Ahh, it’s good to be a writer. It is a skill you get better at with practice and attention to detail. Over time my writing should improve, so my rising age is not a deterrent. If, for instance, I was a professional athlete in most sports, I’d already be a good ten years past being employable. Yes, even most professional golfers fade away by the time they’re 40. But as a writer, I can keep at it until I no longer have anything to say.
Writing is a good skill to have, it pays. It may not pay as much as a professional athlete. But may is not the right word, grant writing does not pay like pro sports. I’m not saying it should, it just doesn’t. The upshot for me is I need to keep earning over a lifetime. The money I am able to save isn’t likely to produce enough interest to support me in my old age. So long as I can write though, I can produce an income for many years to come.
So I look at working with a long view in mind. I have no intention of retiring, I have no hobbies interesting enough to keep me sane for twenty to thirty years of retirement. Writing is my main hobby, then computer graphics and photography. These are interests that keep me working and earning and I enjoy doing them even in my time off. I have trouble finding the time to do enough of any of them to satisfy me.
Yes it is good to be a writer and it’s good to enjoy what you’re doing. If you can do what you enjoy and get paid for it, stay put, because that’s your niche! That’s where I am as a grant writer, in my niche, nestled, and comfortable.
Freelance grant writing can be financially challenge or rewarding, it’s never in the middle. It’s never like that government job you’ve left, or that you may want to leave. The paycheck isn’t automatically deposited to your account on the first and the fifteenth of the month with all of the taxes, retirement, and government fees taken out.
Feast or famine is what your income will look like. Sometimes the feast is more of a snack but hey we take what comes our way and we eat heartily. Cash flow influences how you pay bills and what you can afford. There have been times when I must get creative about how I get things done and other times when I have failed to rein in a spending spree set loose by a fat check.
Here are some things to get organized in your head before you get into cash flow droughts.
Establish your contracts to pay you some now and some later. If you’re working on a research project, then establish a monthly payment schedule.
Set up a tax account where you can put a healthy percentage of each check where it can earn a little interest and save you from being short when your quarterly taxes are due.
Pay off credit cards, as much as you can afford. I’ve found that I tended to live on those at times and so long as my work paid off later, I could pay them down quickly when the tide came in.
Maintain your vehicle.
Pay the entire year of vehicle insurance at once so you take that out of the cash flow equation for 12 months. You also save money on fees they charge for spreading it out.
If you have an evaluation project, spread the payments out over the year so it helps your cash flow. You may want 50% up front, then 24% in January, 25% in June. Or, you may want to have the 50% come in March before taxes are due.
Build things into your contracts where you can that provide you with materials or services you need to do the work.
Build up a cash reserve by setting aside a pittance. Easier said than done, I know from experience! I also know that if you get used to setting aside a pittance, it’s easier to add to that as you get into the habit and as extra money comes in.
Cash flow is one of the biggest challenges facing a freelance grant writer or any business person for that matter. It’s tricky and agencies may be slow in paying, slow in approving contracts, and paperwork gets lost. You must do your part to ensure that the wheels of each bureaucracy grind as smoothly as possible by submitting invoices promptly, accurately, and to the right person. Make friends with the people in accounting because when a payment is slow, and your cash flow is low, there are no better people to know!
Freelance grant writers are either really busy or wishing they were. Of course when you are you long not to be but that’s another story. Running your own business can be a little scary financially because you’re always “betting on the come”, that is you’re always anticipating there will be another contract coming along.
Success brings contracts to you. You won’t need to advertise beyond having lots of business cards handy. People talk about grants in the grant world and agencies often know who is getting people funded, and those that aren’t become invisible and find other work quickly.
The hard part in being a grant writing business owner is turning away a contract. It can be even harder to do when the chips are down and the economy is bad; in those times, even a bad contract can look good. Here are a few signs of a bad contract.
The client wants you to write it solely on a contingency basis. I always hesitate if the client isn’t willing to invest some money, put some skin in the game. I mean come on people, do you as a grant writer really want to assume all the risk involved? A client who does not want to invest money, won’t invest time either and you’re going to have a tough time writing the proposal at all.
The client hems and haws for a long time before giving you a contract. You may be dealing with someone who doesn’t trust you, or who doesn’t know what they want to do. In either case, go slowly and make sure you’ve talked to them enough to be confident and to give confidence.
