Apply for a Grant
The hardest time you will ever have applying for a federal grant is the first time. However, it does get easier with each federal grant you apply for and each of your grant applications will be better than the one previous. Before long you'll be a pro!
In order to apply for a federal grant, you will need to cover each of the following steps:
Applying for federal grants is one thing; being a federal grantee is another. Whenever you apply for a federal grant there is always the possibility you will be successful. But do you understand what it can mean to the operation of your company? Along with every federal grant award comes federal strings attached. As a federal grantee you will now have federal monitoring of the program which is receiving funding.
As an example, let's say you are a small nonprofit who provides after-school enrichment programs. You have an annual budget of $200,000 and you have 3 full-time staff and 2 part-timers. You apply for a federal grant and you are awarded $50,000 in federal funding for the next fiscal year. Wow, your budget just leapt by 25% for the next 12 months.
But let's take a closer look at what may happen to your operations as a result. In your grant application you stated you would hire another part-time staff person and the numbers of children you serve will increase by 1/3. The grant stated any federal funding could not be used to cover salaries for the current part-timers on staff, so you will need to add another staff person to the mix. The federal government likes increased numbers so they can report federal funding has resulted in more children being served. They don't really care how you continue to support your current staff. Their priority is seeing more numbers being served; if they paid for your current staff you wouldn't produce any higher numbers.
Along with an increase in your staff and the children served, you will need to have a federal audit annually which adheres to federal guidelines as now you will have to account for the use of federal money. This may cost you an extra thousand dollars or so to get an auditor who is familiar with federal audits. This is probably new territory for your bookkeeper, so you will need to ensure he/she is properly trained to monitor federal funds. This may cost you extra to send him/her to a specialized class or training. In fact, the fine print in the federal grant application may require you to have a formal written training program for all of your employees. Something you didn't have before.
You'll also have extra paperwork as the feds will require quarterly reports on the grant funds and how you've used them, how many children you served, etc. They may require an annual site visit where a team of federal consultants comes to your site and looks at your written policies, safety measures, physical building and so on.
All this for $50,000 you might ask? Not worth it. Maybe not. I've known small nonprofits who have actually returned federal monies and said 'No thank you' after being deluged with red tape and bureaucracy. But I've also known agencies who couldn't live without the federal funding they receive; who have grown their missions to serving thousands and tens of thousands more people because they partnered with the federal government, accepted federal grants into their lives, and streamlined their operations so they could thrive with federal funding.
It's your decision. But you have to make this decision before you write that grant. Are you ready for federal funding? It should be a decision made jointly with your Board of Directors.
The FederalGrants.com Federal Grant Search is a great tool for finding out what government grants are available.
Another useful online tool is Grants.gov. You can research grant opportunities, download the applications, watch a tutorial on how to fill out the application, submit the application electronically, and even track the outcome of your grant application after you submit it.
While not perfect, it is one of the best things our federal government has done to make it easier to apply for federal grants.
Understand the Requirements of the Grant Being Offered and all of the
Instructions of the Grant Application.
This is a two-part process. It is important you are clear on what the federal government is looking for in a grant recipient. Do you meet the geographic requirements? Do you have the capabilities to serve the numbers of people the feds want to be served with this grant? How much experience does your agency have in doing what the feds are willing to fund? If you don't have experience doing what the feds are funding, what other types of services have you provided which are similar?
The second part of the process is to understand all of the instructions in the grant application. Read them over and highlight any areas which are especially important. Be sure you stay within the number of pages or total word limits if there are any. Keep in mind the deadline date for the grant and whether this date is the postmark date or the date they must receive it. Follow all instructions carefully. The feds are unforgiving to grant applications which do not conform to their instructions.
Some federal grant applications can be 30-40 pages long, and that's just the application form! What works well is to get a 3-hole punch binder, punch holes in all of the pages in the application form, and put them into the binder. Then you can begin to read through the application package without getting all of the pages out of order.
You can organize the application in a way that makes sense to you and put dividers into the binder. Your dividers could be labeled: eligibility for grant, purpose of federal funding, how they want the narrative written, what attachments they are requiring, budget forms, rules for submission of grant, etc. This way you can refer to individual sections of the grant application to get your questions answered as they arise.
Will you hire a grant writer? Will you write the grant yourself? Will you and someone else in your agency divide up the writing between you? Who will do what part? Who will do the budget forms? If you are delegating some tasks to others, remember to give them a deadline date to report back to you at least a week ahead of your deadline to mail the application out to ensure you won't have to survive a last minute rush. This will also give you time to help someone else who may be lagging behind in completing their portion.
