Should a CEO sit on the board of his/her own directors' companies?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


Q: We are looking for a grant writer. A few people on the board suggested different individuals they knew from other organizations, but they seem expensive and only one said she’d be willing to work on a contingency basis. While most of us wanted to go with her, someone on the board said we can’t. The rest of us don’t really understand why not. And, if that’s true, we definitely don’t have the money to make a mistake. How do we know who to choose? We agreed to write you and go along with what you said.

A: While I can’t promise to help you make the “right” choice, I can help ensure that you make a better choice.

Let’s start with the easy part of your question – the contingency fee. Whoever on your board said you should steer clear of this person was offering good advice. On the surface, such a “guarantee” of success seems like the most prudent approach to take. The grant writer appears confident enough of her ability to obtain the grant on your behalf that she is willing to risk her time and energy on the chance of a return. That seems to imply that this person is more competent than the others. On top of that, you don’t have to put any money out until you have money in your pocket. However, there are several reasons why the seemingly smart move is the wrong move in this case. Let me share just two here.

First, every professional organization to which a fund raiser in general and a grant writer in specific might belong forbids contingency fees in their codes of ethics. While we could debate the validity of the reasons for this, that is not at the heart of your question. I think it is enough to say that if this person is going against what is deemed standard ethical behavior in the field, either she is not as familiar with the field as she thinks, she’s new and feels that this is a good way to break in, or she is knowingly ignoring the standard and then you have to question what other ethical standards she might ignore while representing your organization.

Second, most grant guidelines clearly state that any costs associated with writing the grant proposal cannot come out of the grant. This means that she is going to have to hide her payment in the proposal. It also means that you will have to play with the books in order to maintain the charade when, if you get the grant, you report back to the funder – as required – on the use of the funds. I trust you don’t want to take that road. If you do and your antics are discovered, you may not only have to pay back the money, but you stand a chance of never getting another grant.

So, if you’re going to bite the bullet and pay for your grant writing services upfront, how do you make the best choice? You took a good first step by asking board members who they have successfully worked with in the past. A strong track record is an excellent indicator. Ask for the percentage of grants each person has gotten funded. You might also want to find out the average size of each grant. Someone might have a great success rate, but only have experience, for instance, with grants under $35,000 when you are looking to go after a several million dollar grant.

I would ask each of these individuals about the mission areas in which they specialize. Most grant writers tend to focus on one or two. Someone who already works in your mission area will know who the funders are, what they are looking for and how they like their proposals written. In addition, they will know where to find many of the relevant demographics and other statistics to be included.

I would see what each requires of your organization. Grant writing is a partnership. The grant writer cannot do the job on his/her own. An experienced grant writer will be able to tell you exactly what the organization’s role in the process will be and what materials the organization will have to produce.

Assess the chemistry. Again, this is a partnership. You will be working closely together and often on short deadlines that can test the best relationships. You need to feel comfortable with this person.

Ask to see writing samples. While the person should not be giving you another organization’s grant proposal without having previously obtained permission, or at least redacting all identifying information, you can look at almost any writing sample to determine if the person writes coherently and is attentive to spelling, grammar and basic layout.

Finally, there is now national certification for professional grant writers. The lack of such certification does not mean that someone is a bad grant writer. This certification has only been available for a relatively short while, so few have had the opportunity to work through the process. And, some grant writers who have been working successfully for a long time and have a loyal clientele may never feel the need to go through the process. Besides, the possession of certification does not guarantee someone is a star. However, the rigorous process does rightly grant you some assurance that the person has had several years of experience in the field and has demonstrated a high level of knowledge about it. You can find the names of those who have obtained certification by going to

Just remember, you can find the best grant writer in the world but you should still not expect grants to be the primary source of your funding. You need a diversified funding stream – especially today when grants funding is down significantly.

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