Start A Grant Writing Consulting Business
Watch this free video training on how to find clients for your new grant writing consulting business, what to charge, how to contract and much more.
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Here is the transcript created by magical unicorns:
Let's get it going. How do you start a grant writing consulting business or side hustle without the fear of how to get started, where to find clients, or how much to charge? I'm going to reveal my age a little bit, but when I graduated from college, it was the economic recession and I actually could not get a job. I started a small consulting firm. It was tiny, but I started doing proposal writing for engineering firms. That actually led to my first grant writing gig, which I had forgotten about until preparing for this presentation. My first experience ever with grant writing was doing it through consulting. It goes to show, you don't need to be an expert first to become a consultant.
It went so well. They ended up hiring me full time at this engineering firm. The firm grew from 150 people. It was acquired and then continued to grow to 22,000 people. Everybody wanted help getting grant funding for their infrastructure projects. I grew the company, the company's grant writing services within Stantec went from just me being full-time to 35 plus professionals. And it's continued to grow. I think they have 100+ now on their Funding Services team.
I left very burned out and vowed to never write a grant again. As you can see, I've obviously recovered! I started SenecaWorks about two years ago. Within six months I did $120,000 in consulting revenue and it was all word of mouth business.
I graduated from college and went to work for a professional firm where I learned best practices. I learned there and then started my own firm. I pretty much shut down my consulting practice. It probably makes up 20% of what I do, so I could dedicate full-time to teaching people, to be grant writers with an online course and a book.
What does this all mean for you? There is huge demand for talented grant writers and there's a really big shortage of them. Especially now as a lot of organizations have been turning to this as a way to shore up the budget losses that a ton of organizations are facing. The other thing that is so sweet about grant writing consulting is that it's a low cost business to start. You only need a computer and someone willing to pay you. It allows me an incredible high quality of life, with lots of flexibility, and I want that for you as well.
Grant writing is extremely fulfilling work. I like to think that you learn enough to be dangerous about a lot of topics. And I personally find that fulfilling that you can learn something, just enough, and then move on to something entirely different. This is going to form the basis of our agenda for today's presentation. One, what do I need to set up the business? Two, how do I find clients? Three, how much should I charge? Four, should I stay a one person shop or grow? And then the final question I'm kind of factoring in as well is, how do you add this as a service line, if you already have an existing business?
Setting up a business in the most simplified terms. First, you have to decide how you want to incorporate. My first business was just a sole proprietorship.
I'm now set up as an LLC, but you don’t need to go that route until you have earned at $10,000 in consulting revenue. After that, you’ll need an employer identification number from the federal government, which is sort of like a social security number for the business. Then I highly recommend not skipping it and getting professional general liability insurance. It's not that expensive. I've had insurance through the Farm Bureau, and then most recently I have it from a firm in Washington and it's just really worth it. It's worth protecting yourself. Then we need accounting and time-tracking software. Ideally, those are in one thing and sometimes they can be separate products. I'm using FreshBooks right now for my accounting.
I honestly feel like I'm growing out of it now that I have an online course and a book and all these other products, not really consulting services. So I'll be moving, I think, to Xero or QuickBooks, but for my consulting practice for the last two years, FreshBooks worked great. And it also has the time tracking in it. Then you must have a professional business email. I definitely pass judgment. And I think others do as well when I'm interacting with someone professionally if someone sent me an email and it was like, cool [email protected], I would not feel as inclined to work with them unless it was [email protected] It’s just more professional. Then conference call software is essential. I'm a big fan of zoom. That's what we use. It's pretty easy. People get up and running immediately with it. It's way more beneficial when you're working with teams to see their face than just do it by audio. Almost all of my grants that I've prepared, almost all of them, like 95% have not required facetime, and they've all been done virtually. That goes to show that your client base could actually be anywhere. They do not have to just be within your community.
