10 Ways to Prove You’re an Ethical Grant Writer

The number-one topic of the queries received from both new and veteran grant writers is ethics. If you’re wondering why, consider that in the grant industry, all you have as a grant writer is your name. What do you want to be known for? Having strong ethics or being perpetually caught like a deer in the headlights in a front-page newspaper scandal? Definitely, strong ethics.

Don’t accept contingency work

Never, ever agree to work on contingency. This means that you use your labor, education, expertise, skills, time, equipment, and supplies upfront with no compensation. You get paid only if and when the grant application is funded.

The majority of funders won’t pay for work performed by the grant writer before the official award notice of the grant. In other words, new money doesn’t pay old bills — including your invoice for contract work or your salary reimbursement for the time spent writing the grant application. Moral of the story? Avoid contingency work like the plague!

Stick to current demographics

If you’re having trouble tracking down appealing demographics to use in your application, you may be tempted to use old demographics and just update the year. Don’t give in to that temptation! If you do, you may get caught by a government peer reviewer who’s double-checking via the Internet to see whether your demographics are valid. Getting caught even one time encourages the grant decision maker not to fund you.

Make promises the organization can keep

When you work on the program design section of the application, don’t make the mistake of promising grandiose solutions. Similarly, don’t build up SMART objectives with high-percentage measurements. Be modest in your SMART objective percentages so your organization can achieve more than it promises. It’s always better to underpromise and overdeliver than it is to overpromise. Overpromising is the fast lane to not getting funded again by a funding agency.

Craft an original narrative, not a reused one

If the peer reviewers identified major weaknesses in the failed application, those weaknesses are still there, looming larger than ever. Peer reviewers are not dumb. Even a different set of peer reviewers is well trained in the field related to the grant topic, and can identify a poorly written grant application. Your organization will not be funded because you took the easy road with the same lame content.

Be truthful about key personnel

Only the people who have the necessary skills for positions related to fulfillment of the grant should be mentioned in the key personnel section of the grant application narrative.

Your brother may have been laid off by his employer five years ago and is now living in your garage apartment without paying rent, but that doesn’t mean you should include him in your grant application and embellish his credentials in an effort to make him financially solvent so he’ll either start paying rent or find his own place and move out.

If the request gets funded and a program officer stops by to interview staff funded by the grant, it will be evident that your brother is unqualified and clueless. Even worse than being found out in this deception is the very real probability that the organization will lose the entire grant and have to repay it to the funding agency — with interest.

Never embellish the grant applicant’s capability

Although you always want to increase your win rate by writing a stellar narrative, never do so at the expense of the truth. Chances are the funder and the peer reviewers already know about the skeletons in the grant applicant’s closet. No award will be forthcoming, and you risk damaging your name (brand) and taking a hit to your win rate.

Search the Internet for employer or client skeletons in the closets, such as criminal acts by staff or board members, mismanagement of money, or unfavorable government financial audits.

Keep your fees/salary out of the grant budget request

Before including your salary in the budget section of the grant application, call the funder to determine whether the grant writer’s ongoing salary (after the grant request has been funded) is an allowable expense. On the other hand, if you’re a grant-writing consultant, don’t try to hide your commission or illegal contingency fee in the budget request. One red flag and your organization won’t be recommended for funding.

Never hide administrative overhead costs in the budget

The vast majority of grantors have a limit on the percent of the total grant request allowed for administrative overhead. Don’t try to fudge on your other line-item expenses by adding a few thousand dollars here and there in order to recoup some of the administrative overhead costs. This is the fast lane to losing a grant and having to repay it.

Don’t overprice line-item expenses

If you’re trying to scoop up some extra bucks to pay for something that the granting agency doesn’t allow, don’t try to hide a few dollars in every line item by jacking up the price of each expense category. Funders are well experienced in distinguishing what looks reasonable and what seems extravagant in a budget request. Your organization won’t get funding if a grant decision maker suspects overpricing.

Keep the application to yourself until it’s ready for submission

Sharing your grant application before the deadline has passed means that anyone can copy it or e-mail it to a competitor applying for the same pot of grant funds. To avoid this problem, share your grant application only in a controlled environment.

Pass out copies of your grant application narrative and completed forms to the stakeholders who have volunteered their time to read the draft and offer their feedback to improve your chances of winning a grant award. Then collect all the copies after the discussion has ended and all feedback has been noted. You can create a checklist for incorporating each requested change before submitting the final grant application package.

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