Three years ago, I left my job as a reporter at a local news organization and made a career pivot to grant writing. I’ve found that my journalism experience is very relevant to my work with grants. Both professions emphasize deep research, asking thoughtful questions, writing clearly and concisely, and meeting deadlines – lots of deadlines!
Anyone beginning their career as a grant professional will face a significant learning curve, regardless of their background. Here are three tips that will help new and growing grant professionals have a strong start in these important roles.
- Become an expert on your organization’s mission and programs.
My number-one piece of advice for grant writers is to be genuinely interested in your organization and its work. This curiosity will fill your brain with great details and insights that you can share with funders. Your colleagues in other departments will be pleased to see how much you care about and appreciate their work. And you will feel more confident and motivated to do your own job.
It’s essential for grant writers to understand their organization’s mission and strategic plan inside and out. Talk with your executive director or other decision-makers at your organization to make sure you always have good answers to these questions:
- What are your organization’s current priorities?
- What are your organization’s greatest challenges?
- How does your organization measure success?
- What new projects and ideas are in the pipeline?
- Are any projects being phased out, or put on the back burner?
In addition to that high-level strategy, you should also try to get a close-up view of your organization’s programs and services in action. Hopefully, this observation and learning will be a part of your onboarding when you start a new job. Ideally, it should be an ongoing, daily process. This has been critical for my work as the grants manager at the Forward, a fast-moving digital news organization that publishes hundreds of articles every month. To stay up-to-date with what we’re doing, I scan the Forward’s email newsletters every day and make sure to read our best and most impactful articles. I try to learn a little Yiddish from the Forverts’ excellent videos on YouTube and TikTok. And I love chatting with our editors and writers – on Slack or at the office – and learning about how they cover the issues, ideas and institutions that matter to American Jews.
You don’t have to get too deep in the weeds of various programs and operations — your colleagues in other departments should handle that. But you should do your best to develop broad expertise in what your organization does, why, and how.
- Absorb. Master. Improve.
As you build your broad interdepartmental knowledge of your organization, you also will be immersed in the day-to-day work of fundraising. Every organization has its own systems for record-keeping, tracking grant deadlines, donor stewardship, and other crucial tasks. When you start a new job, you should focus on absorbing and mastering the systems that are already in place.
Once you understand those, you can look for ways that these systems might be improved. Maybe it’s time to write some new copy for your acknowledgement letters, or to move your paper filing system into the cloud. Maybe some of those lapsed donors in your database deserve a second look. Make sure you have buy-in from colleagues before really shaking things up – especially in areas that affect how others do their jobs. But don’t underestimate the power of viewing your organization and your job with fresh eyes. You might see opportunities for improvement that your colleagues and predecessors have overlooked.
- You’ll need to ask your colleagues for help. Plan ahead.
You will become a more efficient, effective, and independent grant writer with every proposal and report that you complete. But there will always be work that you simply can’t do on your own. Grant documents sometimes require complex subject-matter expertise, detailed budgets, or insight into the accomplishments and goals of a program that only certain staff can provide. You need to gather all of this information from colleagues who are already busy, sometimes overwhelmed by their regular job responsibilities.
This is one of many reasons why it’s so important to have a comprehensive calendar for tracking your grant deadlines. Whenever possible, you should look ahead to upcoming deadlines (and vacation plans) and provide your colleagues with more than enough lead time to get you what you need. Keeping them in the loop and respecting their time makes your working relationships stronger, and sets up everyone to succeed.
A colleague once told me that grant professional are like the hub of a wheel, with spokes that connect to every department of the organization and keep everything in motion. The metaphor also speaks to another aspect of our work: grant applications are complex projects, with many moving parts to keep track of. If you fully understand your organization’s mission and programs, master your systems and processes for fundraising, and proactively communicate with your colleagues, you’ll be able to stay ahead of your deadlines and thrive in your new job as a grant professional.