So time tracking, this is huge. It's a habit you have to build. It's not something that comes naturally unless you've been in the consulting world and had been kind of forced to do it. But it's very important to track your time per project so that you know the true cost of providing services. I track things like business administration, marketing, continued education, and then the time spent per project. So it's not that you're tracking your time to bill it per hour. I'll get into that in a little bit. It's just so that you can start to figure out where your time is going so you can make sure you're capturing the true costs. Basically there's a lot of stuff in consulting you don't get paid to do like marketing yourself and getting winning jobs. For that reason, we have to make sure we're pricing our services accordingly to cover that unpaid time.
So this is what my time-tracking software looks like inside FreshBooks. Right now, this just shows you the time that I've put on each day, it's kind of a more general week than usual, usually it’s a little bit more specific, but then each of these tasks actually drop down and I do write what I did so I can remember and go back and look at it. Aurora uses a service called Toggl. She actually can just click a button and it starts playing when she's doing that work. And it's clocking her time, in real time. Then she'll send me this when her time card is due, and it works really well. It's kind of aesthetically very appealing too. You see where your time is going.
Okay, so a word on websites. You don't actually need a website to get started. I've had consulting jobs, side hustle grant writing gigs that were word of mouth. But, eventually it's nice to have a website. You can actually see my website for my consulting business here. It has not changed in two years. It’s senworks.org. It's a single landing page. I built it in an afternoon using wix.com. And even if you're not super graphically inclined, these template editors make it real easy. The other kind of perk of that is when you buy your domain, (think carefully about your domain, so it's short,) you can get a g-mail business account with that. So that's why my business website is Senworks.org, and our emails are, [email protected] and [email protected]
Now for logo development, I don't expect you to be a graphic designer. This also isn't essential, but there's something just very peaceful about having a logo that you love, you can have it at least on your letterhead for your proposals. I think it elevates professionalism quickly. Here's that one page landing page I was telling you about literally took three hours to build it. For my logo, I went through upwork.com, (which is a global freelance website,) to get my logo developed. And as you can see, I kind of sketched out concepts. I was thinking about how I wanted the logo to look and then found this designer in Romania. I really liked her style and she helped me take the concept and put it into the computer. We did my logo for literally $110 in three days. And that's all I needed to be up and running and then I could attach it to my early proposals. All of these things don't need to be really complicated steps. It can be done pretty quickly in this day and age. If anyone has any questions you can definitely throw them in the chat box because I know I'm moving quickly.
Okay. We're going to carry on to how do I find new clients? You're going to interview your ideal customer. There's a lot of different customers that you can have out there. And if there's one thing I learned from my first consulting business, the one I had right out of college, was that working with someone that you just hate to work with is an absolute nightmare. And so it's really important to figure out who you want to work with, who gives you energy, who can you have a positive relationship with? It’s imperative you enjoy the work.
How does this whole process work down to the specifics? I want you to brainstorm a list of potential customers that you would be interested in working with. And I know it seems like a lot, but seriously strive for 20 interviews asking for 20 minutes of their time. They might turn into half hour interviews. You want to prep your interview questions and I've actually prepped those for you. They're in the mini course that we built for you. You can go in there and download those. Have it as a conference call and ask if you can record it that way you can just listen and you don't have to worry about taking notes. Then when you go back, you can really listen to the exact words they used and use that in your future communications with clients or even with them directly. It definitely helps with having better conversations when you know the word choice that they're using.
What's cool about this, is that you inadvertently will introduce the fact that you have a grant writing consulting business. When you say, Hey, I'm just coming to you. I'm trying to understand what you are looking for in grant writing services? Have you hired someone before?
Here's some sample questions. What kind of conferences do you attend? Are there professional groups that you're a part of? What is your process right now? When you apply for a grant, do you have in-house capacity? Are you contracting out? Is there a blend? What part of the grant writing process is most stressful for you?
What is the process that you use to contract with consultants? This is an important question to ask because a lot of times, executive directors, or department heads or whatever, they can spend up to a certain amount without having to go through a complicated procurement process. For example, I worked with a client that could spend up to $5,000 before it became this like multi-month complicated hiring ordeal. I gave them a proposal for $4,800. Realistically, I probably would have billed the work at like 5k, maybe $5,400 or so, but it was worth dropping my price a little bit just to make sure I was under that window and they could hire me quickly. That's why I encourage you to ask that question. So you know where you need to come in at price wise to keep things going quickly. Other questions include, what do you want your legacy to be? What do you want when you leave this position? When you understand someone's motivations, it makes it so that you as a grant writer can help them succeed in that way.
