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Should I Hire a Grant Writer?

By Amy Halpin

It might be tempting to think that if you write a check to a grant writer you can check out of the process and focus on making your film while the funds pour in. The reality is that when you're selling your own creative vision, ceding all of the grant writing responsibility isn’t necessarily possible or advisable. Hiring outside help may be the right choice for your project but there are a few things to consider before handing over the fundraising reigns:

The argument for DIY

There are a few strong arguments in favor or writing your own grant proposals whenever possible. First, when it’s your passion and artistic vision it’s unlikely that anyone else can sell it like you can.  Filtering your creative vision through someone else’s voice can end up diluting it.

Also keep in mind that if you are applying to a documentary specific grant, it’s likely that your peers will make up a significant part of any review panel. There is no need to fill your writing with “grant-speak” or jargon. Plain language and a clear vision are far more likely to impress.

And finally, over the course of a career in filmmaking, investing in the skills necessary to feel confident doing grant research and writing yourself may pay off significantly in the long run. Consider looking into organizations that offer introductory classes on grant research and writing. We've linked to a few at the end of this article.

The pros for a professional

There is no question that writing a grant proposal takes time and skill. For an independent filmmaker wearing many hats, time is sometimes the harder of the two to come by. While you might struggle to find the time to work on a grant, hiring a professional will guarantee that someone will make it a priority to get the job done on schedule. An experienced writer will bring not only the time to focus exclusively on crafting a proposal, but the organizational skills to execute it efficiently.

A skilled grant writer will also write in a language that funders understand and respond to. This can be especially beneficial when dealing with foundations outside of the film world. If you’re reaching out to funders unaccustomed to making grants to documentary or media projects, an experienced grant professional may be able to help you convince a funder that your film is an innovative way to reach new audiences and further it’s mission.  

A middle road

Another idea to consider is using a professional writer as an editor after writing the first draft of a proposal yourself.  Presumably you have a boilerplate proposal after applying to fiscal sponsorship so doing the bulk of the grunt work and then hiring a professional to work with you to edit and polish your work has advantages.

A great editor will offer a fresh perspective and help you find your own voice. If you go this route meeting with a writer before getting started to come up with a plan and working outline is likely a good investment and may save you time and money by avoiding the need for restructuring down the road. Work out a schedule early so you and the writer are both clear on a timeline and delivery expectations.

Tips for working with a grant writer:

  • Get referrals from your fellow filmmakers, then ask for and check references! Ask not just about the writer’s skills and experience but also about how they work. Writing a grant proposal will be a collaborative process so a positive working relationship is essential.
  • Find out what information and materials they will need from you and when. Once someone is on the clock you’ll want to maximize impact by coming prepared with everything they need to get started. Work together on a timeline that covers the entire process, step-by-step, right up to delivery of the final proposal.
  • How familiar are they with documentary and with the arts/media funding landscape?  Documentary filmmakers who have had success with their own funding proposals sometimes run side businesses helping other filmmakers. Finding someone with both grant writing and documentary experience will make for less of a learning curve.
  • How much do they charge and what is the schedule for payments? Grant writers will typically charge either a flat fee or more commonly, an hourly rate for researching and writing a proposal. We’ve heard quotes anywhere from about $30 an hour, up to hundreds of dollars an hour for more complex proposals and government grants. An experienced writer should be able to give you an estimate up front of the approximate number of hours they think will be required to both research and write your proposal.
  • Don’t be afraid to plead your case and ask for the starving artist discount but don’t expect to pay a writer a percentage of funds raised after the fact. Foundations frown on conditional percentage based payment arrangements and just about all the major grant writing and fundraising membership organizations consider them unethical. While you may luck out and find someone so passionate about your project that they will defer payment or cut you a deal, you should plan on paying a professional writer for all the time they work on an application, whether the proposal is successfully funded or not.
Research a wide range of potential funders at the Foundation Center or take one of their classes, tutorials or webinars on grant research and writing.
Get started with a documentary proposal outline adapted from Directing the Documentary by Michael Rabiger.
Hear what top documentary funders are looking for in a proposal with clips from our Focus on Funding: Getting Grants for your Doc event on YouTube.
We'd love to hear from you. Share your experience on grant writing or working with a grant writer in the comments.