Remember this guy?
That’s the “Question Mark Guy,” otherwise known as Matthew Lesko.
If you did much channel surfing in the 1990s, you probably saw infomercials touting his books that promised access to free government money.
“Get money to PAY YOUR BILLS! WRITE A BOOK! RENOVATE YOUR KITCHEN!” Lesko wildly exclaims from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
All you had to do was send him $37.95 to gain access to his secrets.
It was that simple.
But in reality, it’s not that simple. You can’t just go to the grant store, pick one you like off the shelf and waltz out with a big wad of cash in your pocket. It doesn’t work that way.
Getting grant funding from any source – but especially from the federal government – requires more than asking nicely and waiting for the check to show up in the mail.
And for the most part, federal grants aren’t given directly to individuals. They are given to organizations that can prove they will use the money to affect significant social change.
How, you ask? Grant programs are structured in such a way that only nonprofit organizations who are capable of making the desired social change are even eligible for funding. That’s because the government wants to use its resources to help as many people as they can in the most cost-effective way possible.
The Uncle Sam Analogy
Let’s pretend the federal government is your uncle. Just for fun, we’ll call him Uncle Sam. Uncle Sam has a fistful of $100 bills and he’s trying to decide which of his nieces and nephews deserve the money.
The first nephew says, “I like to cook and I hear lots of people are hungry, so I’d like to open a soup kitchen and feed hungry people.”
This is certainly a worthy project, Uncle Sam thinks.
Next, a niece says, “I’ve been studying the hunger problem. And, I’ve studied soup making and have found a highly nutritious recipe used by soup kitchens all over the country. I’m confident I can make this soup and put it into the bowls of hungry people.”
Ah, this one has done her homework, he thinks.
The next nephew says “Hey Uncle Sam! I’ve been running a soup kitchen for the past 10 years. I know how to make soup that’s both nutritious and tasty. Hungry people love my soup! In fact, I already feed 100 people every day, and more people are waiting at my door. I could really use the money for more soup.”
That’s a very compelling case, Uncle Sam thinks. He already knows how to make the soup. He already knows who’s going to eat it. He’s got hungry people lined out his door. That’s a spoon-ready project right there.
But, then the last two join hands and step forward.
“Uncle Sam, we are a team. I make tasty and nutritious soup that feeds 500 hungry people every day. And my partner meets with people while they eat their soup to find out how we can help alleviate the underlying causes of their hunger. With your help, we can feed more hungry people and help make sure that there are fewer hungry people tomorrow.”
There it is. That’s the winning idea, Uncle Sam thinks.
And that, my friends, is in essence how grant funding works. Grant funding is awarded to organizations that have more than good intentions. It’s awarded to those with the expertise and ability to back up what they say they’re going to do.
That’s why it’s vitally important to pick the right grant for your organization.
What's the right grant for you?
Sure, you could pay someone to write a rock-star grant application that wins you a million dollars from the Department of the Interior to implement the quagga and zebra mussel action plan in the Western US. (This grant really exists, by the way.)
But if you operate an after-school program for kids, that money isn’t going to do you much good.
You have no idea what a quagga mussel is or how to implement a relevant action plan. So when the DOI asks you – and they will – to submit a summary of your actions related to mussel abatement, you won’t have anything to show.
And while they may think the curriculum you developed with their million dollars seems highly effective, they’ll ask you to send their money back.
This scenario is far-fetched and would honestly never happen, but it illustrates why picking the right grant – instead of just any grant – is tantamount to your financial solvency and program success.
First, Some Basics
Grants are intended to solve social problems.
- They do not need to be repaid.
- They can be cash, in-kind donations or donations of materials.
- They can come from governing bodies as well as private and corporate charitable foundations.
Private and foundation grants usually don’t require as much work on the front end. Often, you can just send a letter of inquiry that outlines your project or program. If they’re interested, they'll request more specific information.
But federal grants are an entirely different animal.
- They are complicated.
- They are cumbersome.
- They are extremely time-consuming.
To keep things moving along, take care of practical matters on the front end.
Get grant ready
Your organizational documents must be in order, and you must register with all the appropriate federal systems and databases. Doing so ensures your organization is “grant ready.”
First, make sure your nonprofit is incorporated and compliant with state and federal regulations.
