Organizations and nonprofits spend a majority of their grant development operations focusing on private rather than government funders. This is for good reason, as government grants, especially federal grants, are extremely competitive and rather complicated. However, there are instances where organizations might benefit from investing in such an undertaking. State and local grants are often less involved and might be more suitable for a smaller organization. Employing specific strategies discussed in this article will help you locate government grants and determine whether you qualify for them.
Federal Funding and Grants.gov
Since 2015, the federal government has awarded over $600 billion in grants annually, with that number nearing $800 billion for fiscal year 2020. All federal government grants are posted onto a single website, grants.gov. These grants are administered by 26 federal grant-making agencies; some notable examples include the Department of Education, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Department of Health & Human Services.
Before beginning a lengthy federal grant search, it is important to understand whether your organization is a good candidate, especially since these proposals are incredibly intricate. Most federal proposals will require not just an airtight budget demonstrating effective use of the funding but also a history of handling such large-scale projects. If your organization does not have the history nor the infrastructure to implement a program or project of such size, you will not be able to win a federal grant award.
Federal Grant Infrastructure Checklist
Assessing the following aspects of your operation will help determine whether applying for a federal grant might be feasible for your organization:
- Accounting system. Can you create a distinct account for each grant award to properly track grant income and expenditures? Can you establish procedures within your system to carry out budget monitoring functions and facilitate budget reporting functions?
- Procurement. Do you have a sufficiently robust purchasing department to handle all aspects of the procurement process for equipment, supplies, contracts, etc. required for project implementation?
- Grants compliance. Do you have personnel with relevant experience to establish and maintain the necessary processes to monitor compliance with applicable federal regulations, as specified in the grant award document?
- Grants management. Does the person identified to lead the grant project have federal grant management experience, including the areas of tracking, reporting, and evaluation of federally-funded projects?
If your organization has the proper infrastructure in place, you may decide to apply for a federal grant. Visit grants.gov to search for potential grant opportunities for your organization.
Before beginning your search, revisit the list of grant-making agencies and determine which one aligns most closely with your organization. For example, if your nonprofit works solely with students, then it would be prudent to visit the Department of Education’s website. Agency websites will have information on their grant opportunities and will sometimes include links to their current grant solicitation notices or RFAs (Request for Application). Careful analysis of these documents will help determine your organization’s eligibility. Note that federal grant announcements may not all be referred to as a ‘Request for Application,’ but their function remains the same. (Example announcements: DOE, EPA, NIH.)
Items Commonly Included in a Federal RFA
- Cover letter
- Program description
- Evaluation criteria
- Definitions of terms used in the RFA
- Government performance measures that must be addressed
- Instructions for completing the application
- Grants.gov submission procedures
- Description of the intergovernmental review process
Each RFA will differ in terms of content, so it is of utmost importance to read the entire document, typically more than once. Since the documents tend to be lengthy, it is wise to begin with the cover letter or specific instructions for the applicant and then focus on the program description and the evaluation criteria. If it is not a fit, move on.
While each federal agency has its own website and distinct grant information sections, it is still easy to waste time perusing them, never finding an exact grant opportunity that makes sense for your organization. So while visiting an agency’s website might yield some helpful results, don’t spend more than 30 minutes on any specific site, and instead move to a well-crafted search on the grants.gov platform. To maximize your search and find the best opportunities on grants.gov, the platform allows keyword searches. Analyzing your organization will help to create a succinct keyword list.
Questions to Ask Yourself to Form a Search Keyword List
- Where does my organization operate?
- What categorical term(s) best describe(s) my organization?
- What problem/issue will my organization address?
- What type of service does my organization provide?
- Which audience does my organization serve?
By answering these simple questions and reducing your responses to a single term or two, you will have a list of useful keywords that can be entered into the search field of grants.gov. Try various combinations as well as each keyword by itself, to yield different potential results. The platform offers its own search tips as well. Clicking on the opportunity number will display a page of all the relevant information pertaining to that specific grant.
Take note of deadlines and eligibility requirements, in addition to the grant description, to determine whether it could be a potential funding possibility for your organization.
Grants play a key role in federal agencies achieving their goals and are a large percentage of agency budgets. Therefore, if it’s appropriate for your organization, take some time to explore grants.gov and search using your relevant keywords. However, be cognizant of the specific obligations and strict government oversight that come with any federal grant.
State and Local Funding and the Phone Call Strategy
State funding, similar to federal, is usually connected with and administered by different agencies. Each state varies, but finding grants online can be difficult, as there is usually not a single platform where funding opportunities are consolidated. For that reason, it is usually best to also integrate a direct phone call method into your research strategy.
Every state has a governmental website that may have a section devoted to grant opportunities. When searching through various state resources (here’s a tool I’ve created that you can use), explore the websites belonging to your state’s governor, senators, attorney general, and appropriate department(s) within the state to see if any of them has grant opportunities posted. Similar to federal websites, it is easy to waste time aimlessly searching without ever yielding any tangible results. For this reason, a brief phone call to the office of your elected officials, introducing your organization to a staff member, and asking about potential grant opportunities can sometimes more effectively point you to viable funding. Whoever is best equipped to speak on behalf of the organization and its current and future endeavors should handle these calls. Before reaching out, it is wise to compile relevant notes and organizational information to touch on during the phone call.
Information to Have Available Prior to Communicating with a Funder
- Mission of your organization
- Recent history and accomplishments
- Audience served
- Key points about forthcoming projects
A 4-5 sentence introductory paragraph with the above information can serve as useful phone call notes, regardless of with whom you speak. Keep the phone call brief and focus on learning which agencies or departments have current grant opportunities that align with your own organization.
The strategies described above for identifying potential state grant opportunities are also applicable for uncovering possible county or city grants. Typically, such grants are extremely limited, if they exist at all. The websites for your county and city would be a good place to start. Don’t be afraid to also employ the phone call method for county and city government offices, asking if they know of any potential funding opportunities.
Learning how to search for grants is the start to a successful grant development process. Exploring potential government options, at the federal, state, and local level, is an important part of any fundraising strategy. These funding sources can be difficult to find and even more difficult to qualify for, but it is important to understand the role they play within the larger funding landscape. The grant search process can seem overwhelming, but doing a little bit of prep work and a lot of research can help simplify it. Implementing smart research tactics, such as using strategic keyword web searches and being persistent in making phone calls, will get you closer to the funding that is right for your organization.
Maddie Zeigler M.Ed., founder of Grantli, an online education platform for the grant development process, has been in the nonprofit world for nearly 30 years first as a program developer and now as a professional grant writer, to date securing well over $80 million dollars in grants on behalf of her clients. Her career began at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science. While there, she studied grant development through the Grantsmanship Center and served as the museum’s in-house grant writer for over a decade. She went on to start her own grant writing consulting business. A veteran writer of local, state, federal and foundation grant proposals, Maddie has developed a unique approach for designing viable programs and for writing compelling narratives. She is also a charter member of the American Association of Grant Professionals. A Puerto Rico native, she currently resides in Albuquerque, NM.
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