    It’s absurd to me that an organization will expect a professional to take on the critical role of finding money on commission. Why would you commit something as vital as fund procurement to such a haphazard process? Without money there is no mission, no matter how “worthy” the cause.

    I feel limited working the traditional 40-hours at an agency. I want to work from home doing proposals as a full-time gig. Are there any suggestions you may have regarding self-marketing and getting past the “lookie-lews”? I’m struggling to get past the “commission only” or “work on spec” mindset that seems to permeate nonprofits in my area. I’m a trained professional with a solid track record, not a volunteer.

    I like E. Peevie’s recommendation to forward prospective clients to the AFP ethics statements. Still, it’s a tough sale.

    Can you, or fellow proposal writers, comment on the following:

    **How long did it take you to reach a break-even (I-think-I’ll-make-it-at-this) point in your venture as a proposal writer?

    **How do you sell out-of-state prospects that are hesitant about not having a local writer?

    **Does anyone have insights about writing RFP’s for corporate clients?

    Thanks for the article, Lisa

  8. lavhouse Avatar

    OK, I am one of those broke people who needs a grant writer for a project. Does anyone have any suggestions? Someone told me that I can find people willing to do it for free on craigslist. Are these people looking for experience? Perhaps people just finishing a class or school. Are there any other options

  9. KK Rousseau Avatar

    Hi, I found your articles whilst researching grant writing to see if it is something I would enjoy. I am getting more and more confused over the terms used. I understand that a grant is a gift of money, goods, or services usually to a socially beneficial organization. Have I got that right?

    I might want to “write a grant” to get the “grant money.” This is a bit confusing but I vaguely understand it. I seems like some kind of loose usage where one word is used to describe two separate things that are related.

    Then, just when I thought I was making progress, Alena (above) wrote that “Most grants want more tables, charts, graphics, flow ideas, etc, than they want written promises.” This makes me aware that I am still completely in the dark.

    Is a grant something that is given and, if so, how is it that someone who wishes to receive that something also somehow “writes a grant?” How can a grant want anything and is it the gift or the request for the gift that wants?

    I have a doctorate so I am usually not such a nitwit. Please, if you can, elucidate me and correct the error I must be making while trying to figure out this grant business.

    Thank you kindly.


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