Why Grant Writers Need to Stop Consulting for Free

Oh yes, I just typed the F-word. Yep, the one that makes most grant writers shiver in their sleep.

No, I am not cussing. But maybe this word should be a bona fide swear word.


I know it haunts you.

It’s interesting that as a grant writer your skills can have one of the biggest impacts on increasing funding for nonprofit organizations, however you will still be serenaded by nearly every nonprofit (not to mention individuals looking for that magic grant to fund a college degree) to write grants for free.

This has always puzzled me. Grant writers have technical writing skills to find and secure funding and in many cases millions of dollars for nonprofits.

However, many organizations seek out grant writers and some guilt them into writing for free or giving away all their knowledge at no cost. Or that nonprofit is caught up with poverty mindset that asking for free is their go-to comfort zone place (that’s an entire article in itself!).

Here’s the thing. There is a time and place for the F-word. Yep.

Free can be a pathway at times, but not all.

So, if you are:

  • haunted by giving away your grant writing services for free,
  • not sure when to start charging prices for your grant writing services, or
  • constantly get people asking you out on a coffee or zoom date to just real quick go over some grant-related questions, then keep on reading.

Chances are, if you are in any of the categories above, you are feeling undervalued.

You might be wondering why you don’t get paid well when you see those hundreds, or millions of dollars in grants come in the nonprofit door.

Or you might be wondering how in the world you can make it as a grant writing consultant when you feel like no nonprofit can pay you for your services.

Side note: Nonprofits can, do, and should figure out ways to get money and pay for your grant writing services.

If you are in a position where you get an amazing wage or charge well, then kudos for you!

But I wanted to address this issue as I have seen way too many grant writing consultants play jump rope over the ever-changing line of boundaries, not sure where to land or how to stop jumping.

I was once there. (Check out my story on how I transitioned into freelance grant writing).

When to Write Grants for Free

Okay, okay. I hear you yelling the B-word… Not that B-word. Geesh! The ‘But’ word…

But Holly, what about…”

There is a time and place when a grant writer can do free. But these are few and limited.

  • When you are building grant writing skills
  • When you designate one or two grant writing gigs at your own discretion

So, let’s break these down a little bit more.

You May Volunteer When You are Building Grant Writing Skills

If you have no experience, then writing grants is one of the best things you can do to build your grant writing skills quickly. Of course, you can also take grant writing courses, read grant writing books, and review grants to also build your skills.

But if you have never written a grant before and really want to learn, then sometimes grant writers start off as a volunteer or intern for a nonprofit.

However, you must remember that your services will not always be free and you will build your grant writing experience quickly.

So, if you are going to do this, then be sure you do the following!

No if, ands, or buts. Do this.

Have a conversation with the nonprofit leader and let them know that you will volunteer your grant writing services for either a certain number of months (i.e., three months) or up to a certain number of grants written (i.e., one foundation grant and one federal grant).

Then, let them know that after that you would like to sit down again as you will then start charging for your services.

If you are starting from the ground up, then this is the most important conversation you can have.

Because if you do not have this conversation (where you put a limited duration of time or number of grants) then it’s going to get awkward after a while.

Without this conversation it is nearly guaranteed that you will start seeing the value that you contribute to the nonprofit, and you may even experience anxiety about bringing up a conversation about getting paid.

But if you have the conversation before you get started, the executive director will know in the back of her mind that there is an end date to your free services and if she loves you will already be starting to think of ways to pay you.

Plus, both parties will know that the conversation is coming up. It’s not one that will keep you awake at night thinking of bringing it up.

Believe me, you will feel and be so much more valued and professional.

Have this conversation first.

The next time you may want to consult for free…

You May Write a Pro Bono Grant if You Serve on a Nonprofit Board

Remember, this is up to you.

So, for example, I sit on different nonprofit board of directors, and I may write one grant per year at no cost. But let me be loud and clear.

You do NOT have to do this. Your board services do not include grant writing. Just because you are a grant writer, many people will want you on their board because they automatically think free grant writing services.

You need to draw a line in the sand.

You may choose to volunteer your time and write one grant per year and let them know this is your gift in addition to your board duties. Then give the nonprofit a letter showing them the value of your grant writing services and then their discount.

