I had planned to write this blog post on becoming a grant consultant long before the COVID-19 crisis hit, but now this topic seems even more timely than it did a month ago.
Last year my business partner, Bruce Ripley, and I wrote the book Granted: How to Break Into Freelance Grant Writing and Create a Business and Life You Love (published through our company, Painted Post Publications). The book is all about how to become a freelance grant writer or start your own company as a grants consultant. Bruce and I both do this, with slightly different approaches, and decided to write a book since there weren’t many other good options on the market dealing with this topic in this specific industry.
Right now seems like a good time to bring this topic up again given what’s happening in our world.
Many nonprofits are either closed, laying off staff, or staring down the barrel of long-term economic impact due to the pandemic. As a result, my consulting business is totally swamped.
Whether rightly or wrongly (which is a whole other discussion), I have tons of nonprofits contacting me every day because they now want to focus on grant writing to help their organizations survive. On the other side of things, I’ve had several individuals contact me who are laid off from their regular nonprofit jobs and are now considering becoming a freelance grant writer either temporarily or long-term in order to keep working.
If that’s you or if these things have been on your mind, then this post should be useful. I’m going to give you a quick and dirty overview of some of the things you should think through and what you’ll need to do to get up and running fast if you decide to pull the trigger.
Thinking about becoming a freelance grant writer? Here’s what you should consider…
1. Do you have an adequate home office set-up?
If you’re going to work from home you’re going to need some space in which to do it and some equipment. You might be able to sit at your kitchen table for a while, but that won’t cut it for long. This is because you’ll need somewhere for a computer, a printer, and file storage at the very least. If you have an extra room in your house, a basement, or heck…even a storage shed or garage with some extra space consider allocating some of it to your business. Because you’re going to need it.
2. How long do you want to do this?
Is this something you just want to do short-term until you can return to your job or to another job as a nonprofit employee once this crisis ends? Or is this something that you would be interested in doing on a more long-term basis? The answer will determine how you set things up, how you work with clients, how you market your services, and much more so really think this one through.
3. If you’re going to do this long-term, what’s your risk tolerance?
Starting a business always means accepting some risk. Right now, that’s more true than it’s ever been. I love working for myself and I would never willingly go back to being an employee. Having said that, I want to be honest with you that this pandemic is going to change everything. Right now, my business is booming. But depending on how long this crisis goes on, that may change. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it probably will change no matter what because even if everything re-opened 2 months from now the financial impact will linger for the better part of a year (and that’s probably being optimistic). If nonprofits don’t have the resources to pay their staff and don’t have programs and services bringing in revenue, it’s only a matter of time before they can’t afford to pay consultants and freelancers, either.
There’s no way to know how long this will impact the businesses that serve nonprofits, so think about this long and hard.
4. Can you work effectively with clients (which is far different than working for an employer)?
Working as a freelancer means knowing how to determine whether or not you even should work with any given client. Not every client is in a good position to be competitive for grants and that fact will be even more important when grant-seeking in a world shaped by COVID-19. Can you say no when it’s in their best interest? Can you say no when the client won’t be a good fit and it won’t be in your best interest to work with them? Can you effectively advise your clients given the wide range of personalities and agendas you’ll encounter?
5. Do you have the business chops to do more than just writing?
When you run a business, you run the whole business. Sure, you may be a fantastic grant writer but in order to be successful, that can’t be your only skillset. Some of the primary skills you’ll need include basic bookkeeping, project management, record keeping, solid organizational skills, time management, some tech know-how, and good old-fashioned discipline to persevere and do the hard things when it’s….well, hard.
If you don’t have these skills you’ll either need the willingness to learn or the ability to hire it out.
6. What’s your Plan B?
Things change and especially right now the road ahead is foggy. What’s your Plan B if this doesn’t work out? Make absolutely sure you have one.
I’m not spewing all this doom and gloom because I want to be Debby Downer. I just want you to go into this decision with your eyes open. Becoming a freelancer is incredibly rewarding and can give your family needed stability and income during this trying time, for sure. Just know the risks. If you DO decide to move forward, the information in the next section needs to go on your to-do list.
If you decide to become a freelance grant writer or consultant, here’s what you need to do NOW:
1. Decide on your legal structure
Sole proprietorship, limited liability company, corporation? You’ll need to make a choice. I’m not a lawyer and I can’t tell you what’s right for you, but you’ll need to research this and make an informed decision.
2. Open a bank account
Good businesses keep their business finances separate from their personal finances. You’ll need to open a bank account from which all of your business expenses will be paid and all your client payments will be deposited into. This will also make accounting easier.
3. Set up accounting and invoicing software
You’re going to need some accounting software to track expenses and income and help generate reports. Ideally, this software should also be able to handle invoicing and accepting payments. My recommendation is Wave. It’s free and pretty robust.
4. Set up a way to take electronic payments
Again, you’ll need a way to accept payments. I know you can accept checks, but right now you really want to make sure you can accept electronic payments. We don’t know how long the banks will stay open. And sure, you can make electronic deposits but those usually have a limit on how large they can be. You’re going to want alternative ways to get paid. The Wave accounting software lets your clients pay with a credit card or bank transfer right from the invoice. Or you can use PayPal Business, Square, Stripe, or a host of other payment solutions.
5. Make sure your infrastructure is in place
By this, I mean literally everything else. Do you have somewhere to securely file client documents and financial records? Do you have a computer, a desk, a printer, and some office supplies? Do you have a quiet place to take calls? Do you have a way to track your time and to keep electronic copies of all your records? Have you set your pricing? Do you have templates set up for proposals and contracts?
Get all of this in place before you open shop. You don’t want to be scrambling and look unprofessional in front of clients who are entrusting you to help them.
6. Create a marketing plan
If you build it, they won’t come. They have to know you exist first. How are you going to get the word out? How will you market yourself and your services? Figure this one out fast. Without marketing, there are no actual sales.
7. Start learning everything you can about consulting
Read books, read articles, look for resources. If you can, join a group like the Grant Professionals Association and get yourself a mentor who’s already consulting successfully. They can help you get up and running quickly and avoid common pitfalls.
Also, attend whatever webinars you can on grant seeking and grant writing during the Coronavirus Pandemic. This is uncharted water for even seasoned pros, so don’t go into this thinking you know everything you need to know. Consume information like your life depends on it.
If you found this useful, consider buying Granted: How to Break Into Freelance Grant Writing and Create a Business and Life You Love.
The book goes into much more depth on these and other topics. It will help you create a foundation for a successful grant writing business, whether that’s a “just for now” kinda thing or if you want to do this for the rest of your career.
Get your copy of “Granted: How to Break Into Freelance Grant Writing and Create a Business and Life You Love”!