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Borrrrrinnnnggg: The (Probably Predictable) Downsides of Freelance Grant Writing

Updated: May 6, 2022

Like any job, freelance grant writing has its pros and cons, and while I don’t love to focus on the negatives, it’s important to understand both when considering it as a career path. Last month I shared why I think grant writing is the best kept secret in work from home jobs. This month I’ll share the not-so-exciting side of my dream job, and why it’s not everyone’s cup of tea:

Most start by working for free

“Just be poor for a while.”

This was the advice one of my college professors gave me when I expressed concerns over making a living while working on the PhD he was encouraging me to pursue. Although I disappointed him by dropping out of grad school, I definitely made him proud by being broke for quite some time! I got my start in grant writing the way most people have to: by working for free as an intern. I did this for about six months before landing a paid position, and even after writing grants for a few years, I often wrote voluntarily to get my foot in the door with new clients. So although grant writing may not require 3,000 clinical hours or an expensive graduate degree, most writers don’t start out with getting paid. A potential loophole around interning would be to secure an entry level paid position in a nonprofit, and ask to support with grant writing as one of your responsibilities.

It’s mentally taxing

Writing a grant isn’t the same as writing a high school essay that either passes or fails; you’re writing a high stakes argument to win thousands to millions of dollars: money that other writers are fighting just as hard for. Strategizing your best angle and crafting a persuasive argument is mentally challenging work, especially when you have a large client load and are writing several grants per week. This is a major reason why I also offer copy writing services such as blogging - copy writing projects help to break up some of the intensive research and strategizing that grants demand, so that I can be more refreshed and focused each time I work on a high stakes proposal.

It can be a bit monotonous

While grant writing is very rewarding, it’s certainly not as exciting as writing a zombie movie script or epic trilogy. You have to be willing to focus on mountains of data and dry Information, often writing on the same topics over and over and over again. After overhearing a call with one of my clients, my nanny recently exclaimed, “I don’t know how you like what you do!” 😂 She’s not the first to tell me this. In fact, I’ve had my own staff complain to me on multiple occasions about how mind-numbingly boring their assignments were. My response? “If it were fun, people wouldn’t pay us to do it.” Personally, it’s music to my ears whenever someone says they would hate my job. You know what I call that? Job security.

You get rejected more than unsolicited DMs

If you’re still not over your first high school breakup, grant writing probably isn’t for you. No matter how great of a writer you are, getting turned down by funders will be common, and it’s important to not get too discouraged or to take it personally. It can take multiple attempts for a new funder to even consider funding your organization, which is why I often apply for 3-4x more funding per year than my clients are counting on receiving.

Clients can have unrealistic expectations

There are multiple variables that go into funding decisions, many of which have nothing to do with what the grant writer puts together. Because of this, it's common for even the best grant writers to have funding requests turned down on a regular basis. However, some clients have the unrealistic idea that a good writer should be able to land every grant, and they won’t contract you for a second proposal if you didn’t land the first. This is especially discouraging because the longer you write for a client, the more successful you will be for them, but they’ll never get to experience that success if they kick you to the curb after your first rejection letter.

You're under pressure to make numbers

Unlike many careers, your value to the organization can be quantitatively measured by the amount of dollars you bring in compared to the amount of money they have to pay you. It can be scary having your worth being that clear cut, especially when you’re on pins and needles waiting months to hear whether funders will approve your grants. However, being able to quantify your value also has its perks: it makes it much easier to ask for a raise when you can illustrate a clear, consistent return on investment for your client.

Scaling is difficult

Every grant proposal you commit to requires hours of research, drafting, revising, and administrative work. Because you’re not selling a product like handbags or cookies that can be mass-produced and quickly sold, scaling your business can be challenging. Once you’ve established yourself as a successful grant writer, clients are paying for your intellectual property and writing style; even if you hire a team of writers, you are responsible for ensuring their writing aligns with the quality your client expects.

Self-discipline is a must

Working from home is not for everyone, and some people struggle with getting their hours in without punching a clock or having a supervisor breathing down their neck. I myself tend to be a chatterbox in the office, so I find it much easier to buckle down and get the job done at home, but not everyone feels the same way. If you can't sit at the computer for hours without laundry, Netflix, or social media luring you away, freelancing might not be your best fit.

No vacation, insurance, or sick pay

Being your own boss is as great as it sounds, but it also means you don’t have the fringe benefits associated with W2 employment. When I go on vacation; I have to budget for a week without pay, and taking sick days can be rough when I’ll miss out on earning a few hundred bucks that I was counting on.

Despite these cons...

I’ve still felt that the benefits of a grant writing career strongly outweigh the negative aspects. Most of these challenges are lessened over time, when your reputation, business model, and clientele are established.

If the not-so-glamorous side of freelance grant writing didn’t scare you off, join me next month for a fun blog where I’ll uncover the surprising similarities between grant writers and lawyers!

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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