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6 Surprising Similarities Between Grant Writers & Lawyers

Updated: May 27, 2022

Our income is lower and our bar jokes are weaker, but there are several aspects of grant writing that overlap with practicing law:

1. Persuasive communication

Grant writing is essentially building a case, but rather than a verdict of “guilty” or “not guilty,” you’re aiming for a verdict of “funded” over “not funded.” Everything you write in your proposal has one core goal: showing your reader that your project is a worthy investment toward their giving priorities. An effective grant writer is highly skilled in presenting clear, logical arguments for their cause – just like an attorney.

2. Firms and specialties

Rookies in any profession usually take whatever work they can get, but once they’re established enough to “pick their own roles,” both writers and attorneys often stick to certain specialties. This is because it’s much easier to build a solid knowledge base in one area than many. While a lawyer must have a detailed grasp of precedents, strategies, and caveats related to their specialty, a grant writer must be well-versed on the funders, data, and evidence-based interventions associated with their philanthropic focus.

3. Research, research, research

Behind every court case are hours upon hours of research – learning every detail about their clients, investigating prior cases, and leaving no stone unturned in their quest for the “smoking gun” that will yield an open and shut case. Similarly, grant writers must comprehensively research the details and approaches of their clients’ programs, the priorities and past giving of prospective funders, and the global/national/local data that substantiates their client’s work. I find myself reading court decisions and government plans pretty often, as many share valuable findings that I use in my grant narratives.

4. Appealing to psychology

An attorney aims to get in the head of their jury by assessing what they know about each juror and communicating in ways that will lure them toward their line of thinking. Us grant writers try to get the in heads of our review board members, concocting a strategic blend of verbiage and reasoning to show how well we align with their goals. Tailoring communication for a review board is a bit more challenging than for a jury, as we usually don’t know who is reviewing our proposal, and we definitely don’t get a selection process to dismiss those who might be biased against us! Still, a good grant writer will shape their content based on what they know about the funder’s priorities, such as emphasizing brand recognition to a business foundation, or stressing clinical outcomes to a health-focused funder.

5. DIY doesn’t work out too well

Though we have the legal right to represent ourselves in court, it’s almost always ill-advised to do so (Cue cringey footage of Ted Bundy “lawyering” for himself). The reason it’s such a bad idea is that attorneys understand the myriad of factors that can make or break your case – without this knowledge, you can unknowingly say or do something that destroys your chance of winning. The same goes for grant writing – those who don’t work in the field aren’t as attuned to the priorities and red flags that funders look for within each narrative, budget, and document requirement, lowering their odds of being funded.

6. Red tape and fine print

Many of my clients are skilled communicators who are perfectly capable of writing persuasive appeals. However, they don’t have time to read through lengthy RFP’s, eligibility guidelines, funding restrictions, and reporting requirements. If you submit your proposal without a clear understanding of what the funder expects, you send the message that you’re not responsible or accountable, giving your request a one-way ticket to the dumpster. Like an attorney, a grant writer handles all of the document digging and detailed logistics to ensure your submissions are successfully processed.

So, our toilet-white smiles may not be featured on billboards, but if you crushed it in middle school mock trial and want a career requiring less education and more free time, grant writing might be for you.

About Heather Macaulay:

First and foremost I am a proud wife and mom of 3 growing souls who I have miraculously kept alive despite killing every plant I’ve ever owned. I was born and raised in Orange County, California, and while I will always be a California girl at heart, North Carolina is where the Macaulay family has called home since 2015. I cannot say enough about what this wonderful community has offered us. I have been writing grants and copy since 2010 and have had projects funded by a variety of funders from family foundations to major corporations, Ivy League universities, and international rock stars. My passions include cooking, travel, and studying history, languages, psychology, and philosophy. I also have an unhealthy addiction to true crime shows and Nutella.

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