Just remember, if you do decide to write one pro bono grant, stipulate that it is one (or whatever the number is) otherwise you might get grants thrown at you left and right and this could be a real pain when you area also writing grants for clients that pay.

Of course, you can write as many as you want for free, but just remember this is a blurry line, especially if you are a freelance grant writer because that is your bread and butter.

I guarantee you the board of directors won’t assume that every other business owner who is a board director will just give their skills for free with no boundaries.

For some reason many boards of director members assume free services from grant writers, lawyers, and accountants that serve on boards. Yes, it’s great to be able to contribute if you are able, but it’s also fine to not contribute and donate all the skills you do above and beyond your board duties.

So, let’s move onto our next situation when you should not give away your grant writing services for free.

This one is a big doozey.

When a Discovery Call is Consulting and Why You should Charge

I know you are thinking I forgot a freebie, right?

The ever so popular discovery call, or 30-minute consultation call that on the bottom of nearly every grant writing consultant’s website page.

Here’s my beef with free discovery calls. Very rarely are they discovery calls or merely 30-minute consultations.

I used to do this too, because heck everyone else is doing it!

And I would get so many people wanting a free discovery call.

Sure, some would buy me a coffee if I was lucky, but many others would just not show up to those freebie calls…and that started costing money to yours truly.

How’s that?

Well, I would hire a sitter to watch my daughter and drive through traffic to get to a coffeeshop to get to that discovery call, which might (fingers crossed) turn into a pitch and then a client.

This is all part of the investment of a freelance grant writing company, right?

On that note, it’s not. Or at least it doesn’t have to be, but many of grant writing consultants, who are primarily women, think it is and actually teach each other to do this without realizing their demise.

Once I would get to that coffeeshop: 1) a third of the time the person desperate to pick my brain would be late, 2) a third of the time they would be a no-show, and 3) the rest of the time they might become a client.

All in all, I got tired of it.

I know you might be saying, “But just meet over Zoom now. That’s easy and quick!”

No, it’s not. Zoom is almost worse because you can get more people just wanting to pick your brain and you still will actually put on make-up, wake up early for a call, or just switch gears where that person still might be late or be a no show.

And picking your brain will always, always, always lead to a free consultation.

Not just a discovery call where you pitch your services, but a good portion where you give away strategies and solve problems all for free.

I actually got so fed up with free discovery calls and free consultations that I started charging for them. And guess what happened?

  • I never have a no-show
  • I never have a late person
  • I have fewer calls (thank goodness!) but I get paid for each one (and they sometimes lead to purchase other services)
  • I connect with nonprofits who are serious

Picking Your Brain is Coaching

I have also had people ask me, “I just need to pick your brain Holly. I don’t need a coaching call.”

Guess what? Picking my brain is a coaching call.

You are an expert (even if you have only written a few grants and someone who has no grant writing experience is asking you questions – you know more than them!) and someone is asking for your hard-earned knowledge for free.

My coaching calls are actually called “Pick Holly’s Brain” because I want to be crystal clear that my expertise (and the time, energy, and cost it took to get that expertise) is worth a lot! (Thank you, Michelle Rohr for that clever title).

One of the ways I have also done this is if I am going to write grants for an organization, after they pay me to pick my brain, I will roll the cost of the brain picking into their grant writing service contract.

Sound familiar? Many lawyers do this and I actually got the idea from my lawyer friend who does some rad work with nonprofit clients.

This has been very successful.

Still not convinced to get rid of your free 15 or 30-minute discovery calls?

Well, if you are a zealot for free discovery calls, do the following.

  • Have a disclaimer that if someone books a discovery call or free consultation if they are a no-show they will not be eligible for another call or to work with you.

Sound harsh?

Maybe. But I guarantee you will have people showing up more prepared and ready to hire you with that little disclaimer as it shows that your time is valuable.

Because it is.

To sum up,

You have value as a grant writer. Be careful when giving away your grant writing consulting for free (or just don’t do it).

If you loved this article on figuring out how to stop giving away your grant writing services for free, you will love this article on why you might struggle with pricing your grant writing services.

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Holly Rustick