Researching and providing documentation or source material to back up any claims you make in your grant application is important. If you say there is a need for more food pantries in your community, how do you know that? How many homeless are there in your region? How many people on food stamps? Do you know how many people your local Food Bank serves monthly? What is the median income level in your area? These are all statistics which can help you to back up your claim there is a shortage of food pantries in your area compared to the number of low income residents who may be going hungry from time to time. Your grant application will be more impressive if you have strong statistical evidence than if you just have anecdotal information ("many people say", "it is obvious", "we have heard", etc.)
It is also helpful if you can produce tables, graphs or pie charts to demonstrate what you are trying to verify. It also breaks up a long narrative and makes it more interesting. Grant reviewers who have to review each of these federal grant applications welcome narratives that are made more interesting with graphics.
Make sure whoever is writing the grant narrative is an accurate typist and is skilled in English grammar and spelling. There is nothing worse than many misspelled words in a narrative or one with typos in every paragraph.
The narrative, which makes up the bulk of the application, should be written in a simple style. Don't use long words when a shorter word makes just as much sense. The font should be standard 12 pt Times New Roman. Don't use any fancy fonts which are hard to read.
Remember the grant reviewer doesn't know you, your agency or what it does. You have to assume he has never visited your part of the country. All the grant reviewer will know about you, your agency or your geographic location and need is what you tell him in your narrative. This illustrates how important the narrative is.
If you wrote the grant application, have someone else read it before you send it out. If you had another staff person write the grant, be sure to read it yourself before it goes out. Read it with a critical eye and put yourself in the reviewer's place. Does each portion of the grant app answer the questions needing to be answered?
If you have hired a grant writer to write the grant, require the grant writer to submit the grant to you at least 3-4 days before you plan to mail it or file it electronically. Even if you used a grant writer, it is still you and your agency who are responsible for what was written in the grant. Don't let your grant writer waltz into your office with the finished grant a couple of hours before the mail goes out. Give yourself time to read the grant yourself before submitting it.
There is usually a checklist in all federal grant application packages which lists everything you need to submit with the application. Go over that checklist and make sure you have everything which needs to be included. Make sure all pages are numbered correctly. Be sure to do a Table of Contents for everything enclosed.
It is always professional to do a cover letter to the funding agency on your organization's letterhead and put it on the top of the application. Keep the cover letter brief. Thank the funder for the opportunity to submit the grant, include a paragraph about the need you hope to fill with the grant money, and be sure to put the name and phone number of someone the reviewer can contact if he has questions.
Make sure you submit the correct number of copies the funder requires, plus extra in-house copies to keep at your office.
Last but not least, make sure all forms are signed and dated by your organization's CEO. Budget forms usually need to be signed by your financial officer or bookkeeper. Some federal grants require the signature of the Board President. You should have noticed this when you were reading through the instructions early on in the process. Don't get caught at the last minute running around looking for someone to sign the grant application.
Most federal agencies are not forgiving of late application submittals, so be sure you get yours out on time.
Some federal agencies will require you to file an electronic application. Most will give the agency a choice of whether to file an electronic or a paper application.
If given the choice and your agency is still pretty new at filing for federal grants, a paper application is the best choice. An old-fashioned paper application allows you to have the whole app in front of you and to visually see the process you will need to go through. It is good practice.
If you are filing an electronic application, be sure of the rules especially if you do not live in the same time zone as the funding agency. I misread an application once and thought the time deadline was 5pm local time. It was 5pm Washington DC time. My application was 6 hours late because I live in Hawaii. Lucky for me, the funder was familiar with our agency because we had received previous grants from them and they knew us. They accepted my grant and we ended up getting funded. But had we been a first-time applicant they would have rejected our application and I would have wasted my time and everybody else's who worked on this grant.
If you are mailing the application, I always think it's better to send it FedEx if you are sending it to another state. FedEx has guaranteed delivery and they will get you a signature. You can also track the progress of your shipment.
If you decide to send it by snail mail, be sure to get a mailing receipt with a time stamp and pay extra for a delivery signature. Federal agencies don't accept postal meter time stamps from machines in your office; only post office time stamps. Be sure to mail it out in enough time to arrive before the deadline.
Congratulations! You just finished a complicated job by submitting a federal grant application. Pat yourself on the back and remember to thank anybody else who helped you with it too.
How do you think you did? What did you learn? What will you do differently next time?
File a copy of the grant application away and make a note to yourself of a date to check on any results or a decision.