- You need an Employer Identification Number (EIN) or Taxpayer Identification Number (TIN). It takes a minimum of two weeks but probably four weeks to get one from the IRS. Learn more at irs.gov.
- You need a 501( c)3 determination letter. If you’re lucky, this process will take two months; if you’re not, it will take a year or longer. Again, irs.gov for more info.
- You may also need state or local documentation. Research requirements specific to your location at councilofnonprofits.org.
To apply for a federal grant, you have to register at grants.gov. It’s a multi-step process that requires even more registrations. You can find step-by-step instructions on the website, but here’s the long and short of it.
- Register for System Award Management (SAM). Visit sam.gov.
- You’ll need your EIN number, your organization’s authorizing officer and 7 to 10 business days and possibly longer to get registered.
- After registering, you'll receive a Unique Entity Identifier (UEI).
- Read more about the process here.
Now, you can register at grants.gov.But wait! There’s more!
Next, you have to register for any proprietary grant submission systems that are used by individual funding agencies. While many agencies use grants.gov, some use other submission systems to accept grant applications.
For example, to apply to the National Science Foundation (NFS), you should register for FastLane as well as grants.gov. For the federal Department of Education, G5 registration is required.
Since it can take days and often weeks to get some of these registrations in place, DO NOT WAIT til the eleventh hour to start the process. You can thank us later for that little nugget of knowledge.
- Yes, it can be lengthy.
- Yes, it can be frustrating.
- Yes, it will probably take longer than it should.
But without these registrations in place, you can’t apply for a grant, let alone win funding.
Trust us. Do this first. Otherwise, you’re wasting your time looking for grants.
Applying for a grant is kind of like getting a mortgage. You’ve got to prove to the federal government that you can manage money.
How? You submit three-to-five years worth of financial statements like annual operating budgets, balance sheets, cash flow statements and audits.
If you don’t have these items in place – or if they’re less than stellar – consider partnering with a larger, more experienced agency to build good equity and rapport with grant funders.
You must also ensure you’ve got enough money in the bank to operate a grant-funded program on a reimbursement basis.
Most federal grants aren’t distributed in lump sums.
You spend the money to operate your program, THEN you ask for reimbursement from the feds.
As long as you’re in compliance with all aspects of the grant, the check will be cut and sent. But you’ve got to have enough cash in the bank to cover your operating expenses until the check arrives. (Again, another reason why smaller or new nonprofits should consider partnering with a larger, more experienced agency when applying for grants.)
Finally. Picking a Grant.
Well. Not really.
You may be tempted to dive right into grants.gov and search for grants.
Just don’t do it.
Develop your program first. Don't write a proposal for a grant competition just because you found out about it.
Pick your project first. Then find a source to fund it.
How to Develop a Project
Your project should align with your strategic plan. (Don’t have one? Check out our Quick Start Guide to Strategic Planning for help.)
Within your strategic plan, you’ll have an overarching organizational mission, objectives and critical actions.
- Your mission might be “to enrich the lives of children.”
- An objective might be to “create out-of-school opportunities for kids.”
- A critical action might be “to operate an after-school tutoring program.”
And voila! You’ve identified the program you need to create.
The next step is to assemble your grant-writing team. This is important. A federal grant application can take anywhere from 80 to 160 hours to assemble and write.
We are in no way exaggerating.
And it doesn’t matter if you’re applying for $30K, $300K or $3 million. Most federal grants require a similar amount of documentation and paperwork. No federal grant is truly “simple.”
Adding to the fun, you may have as little as three weeks from the time a funding opportunity is announced until the deadline.
It seems like a lot of time. But it’s not.
Hear this. You need to be ready when an opportunity presents itself.
Be ready when the funding is announced
Start by building a team.
Your grant writing team should include:
- The Decider: the person who can make executive decisions.
- The Statistician: the person who knows the data that establishes need and credibility.
- The Number Cruncher: the person who manages the budget and/or payroll.
- The Facilitator: the person who manages relationships with partner organizations.
- The Marketer: the person who actually writes the grant narrative.
Before You Put Pen to Paper
Make a logic model first.
A Logic Model organizes the various project components into a concise framework. It provides a simple visual presentation of your project that’s easy to follow and understand.
Still not with us?
OK. Here’s what it does:
- States the need(s) the project will address,
- Identifies goals for impacting the problem,
- Lists objectives addressing the problem,
- Outlines strategies that will be used (activities, curricula, programs and services).
