by Tempra Board
I was lucky. I didn’t go to college to “learn a skill” or a trade, or because I wanted to “be” something, like a businessman, lawyer, doctor, or teacher. I simply wanted to learn. I loved reading and could write, and I ended up majoring in English. I soaked in amazing writing, from Ernest Hemingway to Toni Morrison, while soaking in my claw foot tub in a rented loft in an old Victorian that I could barely keep heated.
So I wasn’t even expecting any kind of good job in my “field” upon graduating with my liberal arts B.A. from a California State University. But I did finally turn around, scratch my head, and wonder “What am I going to do other than this little part time job at Sears?” I moved to a slightly more bustling northern California town, hoping to open up the job opportunities. Then I put in roughly 80 resumes in the span of six months. I got five interviews, all of which I bombed. “You mean I’m not supposed to let on that in reality I don’t want your crappy typing job?” Oh, and I couldn’t even type fast enough for most of the crappy typing jobs.
Finally, I got a lead and went to see a local consultant—a grant writer—who I heard might be looking for some help in his home office. His business of writing grant proposals for nonprofit organizations across the state was starting to get just a little bigger than his one-man shop. On the day I was asked to translate some raw data into a narrative in paragraph format (the “test” as I later realized), I was no longer doing runs to Office Depot but writing grant proposals full time. A light bulb went on, and I found my career.
Fifteen years later I have a successful consulting business of my own, with half a dozen or more regular clients that keep me busy and for the most part, fulfilled. Even in the soured economy I’ve stayed in business and was even able to buy my own home. I didn’t initially set out to be a grant writer, but I love my work and I get the added benefit of doing what all good liberals want to do: save the world! OK, a little hyperbole, but in truth, it feels really good to raise money for nonprofits who are making our world a better place, even on a small scale.
So if you’re an English major who is not interested in teaching, and want to find meaningful work (even while you pursue creative writing, getting published, etc.), consider grant writing. When I was an undergrad and also in graduate school, there were always rumblings about careers in writing other than teaching, and those other careers seemed to begin and end with something called “technical writing.” I became an English major precisely because anything “technical” filled me with equal parts fear and loathing, so this particular field never appealed to me.
The beauty of grant writing is that you can use your ability to communicate and be creative. Your job is to tell a story, to make an argument, and somewhat less exciting but critically important…to follow directions. You must take a program that your client knows well from the inside out, and explain it to funders, showing them how it meets a need in the community and convincing them to invest in it. It’s challenging, and you’ll get a lot of rejections. But if you’ve been trying to get published, then you’re already a veteran at that. One of the keys, though, to telling a good story, is passion. You must have passion for the cause you are working for; it’s awfully hard to fake, especially as competitive as funding is these days.
There are a few ways to get started. I didn’t just become a grant writing consultant overnight. I paid my dues working underneath another writer for years, went back to school to get a master’s degree (more for the “stink of respectability,” as my partner would say, than anything else), and then went to work as a fundraising gopher (“Development Associate”) for a nonprofit organization. I helped plan and implement fundraising events, I entered donor information into a database, and I helped research, write, and edit grant proposals. I then became a lead fundraiser (“Development Director”) for a small but growing organization, following which I began consulting.
So consider an entry level job in the development department of a nonprofit (or in a school or university) whose mission you care about. You can also volunteer to help write grants. These experiences and connections will help lead you to better paying work. Shadowing or working under an experienced grant writer is probably the best way to get experience quickly. There are also classes you can take to learn the rules of the game, but don’t spend too much on them. You don’t have to. There are books, too, that can give you the basics. The truth is, if you like to write, writing grant proposals is not really that hard. It can even be fun…something that often feels pretty out of reach in the working world right now.
Tempra Board is Principal of Tempra Board & Associates, a grant writing and resource development firm based in Chico, California. www.tempraboard.com
The Nonprofit Resource Center in Sacramento has several grant writing workshops each year.
The Grassroots Institute for Fundraising Training (GIFT) in Oakland, provides training and resources on not just grant writing but other ways to raise funds
The Foundation Center in Washington, D.C. has several free online courses in how to obtain foundation funding
California State University, Chico’s Department of Health and Community Services offers a grant writing course taught by John Cannon