Welcome to the Compassion Captital fund e-learning lesson on Acquiring Public Grants. With so many available funding opportunities, the process of seeking and acquiring funding can seem confusing and overwhelming. However, assistance is available to help organizations navigate the process successfully. At the end of this lesson you will be able to: access and use grant research tools, identify relevant Federal programs and grant opportunities, identify the elements of a Federal grant proposal, explain the Federal grant solicitation and award process, and explain how grant proposals are evaluated.
Grants.gov is the premier site for up-to-date news on funding announcements.
Established in 2003, Grants.gov maintains a searchable database of grant opportunities from 26 contributing agencies, offers regular emails regarding available funds, maintains an online submission system for participating agencies’ grant opportunities, and provides a number of training tools and informational resources about the grant application process. Today, Grants.gov is a central repository for information on more than 1,000 grant programs that distribute nearly $500 billion annually.
Deciding what type of funding is right for you depends on your organization’s individual circumstances.
If you are just starting out, seeking funds from state or local sources may be the best choice. It may be easier to get needed technical assistance from local program staff familiar with your organization and community. On the other hand, if you believe that your organization has the capacity, staff, skills, and support necessary to seek funding from the Federal government, then take the time to fully prepare for the process. Whatever source you decide to pursue, research is important.
CHAPTER 1: Assessing Your Readiness to Apply for Funding
Federal funding announcements will indicate what type of organization is eligible to apply and indicate eligibility requirements. Before applying for funds, many organizations will seek to acquire designation as a nonprofit organization in the state where they operate. This requires applying for 501(c) (3) not-for-profit status from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). This is the Federal tax code designation for nonprofit, charitable organizations that seek donations or grant funding. Articles of Incorporation, bylaws, and a functioning board of directors are typically required in order to successfully complete these steps. Receiving status as a nonprofit organization makes you eligible to receive grant funding from both public and private sources. Each state has its own requirements for incorporation and nonprofit designations. Contact your Secretary of State’s office to learn how to complete the process.
Each Federal agency and program has its own eligibility requirements.
It is a good idea to identify the agencies that fund the type of work you are interested in and learn as much as possible about their programs and the types of organizations they fund. Access their websites, research their programs, and monitor their press releases, notices, program announcements, and request for proposals (RFP) or request for applications (RFA). Federal, state, and local agencies also often offer technical assistance workshop opportunities to talk to program staff directly. At these workshops, funding agencies generally offer information about eligibility, program goals and objectives, administrative requirements, and compliance. Attending a technical assistance workshop can be a critical step in preparing your organization to apply for assistance. Announcements of workshops are included in grant notices, press releases, newspaper advertisements, and RFPs. If a technical assistance workshop is offered for a grant program you are interested in, attend if possible, or at least request the workshop materials so that you can review them.
Assess your goals and motivations for seeking Federal funding.
The first question you must ask is whether or not the program funding is consistent with your organization’s mission and goals. Are you seeking funding to carry out your mission? Or are you simply motivated by the availability of the funding? It is very difficult to make a convincing case that an agency should fund your program if you have not had a previous commitment to the program area. Undertaking a program that is inconsistent with your mission could harm your organization by distracting it from its primary work. Discuss your interest in public funding with key stakeholders, including board members, staff, clients, other organizations doing similar work, and existing funders. All parties should be committed to the decision to seek funding since you will need their support for your application.
Assess the need for your services.
Make sure that you have thoroughly researched the need for the program in your community. A good resource for demographic data about target populations is the U.S. Census Bureau website, www.census.gov. Contact state and local government departments and agencies that administer programs for your target population to help you determine whether there are unmet needs in your geographic and program area of interest. You should also contact others who are providing services similar to those you propose, or who serve the same population you want to work with to learn more about service needs. Building relationships with these other service providers will prove helpful as you develop partnerships to support the grant seeking process.
All proposals must include a statement of the problem or an assessment of the need for the proposed program, documented and supported by statistical data. If the program you are considering is already being done locally, it may be difficult to justify your program to funders unless you can document the need for another program and distinguish your program from others and indicate how it will be different and more effective.
Have a clear understanding of what your program intends to do.
Funding proposals must clearly set out the needs of the population to be served, the program goals, a means to accomplish them (program activities), and how progress or program impact (outcomes) will be measured. You must be able to logically explain what your program will do in terms of activities and outcomes. Activities are the actions that will be taken. Outcomes are the changes that will take place as a result of program activities. It may help to develop a logic model that graphically lays out your organization’s activities and outcomes. When applying for Federal funds, you must understand and clearly articulate how you will evaluate/measure your program outcomes and explain how the proposed measures relate to your activities.
