Updated: Jul 20, 2022
If you peruse the internet for grant writer jobs right now, you'll notice that a significant amount of the open positions are listed as volunteer. Also known as unpaid. I didn't do any math, but I'd guess at least 50% of the ones I stumbled across fell into this category.
In my experience during the last decade working as a professional fundraising executive, I've met amazing volunteers. I've worked events that would not have happened had it not been for the amazing team of unpaid people who worked their butts off to help us raise the most money and do the most good for our clients. Volunteers absolutely are a vital part of the success of any nonprofit, and working on shoestring budgets like most are, they're absolutely necessary.
But, there are some critical differences between hiring a grant manager (full-time or consultant) and engaging a volunteer.
Grant Writer vs. Volunteer
Here are a few differences that could create unnecessary headaches for an already busy nonprofit fundraising staff:
Accountability While a volunteer can typically be counted on to do the best work for the organization, the level of accountability is completely different from a paid staff member or consultant. A natural hierarchy occurs when money is involved, and you can set expectations and hold staff/consultants accountable if those standards are not met. It's much harder to tell someone who is giving you their time and expertise freely that they aren't performing well. And then how do you fire them?
Commitment There are roles within a development office that simply require more time and involvement than a volunteer can typically give a nonprofit. Volunteers usually have other commitments... they're retired, they're stay-at-home parents, they're working full-time somewhere else. And although you may be able to find a volunteer who has experience with grant writing, that person is probably not going to be able to commit the amount of time you need to be successful with writing high-quality proposals, submitting grant requests, and managing relationships with foundations and corporations that fund your programs. Continuity A key component to long-term success with grant management is continuity. If a staff member/consultant can establish a relationship between the grant-maker and the nonprofit, that typically leads to more gifts and more involvement in your mission. That relationship takes time to build. Volunteers that stick around for years are few and far between, and when they have other commitments, that connection with grant-makers could take even longer, if it happens at all.
That Old Saying... You know it... "You get what you pay for." Grant writing and grant management are an art and a science. It is an expertise that is acquired over time. It is not just about finding someone with good writing skills. There are significant elements to being an effective and successful grant manager that only come with hands-on experience. And finding someone who has done it as part of a fundraising staff is even more of a benefit. While you may be able to find a volunteer with grant management experience who is willing to donate that time and expertise to your organization, it is unlikely that this individual is going to be as qualified or committed as someone who has some skin in the game.
Grant management is a critical element of any fundraising strategy and allows nonprofits to better serve their clients and advance their missions in their communities. And while it is a situation much like the lottery where you can't win if you don't play/submit a proposal, I caution nonprofits to carefully consider the benefits and costs associated with engaging a volunteer before rushing in just to have someone doing it.
While it may not cost you any money in salary or benefits, it may cost you time and your reputation in the grant-making community. Nonprofits need someone who can focus their efforts on building a comprehensive grant strategy, is invested in the mission, and is always thinking about and searching for opportunities to connect with grant-makers.
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