Meet Carolyn Appleton! Carolyn is a major gift fundraiser and nonprofit communications expert who uses technology to amplify her impact and do more with less. She’s known for tackling seemingly impossible fundraising efforts and turning them into success stories. Carolyn has many years of hands-on experience working in the trenches of nonprofit fundraising across Texas and beyond.
Carolyn has been part of the Qgiv extended family since 2019—we proudly partner to help make a difference in our communities.
Carolyn’s Nonprofit Blog was inspired by the many people who have reached out to Carolyn since it was launched in 2011 to ask for advice about becoming a grant writer and nonprofit fundraiser. Many readers asked How do you become a grant writer? What classes are best? Do you need a lot of training, or just the basics? Would volunteering help? Here’s more from Carolyn on how to get started.
Q: What kind of folks have asked about becoming a grant writer? Are there a lot of people looking to change careers?
Those who have asked are of all ages, backgrounds, and life experiences. From accountants to college students, from administrators working in construction offices to legal professionals, many are considering new career directions to gain more meaningful work and to serve the greater good in their communities.
Q: What if one I have only basic office skills?
During both my undergraduate and graduate degrees, I held a variety of part-time jobs to help defray my college expenses. These were modest jobs, many in campus offices working with university administrators and faculty members. They were an intelligent and sophisticated group, and I learned a lot from them. Prior to college, I had also taken typing courses to hone my office skills, and this made me a valuable employee. In fact, that fundamental training allows me still today to be independent and not to rely on office assistants, and it helps make grant writing a snap.
While securing my two university degrees, I conducted in-depth research. I read about various subjects and shared my discoveries in a logical fashion, in writing. All the above are things that will help you become a successful grant writer and professional nonprofit fundraiser.
Q: Will it help to become a volunteer?
While I was busy conducting academic research and taking university classes to secure a master’s degree, I decided “real life” work experience in my area of interest would be helpful. It was then that I began working at a local art museum as a volunteer. I was assigned to the art school to track art classes and enrollments, and to work on reporting and making sure records were polished and current. I did this for about a year when my skills were spotted by other members of the staff, and I was invited to apply to work jointly with the fundraising and media relations offices. This ultimately led to full-time employment.
Four years later, I was assigned to coordinate a $6 million endowment campaign. All along this early adventure, I learned on the job. My mind was a sponge. I had an exceptionally knowledgeable mentor who ran an office engaged in multiple types of fundraising activities: endowment (major gifts), special project fundraising (grant writing), annual fund (with a corporate slant), membership, database administration, special events, and volunteer management. When I look back, this was one of the most sophisticated fundraising programs in Texas!
Q: What are the best grant writing courses?
One of the best things that happened to me while volunteering for the local art museum is they funded my travel to Los Angeles and my tuition to take the week-long grant writing training bootcamp hosted by The Grantsmanship Center. In these early days, I was a “scholarly” introvert. During the week-long intensive course, I was called upon to be an active and vocal participant. I admit, I was a bit intimidated. But I came away with the mental framework required for meaningful, methodical grant work. I learned to step into the shoes of different types of donors to understand their expectations, to explain the needs of nonprofits clearly, about the importance of budgets, and more.
Q: Are there community resources available?
Today, there are many grant writing courses and educational resources available. I often recommend you look to your local community for grant writing courses offered by community foundations and libraries and those available in the continuing education offices of universities and community colleges. These frequently provide a certificate of completion which you can note on your resume.
Q: What advanced degrees should I look at?
For my students and returning students, you may also wish to pursue a college degree in nonprofit management, which normally includes coursework in fundraising. Major universities from Harvard University to The University of Texas, from Purdue University and the University of California to the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana. I mention the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy specifically, though, as over the past ten years, I find their research and scholarship when it comes to all aspects of nonprofits and fundraising to be stellar. Check out “The Fundraising School.” You may also want to read U.S. News & World Report’s Best Nonprofit Management Programs blog.
Q: Do I need an academic degree?
As an “accidental” fundraiser originally focused on securing an advanced degree in art history, I can say without hesitation that you do not. But still, the university experiences of research and writing have been invaluable to my nonprofit career. The hands-on experience of working with a nonprofit as a volunteer can also provide a valuable inside look at what fundraising entails. You will also have the chance to network with nonprofit staff who can be helpful in your future job search.
Q: Is it possible to transition from other fields?
