Wisdom Wednesdays: Understanding the Difference Between Grants and Proposals

by Jeanie Lovell, CFRE

The start of a new year is often a time for resolutions.  After observing the increasing use of the misnomer “grant writing” in recent years (by fundraisers and funders alike), I decided that part of my New Year’s resolution is to help educate people far and wide about the difference between grants and proposals.  (Hopefully by the time you finish reading this blog post you’ll be so inspired that using the terms correctly will be part of your resolutions as well!)  ALDE’s Wisdom Wednesdays seemed like a great place to make good on the resolution (especially since Soapbox Saturdays haven’t been implemented yet).

Shortly after I began my development career in January 1993, I had the opportunity to attend a two-day course at The Fund Raising School at Indiana University called, “Proposal Writing: The Psychology and the Process,” led by Wendell McBurney and Lilya Wagner.  To set the stage for our coursework, they adamantly proclaimed the following (which has become my professional mantra):

Proposal writers submit proposals and receive grants.  Funding sources give (or do not give) grants.  Proposal writers do not “write grants,” although this incorrect terminology is widely used.  Proposals are written.  Grants are received or not received.  Proposals precede grants, and proposals produce grants.  The applicants control proposals. Someone else controls grants.  This, therefore, is a course in proposal writing, not “grant writing.”


Jeanie Lovell and Gene Meyer reconnect at the 2012 International Educational Conference in Minneapolis.

Knowing the difference between grants and proposals became a defining moment in my understanding of my new job.  Plus it just made so much sense as they described it.  The grant is the money, and the proposal is the document you submit to request the money.  The proposal comes first, and (fingers crossed) the grant funding follows.

During the 2009 ALDE International Educational Conference in Austin, as I was wandering through the Resource Partner exhibit area (probably looking for some chocolate and visiting with folks between sessions), Gene Meyer of Gronlund Sayther Brunkow looked at the title on my name badge (Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations) and inquired in a rather coy tone, “So, what do you write?”  When I responded by saying, “Proposals,” he practically hugged me while bemoaning the fact that so many people now talk about “writing grants” instead of proposals.  We bonded over the proper usage of proposals versus grants — now united in this uphill battle of helping the world understand why grants and proposals are two very different things.

My Luther colleagues love to tease me about the term “grant writing” (because they know it really gets under my skin), so if they come across references to the misnomer, they are always quick to share.  (For example, did you know, according to LinkedIn, 72,839 people list “grant writing” as a skill they possess?  Alas …72,839 more people to convert …)

From my perspective, as professionals, we increase our credibility within the field of fund development when we use correct terminology.  I invite you to join me in using the terms “grant seeking” and “proposal writing.”  Together, we can help rid the world of the term “grant writing” … or at least reserve the “grant writing” for the funders with the charitable checkbooks.

Jeanie Lovell, CFRE, is Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, where she has been writing proposals and seeking grants for 19 years.  Jeanie will be one of the master class speakers at the 2013 ALDE International Educational Conference in Indianapolis next February 8-11.


6 thoughts on “Wisdom Wednesdays: Understanding the Difference Between Grants and Proposals

  1. Thanks for boldly and unabashedly defining terms. Being new to development, it is helpful to have a handle on at least this much of the jargon. Now, about the acronyms…

  2. I know this is a skillion years old but THANK YOU! I actually Googled this to make sure I wasn’t crazy. Now that I have confirmed that I am not, I’m going to print this out and leave it on my boss’ desk as they are preparing a job description for a “grant writer”.

  3. I came across your post because my employer wants to change my title from Grant Writer to Proposal writer and I’m making the argument that that doesn’t make sense. Because, as you point out in your post, “grant writing” is far more common in popular usage.

    If 72k+ people (and the places they work and their networks, etc.) say “grant writing” means to write proposals for grants, then the usage kind of defines the meaning, doesn’t it? There are far more job titles for Grant Writer than Proposal Writer and from my perspective, proposal writing could be any kind of proposal – a business proposal,a manuscript proposal, etc. So that’s not a super clear title.

    Conversely, everyone knows that grant writers write proposals for grants. It’s just a convenient way of shortening Grant Proposal Writer. I think getting hung up on this is a bit like the people who still insist it’s “more than” rather than “over” for referring to a countable/finite number of things. Or people who get hug up on the fact that decimate means to “reduce by one tenth” rather than just accepting that people now use it to mean to destroy. Sure, yes, the people with the title Grant Writer aren’t writing grants. They are writing proposals for grants. But if the vast majority of people who write grant proposals are called grant writers, then that is what employers accept that title to mean. I don’t want to paint myself into a corner with a title that is less meaningful to the general public.

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