For anyone that logged in and saw what your course looks like, this is what it's like when you log in. The third one is where we'll place the webinar recording. And that's also where that ideal customer questionnaire interview is and where your pricing fee estimate calculator will be.
Okay. Once you've done these interviews and I mean seriously strive for 20, 15 at minimum, then we know a lot about who the ideal client is that we actually want to work with. We know where they go because we just learned a lot about them. Probably the thing that comes to mind most for people is conferences or associations. I encourage you to consider skipping being at a vendor booth. They're very expensive and you're tethered to a booth. I personally find the interaction between being at a vendor booth with someone on the other side of the table, very awkward. A more comfortable, natural way to do this, I think, is present your subject matter expertise. So if you're going to a conference, for instance, I go to an environmental management conference every year and I would present on EPA Brownfield grants. I'd have a line of people that wanted to talk afterwards.
It took 45 minutes of my time and then I can spend the rest of the event networking naturally. Not being tethered to a vendor booth. Another thing to think about is just what are synergistic events, where that type of person hangs out. As an example, we hosted a grant writing workshop in Anchorage, and we had some partnering organizations sponsor it, including for example, a neighborhood development group and a videographer because she does videography work for nonprofits and small businesses. That was very synergistic for her to collaborate with us. That's something else to think about.
Another approach you can take that is pretty fun is you actually just create your own opportunities. I did this for a grant one rainy day. I grew up as a cattle rancher in Wyoming. I was researching grants for business innovation in the ranching industry. This is what a bored grant writer does, I guess, and I found a ton of awesome grant opportunities. I ended up pitching to this cool startup that was doing something really innovative and said, “Hey, I found a bunch of grants. I can help you go after them. We should talk about this if you're interested.” I found a lot of good opportunities and within four weeks I'd been hired and I was working on a couple of grants for them.
I was working on something I personally was very interested in. That's a nice strategy that you can consider - go find grant opportunities that you really like. My word of advice on that is find grants you know have a high likelihood of success to win. I advise a 20% or greater likelihood when I talk about this in my course. But for this strategy you want to be at like the 40% or greater likelihood because you're putting a lot on the line to approach someone cold turkey. We want you to be successful. And then as old school, as it sounds, utilize your network. I actually was just going through my gmail contacts. You can actually go look at every person you've ever sent an email to ever, which is a stupidly long list, but I was going through it and just remembering I've got a relationship with that person and to reach out to them. It's a good strategy to leverage your network.
This isn't actually an official thing, but I hope that maybe someday it would be, and I'm calling it the Meredith client test. And this is how I determine if I want to work with someone or not. Can I see myself working with them for five years? And if it's not “heck yeah”, I really like this person and get very energized by them, then it's probably not worth working with them. Every time I have not stuck to this rule, I have regretted it. I took on a client last spring and they needed help. I was really excited about it. Then there was like four weeks and they didn't respond and all of a sudden, they call and it’s super urgent and they want to go. But I had this bad feeling about it because I felt like they weren't very organized. Red flags were present, but I said, oh, whatever, it won't take me long to do the scope of work. I can bust it out, be done by July. I'll just take this client, but that ended up just going on and on and on until I actually had to fire the client because they could not focus. They would not get their work done. And it was really emotionally draining for me to work with them. The cost of that was not worth it. I should have stuck to my rules in working with people that you genuinely enjoy.
Let’s get to the point where we assume someone wants to work with you. You want to work with them now, what happens? You're always going to provide a proposal, always, always, always. You're going to define your scope, fee, and schedule. I usually would provide a draft of that to the client for review, get their feedback and then send them back a final copy for signature. The only time when you would not do this as if you're responding to more traditional requests for proposals, and you only get one chance, like you submit the proposal at the deadline and that's all there is to it. But most of the time, I'm not doing that. This is a nice way to make sure that you’re really on the same page because you collaboratively built that proposal. I'm going to show you a couple of examples. This was my weekend side hustle a couple of years ago doing a couple grant applications a year to pay for my ski gear.
