Our New Economy And Me!

Here’s the thing.  I have a bit of grant writing experience.  My last job, for example was titled “Grant Writer” and I literally went to work every day and wrote and researched grants. It didn’t pay much but for most of the time I was there it had great benefits and was generally a pretty comfortable job to have.  I got laid off because a full time, salary grant writer is a big investment for an organization, and times is hard.

People keep suggesting to me that I do contract work.  This is fine.  I’d love to do this.  I’m basically dying to do this.  Even though I think contract work is problematic on a societal level (basically, it drives down the value of work, especially creative work, and requires almost no responsibility to the paying member of the contract to s/he who is producing the work.  If you have a graphic designer friend, I encourage you to ask them about this. You might start with “so, do you have health insurance?”) I am still into the idea of doing it.  I’d like to set my own hours, work from home, actually make money rather than not, etc. Plus I actually like grant writing. Which I believe might be insane.

The problem is that somewhere along the line, a rumor got started that says that grant writers who write on contract traditionally charge a percentage of the final grant award.  And everyone  expects this to be what you propose.  It also sounds great: “So you get 10% of what we make.  If we make $100,000, that’s $10,000!”   The problem is that this is absolutely bananas for everyone involved. (side note: not everyone.  I just had a perfectly reasonable meeting with someone who understood that this wasn’t a great idea.)

First, this looks pretty bad to funders.  Even if you don’t mention it in the proposal or the budget, if they find it out they might question the validity of your need for $100,000.  Was it padded by an ambitious grant writer, wishing to make 1/4 of their annual income in one fell swoop? Organizations develop reputations with funders and it is extremely important to maintain a reputation of being efficient with funding and being tansparent with how you spend it, now more than ever.

Second, this creates a motivational structure that works against the needs of the organization.  Grant writers will lean towards the larger grants with bigger payoff.  They will avoid smaller foundation grants that may require a lot of work for a smaller amount of return, that may be suited for the individual projects pursued by the organization.  Why invest the time and effort for such a small payoff?

Third, this payment structure is almost entirely disconnected from the amount of work needed to complete the grant. This can cause writers to apply for larger grants rather than smaller ones, even though sometimes smaller grants are best for the organization’s needs.  This also disincentives efficiency and responsiveness on the part of the organization. A grant writer will need to work very closely with an organization to obtain all of the information necessary to qualify for a grant.  As an outsider, a grant writer needs to learn about your organization, your history, and the state of need in your community. A grant writer needs to obtain documents and budget information from your organization as well.  By devaluing the initial amount of time that goes into the process, there is no incentive for members of your organization to cooperate with the grant writer readily.  This is unfair to the grant writer, because it places the burden of obtaining this information on an outsider.  Without timely response from many employees at your organization, the viability of the proposal can be compromised.  Deadlines may be missed, or key pieces of information may be left out, leading to rejection.

I think misunderstandings about the grant writing process–not some great moral failing–is what leads to the idea that a percentage charge would be a fair system.  For instance, there’s a base level of work that almost all grants require.  Beyond that, the amount of work varies a lot more by funder than it does by the potential amount of the grant.  To an absurd degree.   Many grants have several steps involved.  You might have to write a Letter of Inquiry. Usually, this is a narrative, a great deal of documentation, and a rough budget.  There’s no average structure for a grant, and there’s no average amount of time it will take you, and it definitely is not based on the maximum amount of possible funding.  Additionally, some grants aren’t a solid award amount.  When dealing with state and federal governent grants, these funds are often based on the amount of work the organizaiton actually carries out once the agreement is made.  There’s no reason a grant writer should be paid based on the amount of services an organization is able to provide after they are out of the equation.

Most importantly, if the acceptance and rejection of funding proposals was 100% dependent on the quality of the proposal, a percentage structure would be reasonable. But it never is.  For instance,  a grant writer cannot disguise an organization’s poor record keeping or history of financial trouble.   Similarly, a grant writer can’t change the mind of a board member who just is not interested in funding projects that involve children and will never approve it no matter how good it is.  A grant writer might ask for $200,000 and receive $9,000 due to the huge losses a foundation sustained during the financial crisis and has not yet made up.  Because so many of the factors that go into approving a grant are largely out of the control of the writer, it is almost always unfair to pay based on approval and award amount. A rejected proposal is not always the sign of a bad grant writer.

The best way to pay a grant writer on contract is by a negotiated hourly/daily/monthly rate.  This incentivises organizations to work readily with the writer, to reduce the amount of time the grant writer charges.  This also removes the disincentive to apply for small grants, which may be most valuable to organizations.   It’s a fairer pricing structure for organizaitons in the long run as well, because as the grant writer becomes more familiarwith the work of the organization and the issues the organization addresses, the amount of basic ground work on the part of the grant writer is reduced–the grant writer can do less research and even cut and paste between proposals.  Staying with a single writer is also good for the quality of the proposals, which are more compelling when the writer is familiar with the needs stated in the proposal.

I am also firmly on the side of paying people for their work, even if the proposals aren’t eventually approved, and paying them when the work is finished, not when the decision is announced–often many months later.  I’m biased of course, but I don’t think this is an unreasonable demand.  Organizations take financial risks all the times and as far as they go, this isn’t the riskiest kind.  What I mean to say is, please, give me your work.  I swear we can work out something fair for both of us.

Follow up: my friend Erin, graphic designer, said she does have health insurance, she just gets it though the health food store she also works at to supplement her freelance income.  Unsurprisingly, health food co-op employee insurance premiums are cheap!

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Our New Economy And Me!

  1. I would think there would be a better way of connecting freelance grant writers with clients. There should be a guild or something. Whatever happened to that “Freelancers Union” idea that I kept hearing about awhile back?

    Also — and I’m not trying to be mean, just doing quality control as a diligent reader — isn’t your 2nd point saying basically the same thing as part of your 3rd point?

  2. fritz

    Hi Benji and Kaitlin,

    There is a Freelancer’s Union in New York that is semi-successful at getting people group 401ks and health insurance (it’s incredibly expensive! but better than going in as an individual), and semi-successful at some political lobbying — they fought really hard against NY State raising the self-employment tax (the merits of which you can debate at your leisure), and generally in coalition with unions/other labor groups.

  3. Penelope Poppers!

    I work via contract and it blows mostly, but I get cheap insourance through some program for self employed people. Which is only “meh”. Also, god tax time is awful if you are self employed. Ugh

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