A few weeks ago, I got a LinkedIn message from David.
A few other grant writers I know got the same message. Looks like David was doing the rounds, searching for the right grant writer for him. Good for you, David!
Unfortunately, David’s message included the following:
Regarding the financial arrangement, we propose a commission-based structure for your involvement. In the event that a grant application is successful, we would be open to discussing a percentage-based compensation for your services.
David’s not the first one to propose a commission-based payment structure for my work. (Although, I have to say I do think it’s extra-cheeky that he only wants to discuss what the commission would be after a grant is successful!)
But it was, as always, a firm “no” from me.
I don’t work on commission. And I don’t think that ANY grant writer should work on commission.
Look, I get it. I get why clients want us to work on commission, and why they think it would be a good idea. Most non-profits are cash-strapped, and grant writing is intended to bring in the cash. Wouldn’t it make sense to pay the grant writer from the cash they bring in?
The thing is, paying on commission is bad for clients, and bad for grant writers.
It actually ends up bring terrible for both of us.
Let me explain why.
Why paying grant writers on commission is bad for clients.
Paying on commission could put you in breach of the funding deed.
Paying grant writers out of the funds you secure is usually against the grant agreement or funding deed you have with the grant provider, and will put you in breach of contract. Nearly every Australian government grant agreement lists grant writing as an ineligible expense – this is because it’s unfair that only the winning application should have their grant writing expenses covered, and the unsuccessful applications (even if they were very good) have to source those funds from elsewhere.
Funders know that grant writing is a lot of work (whether it’s done in house or by engaging a freelancer or consultant), and they want to keep a level playing field by not allowing grant funds to be spent on it.
Also, grant funds typically can’t be spent on anything you’ve already done before the contract is signed – that includes grant writing, program design, consultation, lots of important stuff.
Working on commission could compromise the quality of the advice a grant writer gives you.
If a grant writer is working on commission, they’re going to do what they can to maximise that commission. They might even do this unconsciously.
- A grant writer could be tempted to over-inflate your capacity to maximise the size of the proposed project and their own pay, and leave you with a project you don’t have capacity to deliver on.
- They might encourage you to add additional expenses to your application, as this would increase their pay. (Or, they might get stressed out if you choose to remove a major expense, which would decrease their pay, despite them doing the same work.)
- It might be more strategic for an organisation to apply for a smaller amount of funding – sometimes a smaller ask will improve your chances of success or better suit your organisation’s strategy. But a grant writer working on commission will want to steer an organisation to larger funding options (even unconsciously).
- Grant writers working on commission would be incentivised to leave organisations as their grant writing skill improves if that organisation is best served by applying for smaller grants. They’d be wise to only work for larger organisations applying for larger amounts.
- They’d also steer clear of applying for opportunities that weren’t a sure thing. Sometimes it makes strategic sense for an organisation to apply for a grant that’s a bit left of centre – maybe they’re not who the funder has in mind but could do a great job, or maybe they need to demonstrate their work to a funder even though they don’t think the funder will choose them this time. Some philanthropic grant makers never fund organisations on their first application. Some government funders are open to unusual grantees (and some aren’t) – one of my clients got a nearly 8 figure grant from an opportunity where they weren’t the target grantee. A grant writer working on commission would have never applied, because the risk of not being successful was very high for the amount of work needed. That can mean you miss out on opportunities.
- Grant writers who are being paid on commission (and not for work rendered) are incentivised to take shortcuts, such as copy-pasting responses that would be better-off re-written.
I’m not saying every grant writer working on commission gives bad advice. But it’s easy to see how the commission pay structure could warp a person’s thinking about what expenses to include, and which opportunities to pursue.
You and your staff will be less engaged.
Grant writing is a collaborative activity, and you get a great grant application when the staff responsible for it are engaged and active in working with the grant writer to shape and design the project.
It’s natural for us to place higher value on things that cost us more. When an organisation isn’t paying their grant writer (or at least, not paying them upfront), staff naturally see that person’s work as lower priority and don’t always fully engage. This makes the overall quality of the grant application lower, and reduces the chance of success.
This is also a reason I don’t recommend seeking volunteer grant writers (except in some circumstances). It’s common for a volunteer’s work to be under-valued, under-utilised and under-committed to.
When you pay a fair rate for a skilled grant writer, you become more invested in the project yourself. And that gets a better result.
Why getting paid on commission is bad for grant writers.
Fundamentally, it’s unfair.
There’s a common myth in grant writing that applications for higher funding amounts take more work.
It’s a ridiculous fact of grant writing, but applying for $25,000 often doesn’t take less work or effort than applying for $1,000,000 – in fact, often enough the $25k applications is more work than the $1m application.
So as a grant writer, why should your pay depend not on how much work you do, but how much the client wants to apply for?
Grant writing is a pretty dynamic process, and major parts of a project can change very quickly and at the last minute. Imagine a client was designing a program for grant funding worth $200,000 to be delivered in two different locations with two different local partners. At the last minute, one of the local partners decides not to support the project, and the client has to submit the application for only $100,000 for delivery in just one location. The grant writer working on commission suddenly sees their pay cut in half – for something they have zero control over. And making that last minute change actually requires more work from the grant writer, too.
That’s pretty unfair.
Grant writers don’t have control over major parts of an application.
I often say that there are two parts to an application – the quality of the application itself (the writing etc.), and the quality of the idea and the organisation it represents.
A grant writer only has control over the application itself. They work to show the client in the best light possible, and may help the client to shape their project idea to make it more fundable. But the grant writer has zero control over the client themselves – their governance structures, their stakeholder engagement, their relevant experience. These things are fundamental to a successful grant application.
