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Social Workers Can Make Excellent Grant Writers
By Andrea Dakin, PhD, MA

While fundraising or grant writing may not be the obvious career choice for those receiving a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) or Master of Social Work (MSW) degree, social workers who have completed their BSW or MSW coursework and have excellent written communication skills can be effective grant writers for social service, policy/advocacy, and local government agencies. Schools of social work offer specialties in various practice arenas, policy work, community organizing, and administration. This educational background, when combined with effective communication skills, can provide the ideal foundation for a grant writing position or career.

The competency-based model of social work education currently supported by the Council on Social Work Education defines social work competence as "the ability to integrate and apply social work knowledge, values, and skills to practice situations in a purposeful, intentional, and professional manner to promote human and community well-being." By broadening the definition of "practice" to include fund acquisition for program delivery and client services, grant writers utilize their social work skills for the betterment of the clients and communities served.

There are a number of social work core competencies that support effective grant writing.

Client-centered approach: Social workers are trained to view the impact of any service, program, or intervention from the perspective of the client. Students are taught to approach service delivery with clients from "where they are" and use a more strengths-based rather than deficit-based framework. When writing about a program for maximum effect, framing the program through its benefit to the client allows the reviewer to immediately identify what this program is designed to do at an individual level. The reviewer can then evaluate the proposed approach by its intended benefit to the program's recipient.

Content area knowledge: Social work education and training provides the foundation for understanding current social issues facing communities and the intersectionality between these issues and myriad other challenges that communities face. This foundational knowledge allows a grant writer to easily connect the community needs to the proposed intervention. The grant writer has an underlying knowledge of social service delivery techniques as well as the interplay between human behavior and the social environment. In addition, social work education teaches students how to understand the impact and delivery of best practices and developing trends in the field and how those emergent practices can be applied to service delivery for various populations. Social work training emphasizes the ability to translate research into meaningful and appropriate program design. This skill set allows the grant writer to guide and support the program development process with the direct service staff who will be implementing the program, if funded.

Academic training for proposal components: Large federal and other government grant opportunities frequently request narrative components or attachments that require skills that can be acquired in an MSW program. Literature reviews require demonstrable community need that can be conveyed through the use of local statistics and research articles. The ability to connect the stated need to the proposed intervention and demonstrate programmatic applicability is essential. Social work education strengthens a person's ability to read, understand, and interpret community information and then apply the appropriate intervention or develop innovative solutions to address social needs. Successful government grant writing is dependent upon this skill.

Federal grants require detailed work plans that distill the numerous proposed programmatic activities into a summarized format. Logic models are also frequently required. Effective grant applications are able to connect the activities of the program not just to short-term impacts but also to larger and longer-term outcomes for the client and even the community. This can be challenging when the funding period limits the timeframe for measureable outcomes. An effective logic model is able to clearly demonstrate how the program's direct impact leads to broader outcomes over time and potentially beyond the funding period. Effective grant writers are skilled at developing both of these documents. Grant writers can develop those skills through the evaluation and research classes offered by social work programs.

Nonprofit administration: MSW programs that offer an administration concentration or management courses provide students with a foundational understanding of nonprofit administration that strengthens successful communication and proposal development. Specifically, basic financial management skills support the creation of budgets that reflect proposed activities and the actual cost of the program. Knowledge of organizational theory and strategic planning bolster the development of narrative sections requiring information regarding program development and sustainability. Nonprofit administration also includes the need to inform a variety of stakeholders about the effectiveness of the program. The ability to translate programmatic and agency outcome data for multiple audiences—including federal grant reviewers, local government staff, and foundation program officers—will support the agency in "selling" its programs and maintaining or acquiring funding.

Many excellent grant writers are not social workers, and not all trained social workers have the communication or development skills to be grant writers. Support of the combination of social work training and communication skills allows for effective grant writing on behalf of those served by social work programs and services. Advanced training in social work provides the grant writer with subject area matter expertise, an understanding of program design and nonprofit management, and basic evaluation skills while ensuring a client-centered focus. As such, trained social workers who choose to become professional grant writers are using their social work training in a way that supports both their professional desires and social work ideals.

— Andrea Dakin, PhD, MA, is senior director of program development of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago.