How to Hire a Grant Writer, Part 1

In the last post we passed along advice to job seekers on ways to evaluate nonprofit employers. Here we turn the tables to help nonprofits screen applicants to find the best finalists. For the purposes of this post we’re concentrating on grant writers, but a lot of the advice can be adjusted for other positions.

At minimum, a good grant writer should:

  • Pay attention
  • Write well
  • Understand the client
  • Think on their feet

Pay Attention

Submitting grant proposals is as much about building a good case as it is about following basic instructions. Even if the evidence sometimes speaks to the contrary, the funder is always right, and if they want applicants to stand on one foot at sunrise in a red shirt and cluck like a chicken, by golly you had better get to cluckin’ if you want to make it far in the review process...

Maybe that’s a tad extreme, but there are funders who are particular about how they want their proposals prepared; how they should look; how they should be titled; how they should be physically bound; and what should be included. You need to trust that your grant writer will be a vigilant gatekeeper to ensure the proposal does not leave your office until it meets each and every requirement in the RFP guidelines.

To that end, the application process should be structured in a way that forces applicants to follow explicit directions.

First, ask the job applicant to write a cover letter addressing predetermined questions in the job listing. For example, you may ask applicants to state why they are a good fit for the job, or list specific responsibilities from their most recent employment that would make them a good fit for this position. Come up with three good questions, and then use the cover letter to assess how well the applicant is addressing them.

Some sample questions:

  • What experience best prepared you for the responsibilities of this position?
  • What is it about our company/organization that makes it a good fit for your skills and talents?
  • What is it about the position that motivated you to apply?

Next, ask the applicant to submit 2 writing samples (no more than X pages total). Here you are checking for two things: A) relevance; and B) basic math. Funders sometimes ask for supplemental materials (newsletters, brochures, etc.) that give additional information about the grant seeker. Likewise, a job applicant ought to supply the kind of samples that spotlight their skills of persuasion. Submitting more than what was requested is a sign of overbearing enthusiasm, for an applicant and a grant seeker.

Now, if they neglect the total page number between both writing samples, you should probably not trust the applicant to assess your grant budget.

Third, stipulate a file title format. For example, you may consider asking the applicant to title their files Last Name, First Name, (type of document i.e. Resume, Writing Sample). For example, the file title may read: Smith, John - Cover Letter. Doing so may help your internal filing system. It’s not unusual for funders who request file name rules to better help them process the avalanche of proposals, and you would hate for your submission to be the one that stands out for not adhering to basic guidelines.

Finally, If you are taking applications by e-mail as opposed to an online form submission, consider requesting that the applicant use “Grant Writer” (substitute name of position) in the subject of the e-mail. Again, this will help your internal mail filing system and provide another attention checkpoint. You may consider using e-mail anyway since this will help gauge the applicant's e-mail etiquette, and most mail clients will allow the use of filters to sort correspondence.

The idea behind these suggestions is not to make applying for your position a meandering challenge. Rather, it is an opportunity to set up enough checkpoints to gauge the candidate’s attention to detail.

In the next installment we will look at how writing ability enters the equation and a few things you can use to evaluate it. Is there anything we’ve missed so far?

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