How To Vet A Grant Writer

By Alesha Mathis
I see so many would-be grant writers luring unsuspecting founders into hiring them for grant writing. They tell you—you can get thousands or tens of thousands of dollars if you just hire them for $100, $500, or $5,000.
There is so much that goes into the grant process. Many can’t even tell you the process.
When looking for a grant writer, here are some questions to consider:

How long have they worked in nonprofits? How long have they been a grant writer?

This is important.
Experienced grant writers know how to write grants. They’ve seen enough to know what Funders look for. There are so many details that need to be just right. An experienced grant writer knows what those things are.
An experienced grant writer can help you navigate the process. Grants aren’t a one-and-done activity. It’s a process. The grant writer will be able to tell you the next steps and what to do to strengthen your proposal for next time. They can also tell you what to ask when contacting a funder to help you do better next time.

Ask about their win or award rate instead of the dollar amount of grants won.

While knowing the amount of money a grant writer has won for a nonprofit can be impressive, it’s not always indicative of skill. As a relatively new grant writer, I brought in $150,000 for a nonprofit. But the board chair was good friends with the top person at the Foundation and I was told as long as we turned in something “good enough,” we would get funding. The award had nothing to do with my skill as a grant writer.
Any experienced grant writer knows their win rate or can calculate it fairly quickly. A win rate is the percentage of applications submitted that are awarded. Win rates can be influenced by the volume of grants submitted or the quality of the grant (grants awarded).
A new or small grant-ready nonprofit has a benchmark of 10%. Experienced nonprofits have benchmarks closer to 30%. If the person you are considering has less than a 5% win rate and works with new and small nonprofits, then they probably aren’t the one for you.

What’s Their Area of Expertise?

Reputable grant writers have found certain sectors of the industry to specialize in. For example, arts or human services. The best grant writers have niched even further. An example is human services —> and residential facilities for abused children.
The more niched they are, the less time they will need to get up to speed and will understand what funders are looking for. They usually already know of grants available for the cause too.
A great grant writer understands the grant landscape. They know what funders are funding in different economic times. An example, COVID altered the benchmark of 1-in-10 grants getting awarded to zero if you didn’t have a COVID-related project.

What less reputable grant writers won’t tell you

If your organization is under three years old, your chances of getting a grant are next to zero.
  • Very few funders believe new nonprofits are good investments. Consider the statistics that a quarter of nonprofits started make it to year five and you understand why. More nonprofits fail in the first three years than in any other year.
  • You don’t have all of the things required for grants. You need budgets, outcomes, processes, and so many other things. It’s why being grant ready is the first step to grants.
  • The benchmark for experienced organizations is 1-in-10 grants submitted are funded.
  • If you need funds now, grants won’t get you there. It takes 3-6 months to find out IF you have an award.
Your best bet is to grow your donor base and start getting all the things needed to apply for grants in place. Create your programs with grants in mind by building in the 10 common grant questions. Get your strategic plan ready and be working on it. And countless other things.
Alesha Mathis teaches sustainable fundraising to new and small nonprofits so they can cover costs, build infrastructure, and change lives.