I outlined the scope, what the fee was going to be, and the schedule of when the work would be done. Below my signature, it says, I, the client then you write their name, authorized them to hire me. They need to sign it. They send it back. We have a contract, we're bound to work together. When I get it back, it's my notice to proceed. It is really simple. Seneca Consulting actually wasn't even incorporated yet. I didn't have a logo, as you can tell, I changed the name later and became SenecaWorks, but it was so basic. I used my home address. I didn't even have a business address at that point. It goes to show you don't have to be super fancy to get underway. This is evolving a little bit right?
This is my actual logo letterhead. This was developed for a grant writing workshop this last February for a former client. I just break out, here's the scope, here's the fee, here's the schedule. If you agree, send me back this proposal authorizing me to proceed and bam we're done. But what was interesting about this is this was not actually the final proposal. I did send this back to them for review and they came back to me with, well, these are the three things we would really want to make sure you covered. Well, we got to have a champion for a project to succeed. You've got to have project planning money or a project doesn't go. When I heard what matters to them, what they really, really wanted conveyed in my workshop, I re-baked that into the proposal to emphasize how I would cover it.
I changed the scope of what we would discuss and then sent it back to them and they sent it to me with a signature. That's why I like being a little bit more collaborative. Here are my professional services and terms and conditions. This is basically just saying, you will pay me because we agree this is our contract. And it goes into just the specifics of just kind of the legal language on what would happen if we needed to end the contract, et cetera. So that's really basic. And I attached that to every proposal as a PDF.
Then this is an example of a much fancier proposal. This was one where I actually had to compete for it. It was a published request for proposals to do grant writing for this client. I actually engaged my graphic designer to help me make it really beautiful. I put a lot of effort into this. This was like a four or five day full time deal to write this proposal. But it was also the biggest contract I've had for grant writing ever. And it was totally worth it. So that's why the gamut, as you can see really stands from it can be a word doc proposal to this was a printed and bound proposal that I submitted in person. Any questions so far on those pieces?
How much should I charge? This is probably one of the most common questions I get. Never ever, ever the lowest price. You do not want to work with a client that cares more about the price then quality of the work, especially in grant writing. You have two options: You can be an affordable and fair provider, or you can be premium. If you're premium, you have to deliver a premium work product and experience for the client. We can't just charge it. I would say my business evolution started out as affordable and fair and I then was able to mature into being a premium provider because I knew how to deliver that experience, but I could back it up with success stories and the demand for work. I was turning down more projects then I was taking on so I could be a premium provider.
How do you calculate your cost estimate, and I have a calculator for you to show you how to do this, but the only way we can figure out what something's going to cost is to know what you're going to do in the scope of work. First, we have to be extremely clear on that and have that written out. Then we estimate the number of hours that each task will take. Then you kind of end up adjusting and refining from there until you feel like it's accurate. I took some screenshots of this calculator that you have the Google sheets version in the course you can download.
This spreadsheet summarizes the labor for you and your potential employees and team subcontractors and any expenses. Then it tallies that total up. I would usually just export this one page and include it with my proposal. This is what it looks like in the backend. You can write out each of the subtasks and this helps you mentally think through like every little bit of the process: How long is it going to take me to manage the project attachments, narrative writing, who's doing that independent review, right? Those sort of things. What you'll do is across the top, you're going to put in the team member’s names and anyone else that worked with you and their hourly rate.
When you put in the estimated hours to do those tasks, it will calculate at the bottom. If you have any subcontractors (which I love working with all the time and encourage you to as well) you would put their time here and any expenses like traveling there. That is going to be the total cost for that project. This is a really helpful tool for breaking down at a subtask level, what it's going to take for you to deliver on your promise. It’s a cool resource and you've got access to it. If you're wondering, where in the ballpark should I come in? These are the prices that I am familiar with based on my experience. And I think we're in a decently expensive environment. This could range throughout the country, but these are what I've experienced so far.
