Confessions of a Reluctant Grantwriter

Sharon Vardatira

In 1981, when I received my masters from Harvard Divinity School, our class of soon-to-be poorly paid pastors, community organizers, theologians and activists found ourselves marching into Harvard Yard right next to the soon-to-be handsomely paid graduating class of Harvard Business School.

We were aware of this only because each graduate school in the procession carried a small, simple wooden sign identifying their group. Ours read, very simply, “Harvard Divinity School.” I have forgotten almost everything else about that occasion except for one thing — the Business School graduates had tacked a simple “$” symbol onto their sign. It was an audacious announcement about the wealth they would soon accumulate, and it was not lost on any of my classmates.

Many of us rolled our eyes, some of us commented on the injustice of it all, and a few of us felt a momentary pang of worry. But, along with all those verbalized emotions, it pains me to admit that, deep down, probably all of us felt just a little virtuous. Virtuous because we had rejected the allure of money, and were about to embark on untarnished careers of changing the world, helping the downtrodden, and making a real difference.

So imagine my surprise when, on the first day of my new $10,500 per year job as program director of a battered women’s shelter, the very first thing I was asked to do was write a grant. It wasn’t fear of failure that daunted me (I was too new to know what I didn’t know), but I was disturbed at this unexpected focus on money. Whatever fantasies I harbored of helping families build a new life were buried in an endless series of questions and budget forms. And then, when that grant was done, there was — astonishingly — another. And another after that.

Thirty years and 1,460 grants later, I am still a reluctant grant writer. That I am reluctant is likely to surprise many of my clients, who know me today as an accomplished professional grant writer and fund development consultant. One client in particular — who once referred to me as a “hired gun” — would be particularly surprised. In her mind, if the task is about acquiring money, the most effective person for the job is someone unfettered by values — in short, the caricature “business school graduate” my classmates and I had disdained so many years ago.

Nonprofits may not be in the business of making money, but we certainly need money to thrive. And this presents a challenge — not just in terms of how to get money, but also in terms of our attitude towards money. I suspect that many nonprofit workers have shared my classmates’ discomfort with the business school’s “$” symbol. Nonprofits often separate their fundraisers from program staff, program staff are rarely part of fundraising decisions, and even when the two come together, fundraising is usually seen as a necessary evil. Necessary, but evil.

Like most nonprofit grant writers and fundraisers, I do this work for the same reason that most people dedicate their lives to nonprofit work — to make a difference to children, youth, and families, to help the environment, to help resolve conflict in war torn regions, to bring people together, and/or to make the world a better place. I don’t love that getting money is so challenging (and I especially don’t like to answer brain-numbing questions all day), but at my very first job, I quickly learned that money makes it happen. And since I seem to have a knack for persuasive, volume writing (something a lot of people hate to do), this is where I’ve landed.

Along the way, I’ve had the opportunity to share this skill with many people that are not typically exposed to the fundraising sphere, from battered women and their children, to peace workers in Sri Lanka, to artists, to youth activists. I’m never reluctant about that part of my work. Knowing how to access money is a powerful feeling — and helping people acquire that skill is empowering for them and inspiring for everyone.

More than anything, what I didn’t fully comprehend thirty years ago in Harvard Yard was that money is an essential tool for creating the society we want. It’s time to take nonprofit fundraisers out of the back rooms, examine old assumptions, and understand that there is nothing virtuous in avoiding dealing with money or relegating grant writing to a “hired gun.” As grassroots fundraiser Kim Klein writes, “If we don’t deal with money, learn how it works, and be willing to ask for it, we who work for social change wind up collaborating with the very system our work is designed to change.”

Sharon Vardatira is Youth Catalytics’ fund development specialist.