Tips from Metis’s Chief Grants Expert: Q&A with Marilyn Zlotnik

An interview with Marilyn Zlotnik, Metis’s lead grant writer.

Marilyn Zlotnik conducting a grant writing training at the Southern Grants Forum in Atlanta, Georgia. Photo Credit: Donna Wilkens.

Marilyn Zlotnik, Vice President for Strategy, is a nationally recognized grant-writing expert. She has led efforts to secure more than $275 million in funding for Metis clients, including school districts, institutions of higher education, state education departments, and community-based organizations.

Before joining Metis in 1994, Marilyn was the first development director of the East Harlem Tutorial Program and then the grant writer for the East Harlem school district (Community School District 4) in New York City, where she began writing large government grant proposals. Marilyn helped to create the only grant writing credentialing exam, now administered by the Grant Professionals Certification Institute of the Grant Professionals Association. She was featured recently in the book Grant Writing Revealed: 25 Experts Share Their Art, Science, and Secrets by Jana Jane Hexter.

Q: When do agencies seek Metis’s help in grant writing?

A: Agencies often come to us when they have a significant funding opportunity and do not have the in-house staff to prepare the grant application. In fact, many of our grant development clients had robust in-house grant writing staffs in the past, but when budgets started to become constrained about a decade ago, and agencies had to focus their limited dollars on direct service, those were among the first jobs to go.

Even when agencies have in-house grant writers, often an outside consultant who has a very solid track record with a given grant program can make the difference in a proposal’s success. Some government requests for proposals (RFPs) have become extremely complex, like those released by the federal Magnet Schools Assistance Program and Head Start. These applications require multiple work streams that must be managed and brought to fruition in a very short amount of time. When organizations have limited capacity, and grant dollars are critical to their missions, they can’t afford to apply but need some help pulling high-quality proposals together. Metis can also provide “á la carte” services, such as constructive reviews of proposal drafts or the evaluation design component of proposed projects.

Q: Do you ever have to tell a client, “Your project just doesn’t fit the RFP?”

A: We certainly do. Even before we begin the grant proposal process, we conduct a feasibility assessment with the client to make sure that the organization is eligible to apply for the funds and that there’s a good fit between the organization’s needs and the funding opportunity—not only in terms of the organization’s capacity to complete the proposal but also its ability to carry out the project. If we feel an organization is not suited to a grant, we’ll be the first to recommend that it not invest resources in Metis’s efforts.

Q: How do you divvy up the work with your clients?

A: The process is totally collaborative. The project is always the client’s idea, but we help them flesh it out and make sure it’s exactly what the funder is looking for. Next, we create a detailed work plan, which includes a distribution of labor between Metis, the client, and partner organizations (if any). We make sure everyone is working toward the same goal, and if necessary we recalibrate assignments on a weekly or even daily basis. We often work intensively with program staff over weeks or months, helping them to attain and sustain all of the necessary buy-ins and making sure that we have the data and information to make the case.

Q: What gives a grant proposal an edge with reviewers in the funding agency?

A: Grant writing is ultimately about telling a story that is so compelling it affects the reader emotionally and sets our clients apart from others vying for the same funding. For me, the most important—and most exciting—part of telling that story is incorporating the voices of both the beneficiaries and deliverers of the grant-funded project. When we craft an education grant, for example, we need students’, teachers’, parents’, and district office staff members’ voices to be heard. This kind of detail would be difficult for most agencies to capture through in-house resources, but we’re able to tap Metis’s needs-assessment expertise to design data-collection tools and analyze the data, which helps our clients provide an ironclad argument for the proposal.

When it comes time to sit down and write, the more energy and passion we’ve absorbed from meeting with the client organization and its beneficiaries, the better the story, and the more our clients’ vision and goals come alive on the page.

Q: Has grant writing changed over the years?

A: Although the grant writing process has not changed, the demands from funders and the funding environment have changed quite a bit. Federal agencies have greatly increased their demands for accountability and for evidence of a program’s worth and impact, often requiring rigorous methods, such as randomized controlled trials. To that end, we are once again aided by Metis’s extraordinary research staff whose technical expertise is invaluable when we are asked to develop the project-evaluation components of grant proposals. In addition, the competition for funds has grown more intense in our precarious economy. Funding-agency budgets have shrunk while school systems and nonprofit organizations find themselves in greater need of support. Those factors have increased the need for high-quality grant writing.

Q: Is there a key to your grant writing success?

A: I always say that grant writing is about truth and heart. Grants need to be written very clearly and directly. A federal grant proposal has no room for flowery or fuzzy writing. But it is also about ensuring that an organization’s energy and commitment come through. That is a difficult balance to strike, and it’s one of the things I’ve learned through experience.

Q: Grant writing can be an arduous task. What keeps you going when it gets tough?

A: I am mission-driven in my work. I’m the product of two New York City high school teachers, who inspired me to find my own voice as an educator. At the start of every grant project, I have that moment of writer’s block. But then I picture what might happen as a result of our collective labors, and that helps me over the hump. I think of the first graduating class of a new high school I helped to create or of the kids who will be able to attend a Head Start program in their community that was not there before. Then I feel very fortunate to have this job and am eager to put pen to paper.