If you're an affordable and fair priced provider, putting together a funding strategy would be anywhere from $700 to $1,500. For premium, you can be $1500 to $5,000+. Depends on how complicated it is. Grant applications obviously vary from something that's really straightforward and not that hard core to moderate difficulty to a federal grant that could be 120-160 hours at least. The price there varies. Typically how you would price out your hourly rate, if you're going to list that would be, $50 to $75 if you're an affordable grant writer to a $100-$150, if you're premium, based on my experience. You might notice that I was referencing the funding strategy. This is a really, really big little nugget of why I've been successful and I want everyone to leverage this. Nobody does this. Basically, your approach should begin with helping your client focus on the right grants.
You're trying to figure out how to price your services, but you don't know what grants you're going after. Therefore, you can't price your services because you don't know what the projects are yet. Right? A funding strategy resolves that. Basically it's where you provide a plan for funding, the entire project or program. It's a roadmap that the organization agrees to implement. For example, these are the four grants that we're going to go after. These are the action items we have to take to plan, to prepare, to pursue those. This is the timeline, et cetera. This is everything I talk about in my course in module three. You learn how to prepare all these. Why I like them so much is, I'll say, “Look, let's just start with the funding strategy, putting together a roadmap for what you're going to pursue.” The contract that they are having to agree to isn't that much, right? It's anywhere from $700 to maybe a few thousand dollars. If you were to find, actually this client sucks to work with, I don't want to work with them anymore. At least they still have a fabulous deliverable at the end of it. They have a map and they know what grants they're going after. If you need to step back and they need to hire someone else, now they have a funding strategy and know what grants they're going after. Now when you propose, you provide your proposal amendment, when you are ready to go to phase two, you know exactly what grants you're going after, and then you can price those accordingly.
Does that make sense? You can do a two phase approach, a funding strategy, and grants which you will know what to charge because you actually know what they are. I love this strategy because it works great.
Now, if you're struggling to define the scope with the client and therefore the fee, I want you to consider this a seriously red flag and perhaps walk away from the organization. Say, “Hey, I'd love to work with you, but it doesn't look like your organization's ready to do that. Reach back out when you are.” I just did this in December to a really cool organization. We really wanted to help them, but every time I gave them the proposal, they’d come back and say, that's not quite what we're looking for. I think we want more help in this way, so I'd listen, listen, listen, put it into the proposal, change it. And they'd come back. And that's not what we want. I realized, man, we're just going to go in circles. If I'm already wasting this much time and I'm not getting paid for it, then I need to just cut my loss, stop working with this potential client and move on. That's something I want you to feel empowered to do. As I mentioned, trying out, do a funding strategy first in the project plan, and then you can go into grant writing.
What if your client can't pay? I get this a lot from people. This is going to sound sassy; then they are not clients. You're donating your time. You're a volunteer, which is fine. It's better to donate your time than to provide it at discount because then it diminishes your brand value of what you charge to others when you're very inconsistent in how you price your service. I personally do no free grant writing. I live and breathe this stuff all the time. I just don't need to do more of it on the side. Even when I was just an affordable fair provider, I would not do it because I’d rather have those that are willing to pay cause they take it seriously. You're welcome to work with non-profits or any organization for free. I just found this is a strategy I want you to consider. If they're not paying, then they're not a client and figure out how to deal with that accordingly.
You want to issue invoices every month. Very, very consistently. A lot of times freelancers are not consistent about this. They send me the bill at random. I send mine on the 15th of the month and I give them 30 days to pay them. If they're not paying them on time, I'll have a conversation about stopping work.
Here’s an example of what the invoicing software looks like within FreshBooks. This is one of the things I do differently than most consultants and it works great. I invoice by the percent of work that's been completed, not by the hour. Look at this example: I'll say 65% completion of the Imaginary Foundation Grant Application between these dates. I completed these tasks and the lump sum associated with that. If I gave out my lump sum that it's a $20,000 project, then I'm just going to give them the 65% of that as my invoice. Why? When you bill by hour, you're making yourself like a commodity and there's always pressure to just bring you down, work faster and as you become a great grant writer, you work really fast.