What if you are an accountant, for example? I have noticed in the many grant applications I have prepared and submitted that budgets play a more important role than ever. I have also known some philanthropists whose grant applications include a large section for a detailed budget, and a relatively small section for a written description of the program for which funding is being sought. You can tell the story about your nonprofit’s work through its budget. My sense is, if you take a solid grant writing training course (earning a certificate if possible), your accounting training will be sought after by smart nonprofits.
Those in the legal profession can be hard-nosed in my experience, but they are trained to develop solid arguments in favor of their clients, and you will need that skill to write compelling case statements explaining why someone should fund your nonprofit initiative. And although one thinks of nonprofits as bending the heart strings, often I find a well-written, organized, and factual case statement is preferred by potential donors. Keep in mind there are many nonprofit organizations asking for funding. Prospective donors including grant making agencies are overwhelmed with grant applications. A clear presentation of the facts and the argument in favor of support–and a well-targeted grant proposal that fits with the funder’s area(s) of interest–is often best.
I have visited with administrators in offices like those in the construction industry who are also seeking to transition to grant writing. Administrators must be detail oriented, formally document a wide range of information (adhering to confidentiality), understand the “big picture,” and they must adhere to strict deadlines and produce reports based on data collected by their companies. I know from my own experiences that office administrators are often the “anchors” of their organizations. This mind and skillset are a good fit for a future career in grant writing.
Q: Do you have suggestions on where to network?
I think it is always helpful to find others in the community who are doing the same thing: working to make the world a better place, learning how to perfect their grant writing skills, finding new jobs, securing credentials and advanced training, and who are seeking volunteer opportunities. There are quite a few professional associations today that can help you “network” and keep you on top of your game.
One of my favorite support organizations specifically for grant writers is GPA: Grant Professionals Association. GPA chapters are located across the United States. You might attend a few meetings as a guest, to see if you like it. If you do like GPA and you join, you should investigate the Grant Professionals Certification Institute (GPCI). GPCI administers the nationally recognized Grant Professional Certification (GPC) credential, which is highly regarded and well worth placing on your resume.
As I am sure you have noticed, the world is more online than ever, including fundraising professionals. NTEN: Nonprofit Technology Network is focused on helping nonprofit staff adopt new technologies in their chosen areas of expertise, and to thrive by doing so. Grant writers are involved in NTEN (along with staff members of other nonprofit departments), and you will find the NTEN community to be friendly and responsive to questions. Another excellent source for the digital age is TechSoup. Check out the TechSoup blog and the grant writing section. You can learn grant writing via online courses, and there are quite a few webinars available. Another resource is Candid Learning. Candid is the parent organization of The Foundation Center and GuideStar, and they have long been a leader in nonprofit education and research. I recommend Candid highly.
I recommend also checking out the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), as they have quite a few webinars and articles you may find helpful. If you prefer reading, check out TGCI publications center!
If you are serious about becoming a grant writing professional, you will thrive if you combine meaningful professional training with real life experiences. Yes, it is possible to transition from other fiends: look objectively at the skills you have gained and compare them with what is needed for grant writing. And keep in mind:
- As a grant writer, you will need to focus and spend long stretches of time in a quiet environment working on your computer or laptop. If you cannot concentrate, you will be in trouble.
- You will need to write comfortably and grammatically (and complete online and occasionally hard copy grant proposals), and you will need to document and track your work.
- You will need to be well organized and tend to deadlines.
- You will need to be flexible and patient. Each funder–individual, foundation, corporation, or government agency–has unique needs and interests.
- You will be answering many questions in your grant proposals. That will require you to know a lot about your nonprofit. In fact, you may end up knowing more than any other member of the staff.
- If you can get “real life” experience with a mentor(s) by volunteering for a nonprofit in the development office, do it!
You might enjoy these additional resources from Carolyn’s Nonprofit Blog:
- Grant Writing: A Reality Check: https://carolynmappleton.com/grant-writing-a-reality- check/
- Grant Writing and Storytelling: https://carolynmappleton.com/grant-writing-and- storytelling/
- Mentoring and “Real World” Fundraising: https://carolynmappleton.com/mentoring-and- real-world-fundraising/
- Professional Development Resources: https://carolynmappleton.com/nonprofit- professional-development/
Check out Carolyn’s on-demand webinars with Qgiv, “Adjusting Your Mindset for Successful Grant Writing Today” (2021) and How to Start Your Grant Writing Career (2022). And download a free copy of Qgiv’s eBook: Grant Writing Toolkit. It will give you the knowledge and tools to find grants, court prospective funders, and write successful grant applications.