March 09, 2006

Calculating fees as a freelance grant-proposal writer

Q. I have worked as a grant-proposal writer for years and am now interested in doing such work as a consultant. However, I have no idea what to charge. Any advice?

A. To give you a ballpark figure, freelance grant-proposal writers generally charge between $60 and $150 per hour, says Gail Vertz, executive director of the American Association of Grant Professionals, in Kansas City, Kan. However, within that range, she says, fees vary tremendously depending upon a consultant's location, the needs in his or her community, and what other local consultants are charging.

To find out what the going rate is in your region, you may need to do a little digging. Ms. Vertz recommends calling a few nonprofit groups to ask what they typically pay, or contacting your state's or region's nonprofit association or your local unemployment office to see if they collect such information. (For a listing of state and regional nonprofit organizations, visit the National Council of Nonprofit Associations' Web site.). You can also find a listing of unemployment and Department of Labor offices by state online.

Since you have been working in the field already, you can probably get a general idea of what your skills are worth in your market by calculating what your current full-time job pays you by the hour. Or check out, which lists the median base pay for grant-proposal writers in different parts of the country, suggests Ms. Vertz. For instance, grant-proposal writers in New York, according to's employer-reported data, are paid a median salary of $69,593, while their counterparts in Oklahoma City are paid a median of $56,045.

Keep in mind, though, that these salaries are for full-time jobs, which typically come with valuable benefits such as health insurance and paid vacation time, not to mention administrative support, equipment, and supplies. As a freelance consultant, you will need to factor into your fees these sorts of additional costs.

Probably the best way to figure out what the going rate is in your area, however, is to talk with other consultants, says Allison Trimarco, a freelance fund-raising consultant in Bordentown, N.J., who started her own business in 2001. Joining membership organizations, such as the Association of Fundraising Professionals, the American Association of Grant Professionals, or smaller groups, such as a local chapter of Women in Development, and attending seminars and conferences with others in the business can provide some perspective, says Ms. Trimarco. "Getting involved with these groups is a great investment — not only can you get the lay of the land, financially and otherwise, from more experienced consultants, but you can usually get business referrals from them as well," she says.

Regardless of what the "average" rate is, she adds, consider how difficult you think it will be for you to attract clients. Do you already have several opportunities coming your way, or will you have to go out and beat the bushes? If the latter, you might want to keep your fees relatively low to start.

"I started my freelance business after moving to a new area, so I had no reputation and very minimal contacts," says Ms. Trimarco. "While I had a good track record in my previous city, anyone who hired me in my new location would be taking a big chance since I was an unknown quantity. So I lowered my hourly rate as one way of convincing them to take that chance."

She also did some work for a flat fee, she says, which helped attract new clients by eliminating any mystery about what her services would cost them once a job was completed. "Of course, in some cases my hourly rate ended up being very low when all was said and done. But I tried to focus on building the business," she says. "Once clients saw how good the product was, they were happy to absorb rate increases in the future." In addition, she notes, these early clients referred her to new ones.

Ms. Trimarco suggests that you develop an informal sliding scale, so that you aren't charging organizations with $2-million budgets the same rate as those with $200,000 budgets. "If you always charge a very high rate, a small organization won't ever be able to hire you, and if you always charge a low rate, you'll feel cheated when working for a big group," she says. "The idea is to settle on a rate that feels fair to everyone involved in each specific situation. If someone asks for the same rate as what you've offered another organization, you can decide whether or not you want to do it. Part of the beauty of being self-employed is having the power to make these decisions for yourself."

Above all else, remember — you are not a nonprofit group.

"You can, and should, still care about the missions of the organizations that you help raise money for, but you also have to have the confidence to ask to be paid a reasonable wage," says Ms. Trimarco. "No one should be getting rich from nonprofit grant-writing, but if you want to make a living at this, you can't afford to just break even."

For more information about the pros and cons of freelancing, check out "Self-Employed Consultants: What Works and What Doesn't" (The Chronicle, December 12, 2002).