10 tips for applying to government grants
Applying for government grants for the first time can be overwhelming.
New applicants will likely have several questions:
- Do I really need to read all of the application instructions?
- How do I know if my grant is competitive?
- How do I discern expectations?
- Is there any likelihood that I will be funded?
Below is a list of 10 tips that will help answer some of the questions above.
1. Carefully review all materials provided and follow instructions.
Government agencies often supply significant written material with a notice of funding opportunity. Although these can be dozens of pages, if you follow them carefully, it will provide very specific guidance on what to include (and, equally important, what to omit) from your proposal. Do not deviate from the guidance.
2. Review the public burden statement as a guide to the intensity of the application.
Federal notices always have a public burden statement, which is their official estimate of how long the applicant would need to complete a grant application from start to finish. This can serve as a good indicator of the level of detail that the agency expects within the grant application.
3. Many federal grant programs have overall targets for the program and priority areas for funding. Consider how your program aligns with the overall goals and select performance measures to fully capture the work of your grant.
The instructions will often include priority funding areas which can be geographical, intervention-based, population-based, or a variety of other attributes. If your project meets any of the priority funding areas, plainly state that fact within the narrative. Federal funders will often have standardized output and outcome performance metrics specific to the grant. It is critical to select the performance metrics that best capture your proposal within the options provided. Standardized performance metrics allow the funder to compare a variety of projects in the grant competition and later allow for cumulative reporting to congress. When selecting your goals, it is important that they are both attainable and ambitious. If the grant program does not have clearly stated goals, review the agency website to find strategic plans, and other initiatives, to find connection points with your grant proposal.
4. Make sure your intervention is evidence-based and in a clearinghouse.
Evidence-based and evidence-informed practices are becoming standard requirements across grant funds. This ensures that public funds are being put to good use. Be sure to review the federal clearinghouses, which contain reports about programs that have undergone a rigorous external evaluation. The evaluation process is in place to ensure that the intervention is truly responsible for the outcomes of the project. If you intend to replicate a program, be explicit about the ways in which your program will exactly mirror the original.
5. Read publicly available information about previously funded projects.
Especially if you are applying to a grant program for the first time, determine what other projects have been funded in the past. This information is generally publicly available due to fiscal transparency laws. You may find a list of funded entities and potentially the dollar amount in one location and a programmatic explanation in another location. The information is often fragmented but can be discerned with persistent searching. Once you find previously funded programs, review summaries and find a project similar to yours. Try to connect with the project lead to learn more about the grant program and gain insight regarding the application process.
6. Focus on attributes distinct to your community and intervention.
Be as specific as possible when citing studies with indicators about your community. If a funder has four applications from the same state, citing state-level data proves irrelevant as a distinguishing factor. However, if one application also has municipal data for their municipal grant, they can tell a more compelling story. Similarly, if you are applying for a grant for rural populations, it is not enough to say that rural America faces unique challenges, because that will be true for everyone in the application pool. Ensure the data provided explains why the funding would make the biggest impact in your community. Consider the fact that grant reviewers will be looking for ways to rank the applications and providing the most specific data can help put your application at the top of the list.
7. Compare budget and narrative to ensure that both tell the same story.
Often the budget and the narrative sections of a grant proposal are written by two separate teams and provide two unique accounts of how the grant will function. For example, the narrative section may describe river cleanup interventions, but if the budget section doesn’t have any items that correspond with cleanup activities, reviewers will have questions. While it is important to take a risk-based approach to building a budget, it is also critical to ensure key functions of the grant are represented within the budgeted line items. Alternatively, if a staff person is included in the budget but not mentioned as key personnel, that will raise red flags.
8. Have someone unfamiliar to your work proofread a draft.
Grant applications can often be a long and arduous process. By the time an entity is ready to submit, they’ve gone through several drafts and know exactly what they intend for the grant to communicate. However, it is critical for someone completely unfamiliar with the initiative to read the application. Grant reviewers are often people outside of the specific scope of work to ensure there are no conflicts of interest.
Typically, those involved with writing the grant are subject matter experts. When one is deeply immersed in a subject, it is easy to perceive aspects of the work as common knowledge when in fact, it is learned and may be unknown to many. Similarly, the applicant may have done their best to avoid jargon and to explain acronyms but may have missed some terms specific to their expertise. Someone unfamiliar to the work will be able to spot this immediately.
Additionally, a grant program is always looking for a story to share with the public. While your grant application will have technical aspects, it is important to fully articulate why your proposal is a good use of public funds. The grant should clearly articulate the impact the grant will have on the community and the longevity of those impacts. When done well, the reader should feel compelled to select your project. After reading your proposal, ask yourself: Is this something I would want my tax money going to?
9. Ensure clarity when crafting your Theory of Change.
Many grants require a theory of change, which requires applicants to fully explain the problem, intervention, and results in a simple, bulleted form. This is often the first place that reviewers will go when reviewing the application because it is essentially a one-page summary. The information presented should be logical and easy to follow. One should be able to get from A to B to C to D without any additional information or assumptions on the part of the reader.
10. Avoid disqualifications.
Many applications are not read at all/are disqualified due to not following instructions (page limits, supporting documentation, submission deadline, etc.). Technical problems should be anticipated and generally do not qualify as extenuating circumstances to warrant an exception. Page limits (and the specific way they are calculated within a portal/platform) are among the top reasons applications are eliminated. If you are unsure, err on the side of caution. If you experience any trouble, communicate early and often with the appropriate entity’s help desk, and keep a record of your communications.
Although these tips will help make your application more competitive, they do not guarantee funding. If you are unsuccessful with an application, request feedback from the reviewers or, if you’ve connected with project leads on a currently funded grant, they may be willing to provide feedback. Funding availability will ebb and flow depending on the timing of grant cycles. Many grants will provide a two-to-five-year grant ensuring applicants that, once funded, they will have guaranteed funding without the burden of the application process for a designated number of years. If you are not successful one year, you should apply the following year. The same exact application may be passed over one year and funded the next due to available funding. Be persistent in your grant funding pursuits as they can create opportunities to accomplish much for your community!
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