You’re going to have to work harder and harder and harder even though it's not that. You're just so efficient and why should you be punished for that? For that reason, I believe there's a fair price for the service you provide. Provide that and bill, by the percent of work, that's complete, not by the hour. With that being said, I still track my hours. I still know what goes into it. I'm tracking my time and the tasks so that if I'm asked to back it up, I can. I can export that list and show them exactly what I did and what backs up that number.
Something to consider now, should I grow a team? Yes, you should grow a team because you can not be perfect at everything. You do not need to have employees necessarily, but you should absolutely contract out in an early stage because it will strengthen your capacity. A picture here is Katya. We've been working together for a couple of years now, she's in Mexico city. She travels all over the world and she does my graphic design well until Aurora arrived and now she does, but Katya did these slides, for example. She jumps in and really helps me out. I've contracted out with a ton of other grant writers. I'll actually be hiring a student next week because I'm just thrilled with her work and I need some help. That’s an example of how you should not do everything by yourself. It's really strategic to partner with somebody else, even if they just do your independent review.
So here's some real quick tips on best practices:
- Always track your time because this is how you're confirming that your fees are appropriate.
- Less is more, it's better to have few projects of higher value that are fabulous clients than a ton of projects that are mediocre because there's a cost in switching projects for your brain to reload everything on it. It's really good to have just have few projects, but they're great projects.
- I highly advise batching your consulting work. I will usually do no more than two projects per day: Morning will be for client A afternoon for client B. I give my undivided attention on those projects and don't work on anything else until a Thursday afternoon, right? That's how you actually get things done.
- I do recommend starting with that funding strategy first, it's a game changer. It's honestly, I think it is the reason I've been successful with a consulting business.
- Leverage conference calls. We can move away from, I mean, especially now, but we just do not need to have in person meetings that take a lot of time. I value in-person meetings, don't get me wrong, but for progress, just do quick conference calls.
A lot of what it takes to be a very successful grant writing consultant is committing to building very good practices and routines around managing your time and your energy. We just did a webinar on working from home and that's on YouTube. You're welcome to go watch that if you're looking for additional inspiration. Probably, like the number one thing I do is write down the top three tasks that I'm going to do that day. If you're doing three meaningful, hard tasks, it's good enough. Anything else is gravy, the bonus. I'll do the three deep work tasks every day and Thursday will be a loose ends day. This model has allowed me to get a lot of real work done because I'm not being distracted by my inbox and other things that aren't really deep work.
Now, for those of you that might be interested in adding grant writing as a service, I highly recommend that you meet with your best clients first and just have an informational interview. It's really nice if you know what their projects and priorities are. You can bring to them at least to start some grant suggestions that they might consider. Something to be aware of, particularly if you're pursuing federal grants, is that you need to be selected competitively to be able to write that grant and implement it. Something I advise you to do is if they publish a request for qualifications to provide the services that you provide, ask that it includes grant writing so that you were competitively procured to provide grant writing services. If this didn't happen and you want to be very clear that you would do the grant writing and implement it, you may encourage them to publish an RFP or request for proposals. And yes, this means other firms will respond as well. It's the competition part, but at least you are really clear and above water that you were competitively selected to do the work.
One thing I emphasize is the importance of not working by yourself. I've made a lot of mistakes and I've learned to always have someone else that can review your work. We're getting a bunch of really amazing grant writing graduates out of our program. We're kind of forming ourselves into a marketplace of sorts, where we make referrals to each other. I see that group growing because there's really nothing like it. You can hire grant writers on Upwork. But there's not otherwise a place that grant writers are aggregated that you can find and hire or work with. That's something to keep an eye out for because I see us developing that in the future, and I would love to feature more firms as you grow them.
To recap about where to find this recording, if you want to go back and look at slides, you would go to the left side of learngrantwriting.org, and then the upper right-hand corner where my picture is. It will say login. You can click on that, your email is your username. If you forgot your password, just hit, forget password. That is going to link you into your course. As mentioned, the third module is where all those resources will be. If there's any questions or ideas, I'm welcome to take those right now. That was your kind of crash course in how to start a grant writing consulting business. I hope you found that helpful!