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Rebecca Vermillion Shawver, MPA, GPC

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What can we do to make the grant professional more appealing to young career seekers?

The older I get, the more I reflect on my choices that I have made in my life. As a young person, I thought that wanted to be a teacher. But as I got serious about earning a college degree (more than a little late by most people’s standards), I decided that I wanted to have an impact on how cities and communities are developed. I wanted to address the inequities of zoning issues, of issuing liquor licenses primarily in poor neighborhoods, and of placing half-way homes in central city neighborhoods already stressed by overwhelming poverty and broken down infrastructures and supports. In other words, I wanted to change the world.

Then the reality of being a professional woman in a typically male profession in a conservative mid-western city challenged me. In my heart, I thought that there has to be more opportunities available for me to make a difference than sitting behind a desk, pushing paperwork from department to department, and hoping that the powers that be won’t notice that the signature is a woman’s.

In short, I didn’t plan to become a grant professional – but I had been in training for years. I had been the “planning” person. I had studied statistics (and even come to love them). And I had even written proposed plans and justification statements. Mind you they weren’t for inclusion in grant applications. But all the same, they were in essence the same types of documents that grant professionals produce each day – and they had very similar purposes. Thus when the first opportunity to write a grant proposal came along I thought to myself, I can do that. So I did – and my love affair with my chosen career began.

Why aren’t recent graduates entering the grant field? I think that there are many reasons – some out of the control of current professionals, others that we can certainly address.

Reason #1 — They don’t know what we do or where we work

Simply put, the grant field is off the radar of every career counselor or career fair organizer at every high school and college I’ve ever encountered. They have social workers and event planners. They have accountants and auditors. But they never have grant developers or contract administrators.

Why? Because, our profession is never (at least I’m haven’t seen it in my nearly sixty years of like) represented at career fairs for high school or college students. How can we expect students to become excited at the possibilities that a grant professional career can offer, if they have no idea what we do or who we are?

I suggest that we as a group of well educated and trained professionals take some simple steps to change this situation. How?

We can volunteer to host a table at our community’s next career day fair. It is easy to find out when these will be offered. All we need to do is call our local high schools and community colleges. We can talk one-on-one with young people about the excitement and satisfaction that we find in knowing that our jobs positively impact people just like you, me, and them.

We can take the time to seek out students (from our own families, church, youth groups, or friends) that express an interest in variety of related career and educational fields. These could include young people with an interest in careers such as social work, health care administration, youth development, and other fields that attract people seeking to make the world a better place.

Additionally, students interested in business management should be encouraged to consider non-profit management. After all, our agencies and organizations are all businesses – we simply don’t focus on our profit margins.

And let’s not forget about those that love writing stories or dreaming of the fantasy worlds. After all, every grant that I’ve ever written is a story that I hope comes true in a better world that I dream about daily.

Reason #2 — They think that our jobs are boring

The truth be told, my job is frustrating and overwhelming at times – but never, ever is it boring! The world of non-profit grant management is exciting. No two work days are ever quite alike.

We need to express the excitement that we feel for our profession more openly and optimistically. After all, planning to spend a minimum of four years in college perfecting their academic skills looks forward to spending their work careers in a boring position.

So let’s focus on the excitement that we feel when we win that next federal grant! The joy we find in seeking the faces of our clients when they overcome yet another barrier to their educational or economic success.

Just this afternoon, I attended a closing celebration for a grant scholarship program at my college. Over several years, scholarship recipients in this program were selected based upon their financial need as well as their plans to enter high-demand, high-need fields.

As I ate my lunch and watched some of the smiling faces of past graduates and current students that have benefited from this grant program, I was moved by the comment that the young man sitting next to be made when he learned that I was the grant writer that secured the funds. He told me that his scholarship made it possible for him to improve his life. To quote him, he said, “it was like taking me and my family from the gutter to a good life.” He added that his process tech degree had enabled him to get a job at the Dow plant in our community, to buy a home, and to continue studying to improve his employment advancement in the coming years. I was in awe at the simple way that he expressed his joy and his genuine expression of gratitude for the scholarship and the opportunities that he found at our community college.

So, why wouldn’t today’s young college students find job satisfaction in our career? So I want to encourage each and everyone of us, to talk to young people about the satisfying aspects of our jobs.

Reason #3 — They think that our profession lacks the respect of management

I’ve heard this reason mentioned several times by individuals already working in the very agencies and organizations that seek to hire qualified and talented grant professionals. For me, this is perhaps the saddest reason that I’ve heard. Why? Because as the professionals in our field, we should be working diligently to promote the grant field to the level of prestige that foundation directors enjoy.

As a group, I have noticed that generally grant professionals are happy to stay in the shadows when recognition is being handed out. We aren’t typically invited to the grand openings of the buildings that we acquired grant funds to support. We aren’t included in the press conferences that announce a new and innovative program initiative being offered by our organizations. It seems that more often than not, we are often the forgotten fundraising “heroes”.

And I’m sad to admit that in the past I have been guilty of not ensuring that my office receives the recognition that it deserves from our administrators and board. But I have changed my strategies in recent years. I want the recognition – not for myself – for my professional. My grant office brings in millions of dollars of grant funds each and every year – and frankly, our annual dollar success far exceeds that achieved by the foundation office.

So now (and until the end of my grant career) I plan to shout from the rafters that my grant office is not only successful, it is a vital part of the funding team that makes everything that my college does for our students and community possible.

Why should we care?

So why should any of us care whether there are qualified and experienced grant professionals to take our places as we retire? For me the answer is simple. I have always sought to make the world a better place through my work and presence. I want to ensure that there are other dedicated and talented young people to follow in our collective footsteps.

Therefore, I plan to continue serving as a mentor to new grant professionals – and to extending my outreach to students that I believe could find a satisfying and life-altering experience as a grant professional.

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