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Are You a Writer? Become a Grant Writer and Save the World!

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.


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

About The Haberdasher

Created by writers for writers, The Haberdasher, or le Hab, is your Peddler of Literary Art for Northern California and beyond. In addition to writing tips and literary debates, we also feature critical reviews and author interviews.


3 thoughts on “Are You a Writer? Become a Grant Writer and Save the World!

  1. Thanks for the insight into an alternative method of putting that degree and a love of language, not to mention good causes, to use. The resource list is also much appreciated — we should do more of this sharing of resources and information.

    Posted by Ki Koenig (@kikoenig) | April 2, 2012, 5:01 am
  2. Interesting take on the matter. I view it more as a societal failure to provide the ability for people to work to their potential. In a profit driven culture, money is always the bottom line and an English major can;t be successful. At least you were able to get somewhere, but not every English major can become a grant writer. This is the major failure of the Capitalist system: its economic anarchy. I also have no hope of working in my field of study, namely History. I’ll probably just continue on as an industrial mechanic, gods willing with a Doctorate in History. In a better society, your skill would be a boon, rather than a burden.

    Posted by Vance Osterhout | April 3, 2012, 11:29 pm
    • I like to celebrate when one of my peers is able to find their niche in spite of having a degree that is labeled as being “less practical.” The all-or-nothing way of thinking about a college degree giving the final word on career options–well, it just sounds confining. This is how I plan to stay free from the confines of a degree. In addition to my interest in literature and writing, I am fortunate to have an interest in the sciences and am currently pursuing a career in the medical field. The way I see it, I will be able to work in a field I find interesting while using my free time to enjoy well written stories and poems, maybe even create a few of my own–even if I never make it “big” pouring out my heart on the page.

      An English degree does not, by itself, qualify a person as a writer; nor does it limit other interests or skills someone may posses. If you love reading and writing, do it with or without the degree. And, if it is all you love, and you must do something else to keep a roof over your head and food in your belly, then do it. You can still read and write in your off time. The trick is finding the balance.

      Posted by Egg | May 4, 2012, 5:04 pm

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