Sometimes a really high quality grant application will be unsuccessful because another applicant is just better on the day – they have 10 years more experience, they have better project partners, they’ve got other aligned services, etc. As a grant assessor, I’ve seen this happen, a lot. If a grant writer is working on commission, they can do a brilliant job, and then not get paid, because the grant was unsuccessful due to things they couldn’t control.
That’s just not fair.
Imagine not paying your resume writer because another job candidate had more experience that you. Paying grant writers on commission or on success is the same thing.
Unsuccessful applications can be useful – and the person who does that work should be paid for it.
It might sound strange, but even an unsuccessful application delivers value to your organisation.
One of the benefits of the grant process is that it forces you to get clear on things like your project plan and strategy within a time limit – these are often areas where your thinking might be unclear, and where you just don’t usually find the time to build and strengthen the ideas. Grant writers help you create that clarity in your thinking – and you can then use that across other projects.
Some clients are even able to use unsuccessful grant applications to secure funding through other means – but they never would have been able to access that other funding without the clarity of thinking gained in the grant application process.
That’s good news, because grants are increasingly competitive – sometimes even two-thirds of top rated grant applications are unsuccessful. Being able to get value from unsuccessful grant applications is important. And that doesn’t change the fact that grant writing is skilled, difficult work.
Grant writers deliver value even on unsuccessful applications, and deserve to be paid for that work.
Professional grant writing societies will kick out members who accept commission.
I’m not personally a member, but both the American Grant Writers’ Association and the Grant Professionals Association require members to adhere to their ethical codes, and you can be kicked out if you don’t. Both those associations’ ethical codes explicitly prohibit payment on commission, percentage-based structures, or payment conditional upon success of the grant.
These are organisations that have existed for many years and have many experienced members. They say it’s unethical. I agree.
What kind of organisation do you want to be?
If you’re looking to hire a grant writer, you’re probably working for a non-profit, or a socially-minded business that cares about the world around you just as much as you care about your bottom line.
When you’re an organisation that cares about your values, you have to choose ethical practices – including in your hiring and contracting.
Grant writing is skilled, difficult work that delivers a lot of value to organisations. Grant writers, just like other employees and contractors, deserve to be paid for the work they deliver, not only when an application is successful. It’s just fair.
So if you’re still thinking about trying to pay on commission, despite the fact that it could compromise the quality of your application and would be unfair to your grant writer, I need to ask you: what kind of organisation do you want to be? Do you want to be an organisation that treats people fairly, or exploits people?
When is it ok to pay a grant writer on commission?
In limited circumstances, I think it’s ok to pay on commission. And those limited circumstances are:
If the client is a for-profit entity applying to a non-competitive fund.
If you’re applying for something like the R+D Tax Incentive, which is structured like a grant but is not competitive, then I think it can be ok to work on commission. But even that is borderline.
Also, if performance-based bonuses are normal at an organisation and something that everyone gets, and it’s in addition to fair base-pay for the work, then maybe sometimes I guess a commission is ok. But it has to be in addition to fair pay, and it can’t contravene the grant funding agreement.
What to do if a client asks you to work on commission?
Tell them you don’t.
It’s really normal for clients who are new to working with freelance grant writers to think that commission is a good idea. So, depending on how much you want the work, you have two options: tell ’em they’re dreamin’, or do some client education, and explain why it’s better for everyone when clients pay fair rates for grant writing work rendered.
This is what I sent to David, who reached out on LinkedIn. I’m happy for you to copy, paste and modify if you’d like to use it yourself!
Thank you for your message.
It sounds like your organisation is doing interesting and important work.
I understand why you would propose a commission-based agreement with a grant writer. But, I would like to suggest to you that you NEVER work with a grant writer on commission, whether myself or any other grant writer.
The primary reasons that you should not work with a grant writer on a commission basis are that it can lower the quality of the application that you get, and that it’s unfair to the writer.
- paying grant writers from the grant will usually put you in breach of your contract with the funder
- grants asking for more money aren’t always more work – paying on commission means grant writers are paid disproportionately to how much work they do
- working on commission can compromise the advice a grant writer gives you – they may (consciously or unconsciously) encourage you to inflate the budget or pursue the wrong opportunities to maximise their pay, but weaken the application
- grant writers who work on commission would only take on very low-risk projects try maximise the chance of getting paid, which can mean you miss out on opportunities
- unsuccessful grant applications still deliver a lot of value to an organisation, as they lead to clarified thinking and more opportunities to pitch a project or build partnerships – it’s a myth that there’s only value to successful grant applications
- grant applications can be unsuccessful due to things that the grant writer has no control over, such as the organisation’s governance or strategic partnerships
- it’s not fair that a grant writer would not get paid when they’ve still done a great job for you
- some funders don’t fund applicants on the first application
- grant applications are increasingly competitive and there are many excellent quality grant applications that aren’t funded (but can still deliver benefits to the organisation)
- most grant writing professional societies prohibit working on commission – it’s against their ethical guidelines and they will kick out members for accepting commission
Grant writing is skilled, difficult work that delivers a lot of value to organisations. Grant writers deserve to be paid for the work they deliver, not only when an application is successful.
Commission-based structures are appropriate for non-competitive funds for for-profit entities, but are unethical for non-profits.
I hope that’s helpful. I’m happy to go into more detail about any of the above if that’s helpful.
Where can I get more help?
If you’re a client looking to pay fair rates and wanting more info on how to get started working with a grant writer, please reach out and talk to me about a Grant Strategy Session. We can talk through everything you need.
If you’re a freelance grant writer looking for support on how to engage with clients, check out Grant Writing For Freelance Writers and 6 Things Freelance Writers Need To Know About Grant Writing.
And feel free to reach out any time. 🙂