Rural Wisdom for Grant Seekers

What Grant “Writers” Really Do

Saying that we are “writing a grant” is a bit misleading. It sounds like all we have to do is sit in front of the computer and bang out a few pages of text with maybe a citation or two thrown in. A grant project requires much more than just writing; in fact, the actual writing is sometimes the smallest part of the entire job. In reality, a grant project requires a mix of strategic planning, leadership, research, organization, project design, accounting, networking, and interpretation skills. One grant proposal can keep a grant “writer” busier than a one-eyed cat watching nine rat holes.

A grant writer in a rural area is often an office-of-one and has plenty of opportunities to practice and use all of these skills. When money flows to organizations that can show potential impact through numbers served and leveraged resources, beleaguered rural programs can find it hard to compete. Luckily, many programs are designed specifically for the unique characteristics of rural work. 

Why I Love to Work in Rural Communities

I do a lot of work in rural communities. Rural and urban areas are inextricably linked; when one of them sneezes, the other catches a cold. Sound economic development requires a wide-focus, regional approach. The people in rural communities are dealing with many challenges – closing hospitals and limited access to health care, rising child poverty levels, increasing drug use, lack of educational and work opportunities – compounded by geographic and technological isolation, lack of infrastructure, and lower population density. These challenges have to be addressed in even the most remote areas so that an entire region can flourish.

Rural communities have a wealth of information and talent to integrate into the economy of a region.  The elected leaders of these crossroads communities have the desire and passion to improve the quality of life in their area. Crossroads communities also have a wealth of informal leaders who live inside and outside of town limits, including farmers, educators, entrepreneurs, and retirees. Because of the smaller population and limited resources, many of these leaders serve their communities while juggling work and families. Their ability to do research, attend meetings and forums, follow economic developments, and grow their network is strictly limited by other responsibilities and the lack of staff to support their operations.

This is where the grant professional can play a key role in supporting rural organizations and communities – a role that goes beyond writing. Community leaders need access to information and connections that maximize their available time and are targeted to the needs and strengths of their location. A grant pro can provide support and connections to information and regional networks to capitalize on the potential of rural communities and improve the quality of life for all citizens.

Country Wisdom for Grant Folks

Luckily, rural leaders are ready and willing to share the wisdom that has been passed down through generations of people working the land, surviving and thriving despite the odds. I have learned a lot about leadership, ethics, and perseverance from these gems of country wisdom. Here are a few that I have heard and read over the years. They contain pretty good advice for any grant writers in any setting who find themselves overwhelmed by the sheer number of hats balanced on their heads.

You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

A concept might look good and feel good at first glance, but if it isn’t based on sound data and a concrete plan to meet the outcomes, it probably isn’t worth much.

Don’t let the tail wag the dog.

The thought of lots of money for an organization can be exciting, but if an opportunity does not meet your population’s needs or fit into your mission, don’t pursue it. Your mission should guide the grant strategy; grant opportunities should never change your mission.

When you’ve plowed the furrow down to the bedrock, it’s time to rest the mule.

When you’ve dug up all of the research and information you need, spent hours in developing and writing your case, and the deadline is looming – stop. Finish up the tasks and attachments that are required for submission, put it all together, and let it sit. Take a rest (note: if you’re the grant writer, you are probably the mule) and come back to it with a fresh eye for one last review when you are refreshed.

If you’re riding ahead of the herd, look back every now and then to make sure it’s still with you.

As we see the possibilities and catch the vision of what could be, it is very easy to go high-tailing off with enthusiasm. Sometimes, however, others have not seen the vision yet, or organizations do not have the capacity to implement a program the way you imagine it. Check in with your team or client regularly to make sure you are all working towards the same goal and have the same understanding of what can and cannot be done.

Just because trouble comes visiting, doesn’t mean you have to offer it a place to sit down.

Things are going to happen. People are going to drop the ball, information is going to arrive late and change everything, someone is going to leave town right when you need a signature, the internet is going to go out just before submission day. Don’t dwell in the frustration that these troubles bring – find a solution and get it done.

Life is simpler when you plow around the stumps.

Sometimes you have the choice of spending a lot of time breaking down barriers or finding a way to go around them. Do a risk assessment – if it costs more and gains little to break them down, and there is no ethical reason to avoid them, go around. You can always go back with the right tools later and prepare the ground better for the next season.

Nature gave us all something to fall back on, and sooner or later we all land flat on it.

We will not receive every grant. There are many variables in grant award decisions, and we have little control over most of them. Do your best, and when you receive a rejection, learn what you can from it and move on.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

Never stop looking for additional funding streams and new strategies for sustainability. No funding will last forever.

Well Rounded and Grounded

I love the grant profession because of all of the skills and tasks that it requires.  A grants professional should be a source of reliable information, an advocate for the organization and people he or she serves, a servant leader who can bring out the best in a team from start to finish of the proposal process, and a guide through the maze of grant ethics and regulations. When resources are scant, and people are so busy serving their community that they do not have time to search for more, grants people can be the lifeline that connects them to the resources and strategies they need to continue their work.

If that doesn’t light your fire, your wood is too wet.


Smartegrants can help you advance your skills in grants. Are you interested in advancement in the grants profession? The Grant Professional Certification Institute’s GPC is the credential in the grants profession. Download your infographic to get your roadmap to the GPC.

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Jenny Braswell

Jenny is a rural advocate and grants consultant. She is a Social Media and Lead Coordinator for GrantProse, Inc. Jenny also works with small rural nonprofits and communities through her own small business and is a certified riding instructor at a Clydesdale Farm. She often takes breaks from proposals to go catch the sheep and pig that insist on breaking down fences at every opportunity - much like their owner.

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