Recently, I had a conversation with a grant-writing student. We'll call her Mary.
Mary is on the board of an all-volunteer organization. The organization has no paid staff or building. It is a virtual endeavor at this point and trrying to secure funding to further its mission. Mary came to me for help honing her grant-writing skills so she can write grants for the organization.
At the same time, Mary volunteers with a more mature nonprofit that has a physical location, a 15-member board, and a paid staff of almost 20 people. The executive director asked volunteers to vet and write grants on behalf of the organization. During our coaching session, Mary asked if she should honor this request.
I gave her a short, very succinct answer: “Absolutely not.”
Why isn't it Ok?
Let’s examine why it’s ok for Mary to pursue grants for the all-volunteer organization but not ok for her to volunteer to write grants for the established agency.
First, Mary is a founding board member of the new organization. It has no staff, and no resources. The grassroots organization is being built by passionate volunteers. It is totally appropriate for those founding volunteer board members to seek funding for it. At this point, finding funding is basically their only purpose.
On the other hand, the established organization has an annual budget of nearly $3 million, a three-member marketing department but lacks a single staff member whose job is fundraising. At minimum, the executive director should accept the responsibility for development efforts. If more help is required, the onus should be on the board to pitch in or realign their budget priorities to hire appropriate development personnel or a consultant.
In this context, asking volunteers to vet and write grants is totally inappropriate. Period.
Nonprofit growth continuum
Like any for-profit business, nonprofits experience growth stages. From startup through the first three-to-five years, nonprofits get their administrative house in order and gain revenue to staff their operations. Many times, those leading charge at this stage are founders/volunteers like Mary.
After the five-year mark, nonprofits that have worked hard on growth and development have a staff of between three and five employees and an annual budget in the neighborhood of $1.5 million.
At three employees, the nonprofit staff generally consists of an executive director, a finance person, and a programming person. If there are five, the first three are typically supported by an administrative assistant and a marketing person.
Notice the lack of a development person on that list. At this point, the capacity of the executive director is b becoming strained. Along with supervising staff, working with a board and leading programs, the executive director must ensure the organization meets budget in order to maintain those people and programs.
Recognizing the growth continuum is vital for every nonprofit's long-term success. Nonprofit leaders must respond appropriately to the organization's needs at each growth stage and pursue the resources needed to move from one stage to the next.
Volunteers aren't the long-term answer
Volunteers are valuable assets and deserve to be engaged in meaningful work. But they can't be a long-term solution to development needs.
Even so, many fledging nonprofits look to a volunteer or even an unpaid intern to write grants. It's great if you have a dedicated volunteer willing to spend hours writing grant proposals on your behalf, but who writes grants if that volunteer gets sick or moves away?
Nonprofits that have grown past the five-year mark should seriously consider investing in full-time development personnel to create an overall fundraising plan, including grant writing. If you can't hire a full-time professional, we recommend getting your core staff members appropriately trained in grant writing.
Our on-demand grant-writing course represents the smartest investment you can make to train your staff in the basics of grantwriting. With 26 hours of content, a 100-page workbook and more, your staff will feel confident enough to tackle even the most confusing RFP.
Read more about course, and feel free to reach out with questions.