CHAPTER 2: Grant Acquisition Process
Once you’ve identified which agencies serve your client population and share an interest in the problem you want to address, then you are ready to begin searching for specific funding opportunities. All Federal grant opportunities must be announced to the public through the Federal Register. Many of these grants opportunities will also be featured on Grants.gov. The grant announcements will contain information about who is eligible, how to apply, the grant requirements, the proposal content requirements, due dates, and how to contact the agency for additional information.
Examine the grant announcement and note the elements you will be responsible for.
Though different agencies and programs have different grant announcement and solicitation formats, many typically include at least the following elements:
- Agency name - identifies the department, agency, and program putting out the notice and the purpose of the notice
- CFDA number - the identifying number in the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance
- Summary - gives an overview of the program and services being sought by the solicitation
- Dates - identifies the deadline for submitting an application (response to the notice) and describes the methods of submitting the application
- Instructions for submittal – identifies the process for submittal and delivery of application
- Supplementary Information - including background, eligibility, evaluation criteria, and deliverable requirements.
Research the funding agency’s grant making history.
It may also be helpful to research the funding agency’s grant history to help you understand the agency’s interests and what kinds of programs and which organizations have been funded in the past. This kind of information may be listed in “Announcements of Grants Awarded” available on Federal agency websites. While it may take some time to work through the process, you may be able to request copies of successful proposals from the program officer under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). All Federal agencies are required under the FOIA to disclose records, with some exceptions, that are requested in writing by any person. More information on the FOIA is available at http://www.usdoj.gov/04foia/. Each agency has a point of contact responsible for responding to such requests. The FOIA points of contact can be found at their respective agencies’ websites.
Make the decision to apply.
Once you have identified the community needs and determined your eligibility for funds that are applicable to address the needs, you should secure the commitments of your key stakeholders such as board members, contributors, volunteers, advisors, clients and staff, potential partners, and community supporters. Consider the following key issues before making the commitment to proceed with the grant proposal:
- Staff Capacity to Complete the Application
Successful grant writing is a time- and labor-intensive job. If you are new to grant writing, consider attending a workshop or taking a grant writing class, often offered through local community colleges and other organizations. The Grantsmanship Center offers online grant writing assistance to organizations and conducts classes in communities across the country. Online resources are available at http://www.tgci.com/.
- Hiring a Consultant
Hiring someone outside of your organization may be a good choice if you or your staff members lack the time, experience, or expertise to produce a well-researched and well-written proposal. Contracting with a consultant may be a better, less expensive option than trying to hire a new staff person to prepare the application. The right consultant can enable your organization to seek more funding from a wider variety of sources and free your staff to continue to carry out their regular duties. Also, a consultant who is new to the organization can provide a valuable, objective viewpoint.
- A Team Approach
If you do not hire a consultant, it is generally best not to have one individual complete the application process alone. Having one person do everything—planning, writing, reviewing, and editing—may result in a one-dimensional proposal. There may be gaps in the proposal that a single set of eyes cannot see. Also disconnect between the proposal writer and those responsible for implementing the program can lead to later conflicts. Therefore, it is generally best to have a team work with a writer/editor on the proposal. Your team should include your organization’s top-level staff, those responsible for implementation, any organizations who will serve as partners in delivering the program, the person responsible for evaluation, and the individual(s) responsible for developing the budget.
CHAPTER 3: Planning Your Proposal
Instructions for requesting the application package will be included in the program announcement, RFP, or RFA. The application package will contain the detailed information necessary to write the proposal and provide the basis for your planning. If no application package is specifically offered, the RFP or RFA itself will provide very detailed instructions for your application. It is important to develop a central program idea or approach for your proposal. Creating a brief proposal abstract or concept paper to organize your thoughts can be helpful. Explain how your program will create the result the funding agency seeks, and how you will measure success. This will become your proposal mission statement.
Plan each step of your proposal far in advance.
Usually a very short time period exists between the date that the grant program is announced and the deadline for submittal (typically 45 days). It is difficult for inexperienced applicants to make an organizational assessment and put together a quality application in this short time period. This is one of the reasons that it is a good idea to monitor grant sources regularly—the earlier you learn about the availability of grant funding, the better prepared you can be.
Keep in mind that the grant cycle is an annual process.
Many of the grant announcements are made in the spring or summer following the Federal budget approval process in the fall. You may want to use one year's grant application cycle as a “dry run” for the next year’s grant competition. In that case, request an application package (even if the deadline has passed) to become familiar with the process and requirements. However, be aware that grant solicitations can change significantly from year to year.
