Should Volunteers Write Grants? It Depends.

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Last week, while on a one-on-one coaching call with a grant writing student, I had a conversation I have to share with you.

My student is on the board of an all-volunteer organization and is actively seeking grant funding to support their efforts. At the same time, this individual volunteers with another, more mature organization that has a physical location, a fifteen member board, and a paid staff of almost 20 people. During the conversation, the student brought up something that the established organization has asked of its volunteers and wanted my take on whether the request was appropriate.

The volunteers have been asked to vet grant opportunities and write grants. Should they?

The short answer is, “No. Absolutely not.”

First, let’s look at why it’s ok for this student to be pursuing grants for one organization and not ok for the student to be asked, in their capacity as a volunteer, to write grants for the other. The student is a founding board member of their organization, it has no staff, and no resources to speak of. The organization is being built from grassroots by passionate volunteers. It is totally appropriate for those founding volunteer board members to seek to fund it. At this point, it is their primary purpose. (And kudos to them for investing in the training to help them be successful!)

On the other hand, the established organization has an annual budget of nearly $3 million, a three member marketing department, and not one staff member whose job title indicates a primary responsibility for development (fundraising). At minimum, development should be the responsibility of the executive director. If they need help, the onus should be on the board to pitch in or realign their budget priorities to get appropriate development personnel in place or hire a consultant to augment their capacity. Period. Asking volunteers to vet and write grants in this context is totally inappropriate.

At KFA we are keenly aware of the various growth stages that nonprofits go through. Most of our services are centered on helping nonprofits through growing pains and allowing them to grow to the next level. From startup through the first three to five years, most nonprofits need some help getting their administrative house in order and gaining the revenue to staff their operations. At this point, we typically work with founders who more often than not are volunteers.

After the 5 year mark, we find that most nonprofits, if they've worked hard on growth and development, will have a staff of 3-5 employees and an annual budget in the neighborhood of $1.5 million. Nonprofits at this growth stage are what we consider our niche. 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 getting strained. They have a staff to supervise, a board to work with, programs to lead, and a budget that has to be met to maintain those people and programs. That's where we come in.

We are most impactful for nonprofits at this growth stage by providing affordable support for increasing revenue to the point that a development position can be added to the organization. Once we get a nonprofit to the point that they can afford that crucial position, they are well on their way to sustainability.

And, of course, we offer training and support all along the continuum to empower nonprofits to provide the professional development their staff needs to succeed.

Understanding the growth continuum is important for every nonprofit. It is vitally important for nonprofit leaders- board members, executive directors, and ultimately development personnel- to respond appropriately to the organization's needs at each growth stage and pursue the resources needed to move from one stage to the next. When in doubt, check out our FULL LINE OF SERVICES. We are sensitive to your needs every step of the way and can provide what you need to succeed wherever you are in your growth. (If you aren't growing, we have solutions for that too.)

Volunteers are a valuable asset and deserve to be engaged in meaningful work. But, it is also important that the expectations placed on volunteers are appropriate to the maturity of your organization. In short, until you have a staff, founding volunteers should grant write and fund raise. Once you have a staff, it should be the responsibility of your staff. And once it gets to be too much for your core staff, it's time to hire a full-time development professional. When you hit a plateau and need help getting to the next level, it's time to call in reinforcements, either through training or outside consulting. At each step, when you need help, we're here for you.

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