Ahhhh, federal grants.
Those 6- and 7-figure grant opportunities can make your heart race just thinking about all the things your organization can accomplish with that money.
But before you rush into writing a federal grant (and definitely before you pay someone else to write it for you!), take the time to determine if the grant is a good fit for your organization. Reading through a 100+ page federal funding opportunity announcement (FOA) will take some time, but it’s nothing compared to the time you’ll waste if you apply for a federal grant that’s a bad fit.
Fortunately, there are some tricks you can use to quickly determine if a federal grant is a good fit. By looking for the key criteria below, you can quickly pre-screen grants and stop wasting time reading through all those pages.
Here are some of the important criteria (in order!) to look for:
Eligibility requirements are listed in the synopsis section of the application announcement on the Grants.gov website. If you have a copy of the full FOA, you’ll typically find eligibility details on the first full page of the document. Federal grant eligibility is most often based on organization type (e.g., 501(c)(3), small business, etc.), so it should be easy to determine if your organization is eligible. Any other eligibility requirements should also be clearly outlined at the beginning of the FOA but just in case, do a keyword search for “eligib” (yes, without the ending). If your organization isn’t eligible, don’t bother to review the rest of the application.
When the federal government releases a funding opportunity, it typically aligns with a government agency’s priorities. You can determine what the funding priorities are by reviewing some of the first sections of the FOA, which may be titled “Executive Summary”, “Funding Overview/Description”, or something similar. To determine if your organization is a good fit based on the funding priorities, think about the work you do every day. Does your work align with the funding priorities? And can you successfully accomplish all the priorities the funding agency has for the grant period?
A match is the amount of funds that your organization must contribute to complete all the activities you propose. For example, if there’s a match requirement of 25%, that means if you ask for $100,000 then you must chip in $25,000 in non-federal funds. Some grant opportunities allow you to meet part or all of your match with volunteer hours and/or other in-kind support, but some grants require the entire match to be in cash.
Match requirements are found in the synopsis section of the application announcement on the Grants.gov website, and typically on the first full page of the FOA. The grant match is one of the most important considerations when you’re thinking about applying to a grant. A match can create significant costs for your organization, so make sure you can meet all the financial requirements. Although it seems counterintuitive, it can be a bad financial decision to pursue and receive a large federal grant.
There are lots of different requirements for every federal funder and grant and you should make sure your organization can meet ALL of them before you apply. Some requirements may be in the eligibility section, but you’ll have to dig into the FOA a bit more to find all of them. To quickly find the requirements, do a keyword search for “require” and “must”.
Pulling together a winning federal grant proposal is no small feat. It takes lots of uninterrupted time and information and documents from key staff and partners. Not to mention the multiple steps involved in the registration process, some of which can take over a month! Be realistic about your organization’s capacity to pull together a quality proposal before you commit to it.
Number of awards
Once you’ve made it this far, you should feel confident that you can meet all the grant requirements. So now it’s time to start thinking strategically. Federal grants can take well over 100 hours to complete, so you don’t want to waste your time applying to a grant that your organization is unlikely to receive.
The first criterion to consider when you’re thinking strategically is the number of awards. This detail can be found in the synopsis section of the application announcement on the Grants.gov website and typically on the first full page of the FOA. There isn’t a magic number here, so you’ll have to consider other factors beyond just the number. For example, if the funding agency is awarding 40 grants and it’s only open to U.S. states, then every state has a good chance of being awarded. But if the funding agency plans to make 7 awards and there are millions of organizations eligible for the award, then your chances are slim.
How much money can you expect to be awarded from this grant? Sometimes the FOA will tell you exactly how much each grant will be, but most grants have an “award floor” and an “award ceiling”. You must request more than the award floor but no more than the award ceiling. Can you reasonably spend all the money you will have to request? And can you accomplish all the funder priorities and grant requirements based on the maximum amount you can request?
Types of Interventions
Some federal grants require you to implement evidence-based or evidence-informed interventions. These types of interventions are great – they’re the gold standard of improving the lives of those you serve. But keep in mind, if you aren’t currently implementing one of the interventions the funder requires, you’ll have to add a new program. Is the funding worth the changes you’ll have to make within your organization? And is there an evidence-based intervention on the funder’s approved list that is culturally appropriate for your community?
You may have noticed details on evidence-based interventions when you searched for requirements. If not, you can do a keyword search for “evidence”, “intervention”, and “scientific”.
How strong are your partnerships with other nonprofits and local government agencies? For many federal grants, you’ll have to work closely with partners to implement key grant activities. Will your current partnerships support the required grant activities? And are your partners willing to submit letters of support and/or sign memoranda of agreement/understanding (if required)? Another important consideration is if you will need to sub-grant funds to your partners. To find partner requirements, simply do a keyword search for “partner”.
Type of Award
There are several types of federal grants. This information will be listed in the synopsis section of the application announcement on the Grants.gov website, and typically on the first full page of the FOA.
One type of federal grant is a cooperative agreement. When you’re awarded this type of grant, you’ll be working very closely with your federal project officer and their team, who will typically make some key programmatic and evaluation decisions. This isn’t a bad thing, just make sure that this type of agreement is a good fit for your organization.
Once you’ve considered all the criteria above, then it’s time to read through that massive FOA and all the attachments. Reading through the FOA will always give you the best sense if a grant is a good fit. But doing a quick review of some key criteria can help you avoid reading grants that aren’t a good fit.
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