The client is impossible to contact. Potential clients who are too busy to return my call before a contract is signed are unlikely to be any better afterward. I find that these kinds of clients are better off going with someone else. I need the client to be committed to producing a fundable proposal, my reputation is on the line.
The client wants to write a grant that is clearly not aligned to their mission or programs. Go slow here. This is hard to turn down, especially when a client with cash to pay for your services and you may be strapped for money. Remember, that you’re in this for the long haul and unfunded grants hurt your business. If in your opinion, the client as no hope of reciving the funding, don’t take their money. They may be angry at first, but help them understand why and they will respect you for not gouging them.
Time considerations are also primary. Be sure that you don’t get greedy and take on too much work. This is also a temptation in the grant business because if you’re good, lots of agencies will be knocking on your door. If you take on too many grants to do a good job on any of them, you’ll be searching for clients instead of them searching for you.
A good grant writing contract is one for a grant that you have a reasonable expectation of success in writing and/or for which you have adequate time to develop a successful application. A bad contract can mean a bad client, a bad opportunity, or the straw that broke the grant writer’s back. Say NO to bad contracts to ensure the long term success of your grant writing business.
My alarm clock has an annoying feature, the volume of the beep increases the longer you ignore it. I’ve set it for 4am so I can hit the road to a client 1.5 hours away. It’s cold and foggy outside and while I know I’ll arrive an hour and a half early, I want to beat the traffic that will turn a 1.5 hour trip into a 2.5 hour nightmare.
So my screeching alarm forces me to click the switch down and I stumble through the shower and dressing, grab the briefcase and computer and I’m outside blowing steam into the frosty air. It’s dark and none of the lights are on in my neighborhood.
An hour and a half later, I sit in a local diner half listening to the old men poke fun at each other. A group I see every time I’m there, probably meet later in the day for beers at the Moose Club or the VFW. I imagine that they must meet every morning for bacon and eggs – and probably have for 30 or more years since their kids grew up and moved on.
I drink too much coffee, eat my breakfast, read the local paper for anything newsworthy that may be on the mind of my client, and use the lavender-scented restroom. There’s a doily and shell-encrusted knick-knack on the top of the toilet. Someone cares enough to make people feel at home – someone’s home.
Off to meet with my client for a couple of hours, then on to another one and hope to be done by 3PM to beat the traffic home again, or it’s going to be 7 before I get home. Life on the road as a freelance grant writer.
Now that’s sexy.
Grant research is a grind, no way around it but there is information in the IRS Form 990 that can save you some time and effort when identifying sound grant prospects. The IRS 990 forms are rich sources of information and they’re public documents that anyone can look at. Here is a short video about some important things to look at in a 990 form.
Watching the last out of the World Series just never gets old for me. I love watching a bunch of grown men going wild like a bunch of little league-ers who were told they’re getting pizza and ice cream after the game. The old Wide World of Sports saying, “…the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat” is why I watch, it’s what I love about sports the most. It is borrowed exhilaration, but it’s real none-the-less. I feel like jumping around with them even though I did nothing but sit on the couch. Most of the year, I am not a baseball fan, but just as each March I become a college basketball fan, each October I become a baseball fan.
I can still have some of that exhilaration by getting a grant funded. I get to do a victory lap around the office, I get to call a client and give them the good news unless they hear it first. I get to high five people and ask them “who’s your daddy?” (not out loud)
Grant writing is competition. It’s a thrill to win and it’s agony to lose. But it still gives you a spark of excitement like those pre-game jitters in high school football. I recall game day Friday was a thrill every week. All the guys had to wear shirts and ties to school and after school we’d go to the burger joint down the street with the big bullfrog out front. Our cross-county rivals would vandalize the frog by painting it red each fall, then we’d paint it green again and whip them on the field for daring to abuse our frog. If we didn’t win on the scoreboard we’d whip them in a bench-clearing brawl; one way or the other we’d defend our frog’s honor.
Fortunately our rival grant writers don’t vandalize our frogs or anything so we never have a bench clearing brawl with them. But we’re in competition, we all work hard to prepare and we give our best effort on the field (desk) and at the end of the game (grant award time) there are winners (the funded) and losers (the un-funded). The excitement of grant competitions is what makes it interesting to be a grant writer, it is what makes it challenging, and for me, the challenge just never gets old!
Grant competitions are the World Series for grant writers, now that’s sexy!