CHAPTER 4: How to Write the Proposal
Before you start writing, consider what Federal grant reviewers are instructed to look for regarding successful proposals. Reviewers are comparing your application to the RFP or RFA requirements. Organize your application to match the order of the requirements as they are listed in the RFP or RFA. This will make it easier for the reviewers to understand your proposal. In addition, everything included in the proposal must have gotten its cue from a request present in the RFP or the RFA.
Most funders, public or private, look for the same basic elements in proposals.
These basic elements include:
- Executive Summary. This may be the most important part of the proposal since it is the first page that reviewers see. It is a snapshot of what is to follow, summarizing all of the key information contained in the proposal.
- Introduction of the Organization. This section should describe your mission, history, track record, and successes, and confirm that your organization’s goals and capacity are consistent with the goals the funding agency is seeking to meet.
- Statement of the Problem/Needs Assessment. This section should describe the problem or specific needs you plan to address within your community. Needs must be documented with statistical and other evidence and linked to the program strategies you propose and relate to the state or national priorities of the grant program.
- Goals and Objectives. Goals are statements that express the change you will produce through your program. Objectives are statements that define how many, who, how much or by what measure, and over what period of time the change will take place.
- Program Design and Methods. The methods section describes the specific activities that will take place to achieve the objectives, and enables the reader to visualize the implementation of the project. It should convince the reader that your agency knows what it is doing and further establish its credibility.
- Project Management. Describe your organization’s ability to conduct the program and manage it administratively, as well as any information about your experience with similar projects. Cite the qualifications and experience of key staff and consultants as well as the level of effort to be devoted to the grant. Be prepared to attach job descriptions and resumes of key staff.
- Evaluation. Review the RFP requirements carefully and use these as a foundation to design your evaluation plan. There are two types of formal evaluation: one measures program outcomes, and the other analyzes the process; either or both might be required for your project.
- Future Funding. Sometimes called “sustainability,” this part of the proposal focuses on what will happen to the program after funding ends. Explain what parts of the program will end and those you will sustain through other funding sources. Identify other sources of potential support or ways to generate revenue to support the activities.
Create a budget and a budget narrative that adhere to the RFP or RFA requirements.
The budget consists of two parts—the line item budget and the budget narrative. The proposal must demonstrate a clear and strong relationship between the stated objectives, project activities, and budget. The RFP or RFA will describe allowable cost categories for the program budget.
The line item budget describes the specific categories of program funding (including matching funds, if applicable), expenses, and their amounts. It also requires both public and non-public sources to be delineated.
You will need to complete Standard Form 424A-Budget Information (available at http://www.grants.gov/agencies/aapproved_standard_forms.jsp). This is the standard, two-page Federal budget form for non-construction projects. Its purpose is to summarize and describe the requested financial assistance. Other forms may be required by the agency and by government-wide rules.
The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Circular A-122 addresses issues of costs and budgeting for Federal grants to nonprofit organizations, and is available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/circulars_a122_2004/. Understanding the cost principles and allowable costs for grant programs is critical to creating a budget that can be approved. Just be sure the requested budget amount is within the allowable range of the grant amounts described in the RFP.
CHAPTER 5: Submittal Process
Agencies will provide guidance as to how proposals are to be packaged, the number of copies to be provided, and other details in the RFP or RFA. Allow plenty of time to package the grant application—at least a half-day—since you must be sure that every detail is complete. Work with your team to ensure that you have followed the required format and provided complete responses to the questions and criteria in the RFP or RFA. And always double check, using your outline and application work plan, to make sure nothing has been missed.
Use a checklist to double check that the proposal contains all of the required elements.
Many of the required forms will have to be inserted into your narrative or other sections. Take care that these items are in the right place and numbered appropriately. Create your table of contents after you have completed and checked your page numbering for the entire package.
RFPs and RFAs may contain checklists for complete applications—use them to be certain that you have included everything and to ensure that you have not exceeded the maximum page requirement for your proposal and attachments. Remember, deadlines are not negotiable, so anticipate delays in your schedule and plan for technical and other difficulties.
Allow a 72-hour buffer prior to the deadline when submitting your proposal on Grants.gov.
Once an organization is registered, they can use Grants.gov to submit their application. Like the registration process, the application process can sometimes involve delays, and it is recommended that organizations submit their applications at least 72 hours in advance of the application due date. Once you have submitted your application, you will receive notification that you have successfully uploaded your application and a confirmation screen will appear highlighting a tracking number and time/date stamp. Be sure to keep the tracking number on file in case you run into any issues and need to contact Grants.gov for technical support.
CHAPTER 6: Getting Funded
The grant announcement, RFP, or RFA, may include information about the timeframes for grant review and announcement. This information may or may not be provided, depending on the agency or program. If it is provided, it is usually stated in general terms. The grant review and notice of award process is very difficult to predict with accuracy. Therefore, organizations should not depend on grant funding to be available by a specific time.
Use your tracking number to check the status of your application.
When submitting an application using Grants.gov, you can easily use your tracking number to learn the status of your application using the “Track my Application” page found at https://apply07.grants.gov/apply/checkApplStatus.faces. To learn more about potential statuses you might encounter after submitting your proposal, access Grant.gov’s guide Tracking your Grant Application Package: What to Expect After Submission at http://www07.grants.gov/assets/TrackingYourApplicationPackage.pdf.
If not notified by email, notice of grant awards are often provided in writing to the grant recipients, and recipients are listed in Federal agency announcements and on their websites.
Follow up with the grant provider if you are not funded.
If your proposal is not funded, try to find out why you did not receive funding and how you could improve a future application. The program officer from the funding announcement can probably provide you with information about your application, or at least tell you who to contact to get additional feedback about your proposal. In some cases, written comments on your proposal may be available. Again, you may also be able to get copies of successful proposals to guide future efforts.
You should now have a better understanding of how to identify relevant public programs and grant opportunities, as well as how to write quality grant proposals that lead to increased resources available to you, and improved outcomes for your clients. Thank you for taking the time to learn about Acquiring Public Grants.
Submitting a quality grant proposal requires careful preparation and implementation.
You should always be researching and monitoring grant programs and funding cycles and becoming increasingly familiar with grant requirements and processes. As you research grant opportunities, consider the need for your proposed program and clarify your motivations for seeking funding. Once you identify a potential grant opportunity, further develop your program concept and make sure you’ve found the appropriate grant resource to help you meet the needs or population you have decided to address. As you begin the writing process, determine your organization’s capacity to prepare an application and manage the program you propose. This often means securing the support of key stakeholders and potential partners like board members, donors, staff, volunteers, and client groups. And once the writing begins, use the team approach to grant writing. Finally, follow instructions to the letter and adhere to deadlines. Bringing your new initiatives to fruition requires great grant writing skills. Always look for new ways to improve your ability to create proposals – even if that means finding out why one proposal ended unsuccessfully.
Take a moment to check out these additional resources.
American Association for Grant Professionals (AAGP) http://grantprofessionals.org
AAGP is a good resource to reference when hiring a consultant to assist with grant writing. AAGP maintains a code of ethics, regional chapters, a regular e-newsletter, and a journal.
Grants.gov is currently considered the premier site for news on Federal funding and electronic filing. Grants.gov also maintains a number of resources for organizations that want to register and use the online system including guides on how to register, submit, and track applications; animated tutorials on determining eligibility, registering, and completing online applications; checklists to help you through the online registration process; and detailed logs of frequently asked questions and troubleshooting tips. Access all the applicant resources at http://www.grants.gov/applicants/resources.jsp.
The Foundation Center's Proposal Writing Short Course http://fdncenter.org/learn/shortcourse/prop1.html
This two-part course provides the basic components of a proposal and considers important elements such as budget, expenses, administration, and the research process involved in writing a proposal.
A Guide to Proposal Planning and Writing https://www.msu.edu/course/prr/371/GRANTS/proposalwriting3.htm
Guidelines and tips on planning and writing a grant proposal written by Jeremy T. and Lynn E. Miner.
The Code of Federal Regulations (CFR)
The CFR is the codification of the general and permanent rules published in the Federal Register by the executive departments and agencies of the Federal government. Access the CFR at http://www.gpoaccess.gov/cfr/index.html to find key rules and regulations governing grant programs. See Appendix C of the CFR to learn about funding and initiatives that may be of interest to nonprofits and community-based organizations. Access Appendix C at http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=2009_government_manual&docid=217558id_xxx-3.pdf.
The Office of Management and Budget (OMB)
OMB issues circulars that govern government-wide standards and requirements for programs. A listing of these circulars may be accessed at http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/circulars/.
Standard SF 424 Forms
At least two standard forms are required for all Federal grant programs, SF 424 – Application for Federal Assistance, and/or SF 424-A – Budget Information-Non-construction programs. Some agencies may use variations of these forms. These forms may be accessed at http://www.grants.gov/agencies/aapproved_standard_forms.jsp