A logic model also identifies who is responsible for implementing the strategies, the expected outcomes, how the outcomes will be measured (evaluated), and the related budget items needed to support the strategies.
It sounds like a lot of work, but logic models are extremely helpful when creating new programs and – fun fact! – most federal grant applications require you to submit one as part of your application.
Don’t wait. Do it first. (Need help? We have an easy-to-use resource.)
Finally, Look for Grants
Once your logic model is complete and you have a good grasp of your project, you can start looking for grant opportunities.
Waiting until you have the program model in place allows you to identify the right grant. You won’t be left trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.
Where to look?
As we’ve alluded to several times already, grants.gov is the best place to look for federal funding opportunities.
The database is searchable, but it’s wonky. Keyword searches often don’t return what you want.
The best way to stay informed about new funding opportunities is by subscribing to our weekly Grant Round Up email newsletter. We sort new opportunities and remove the clutter so you can see what’s available at a quick glance.
Looking for private and foundation grants? The Foundation Center Directory Online is key. You’ll have to pay for access or find a public library that maintains a subscription. Many do.
State or local funding is a little trickier. You are most likely to learn of those opportunities through relationships with the actual funding agencies. States and localities vary widely in how they publicize grant opportunities, so you may need to get the info directly from the source.
So, What’s Next?
Once you find a grant you want to pursue, it’s not as simple as slapping together a cover letter and asking for money. You’ve got to read.
Yes, read. And then read some more.
Like we said, federal grants applications are uber complicated.
With myriad requirements, it’s easy to overlook key requirements. Or to forget something important during the many hours you’ll spend preparing the document. You may miss a minute detail that immediately removes your organization from consideration.
That makes for a bad day.
Most grant applications are highly specific. They dictate seemingly insignificant details, including the font, font size and margin width you should use in your proposal.
So if you’re considering paying a graphic artist to create a beautifully designed grant application, think again. You’re wasting your money trying to make your application stand out. If it doesn’t comply, grant reviewers won’t even bother to read it.
Why, you ask?
Honestly, we really don’t know, and ultimately it doesn’t matter. It’s safe to assume that grant agencies want to provide a level playing field. No one should be at an advantage just because they’re more creative or have more money to spend prettying up an 8.5x11'' sheet of paper.
The bottom line? When you’re asking for funding, you follow the funder’s rules.
This is not the time to be a rebel.
So What Exactly Should You Read?
The RFP. That’s short for Request for Proposal.
Read the RFP 3 times.
The first time, read every word, cover-to-cover, with a red pen and highlighter in hand. Note every requirement, including the deadline, page limitations, font size and page margin restrictions as well as budget information and required appendices.
Most importantly, look for any program requirements that would impact your organization’s ability to meet the eligibility requirements.
This could be data points like the minimum poverty rates for your service area. If the poverty rate in your service area is higher than what’s specified in the eligibility requirements, quit reading. You don’t qualify for the grant.
On the first reading, your goal is largely to ensure the funding source is the right fit for your project and your organization.
If all looks good, read it again.
This time, get out your Logic Model.
Many funders will prescribe specific goals or objectives in the RFP. Go through the RFP, matching every stated goal and objective to those in your Logic Model. (You may need to review or revise your Logic Model so it aligns with the funding program’s goals and objectives.)
This is absolutely OK. The logic model is a living document. Nothing is set in stone.
In fact, craft your logic model so it precisely aligns with the expectations set forth in the RFP. If you can make the language match verbatim, that’s perfect.
As if you didn’t have enough to do during the second reading, you also need to look for GPRAs (Government Performance and Results Act). These are goals and objectives that Congress includes in the legislation that funds federal grant programs. GPRAs will be required evaluative measures which will be used to determine the success of your program.
Make sure your program can meet the GPRAs.
*A hint: under promise, but over deliver results.
Now comes the third reading.
The RFP is usually a PDF. (Fun with acronyms!)
Convert it to a Microsoft Word document.
Now get ready to do some copying and pasting.
Copy and paste the section headings along with the corresponding instructions.
Find the Review Criteria and point values for each section. Copy and paste the Review Criteria below the instructions for each section. Copy and paste the point value for each section next to the heading of the section.
Copy and paste the content from your revised Logic Model directly below the Review Criteria for the appropriate section. You may need to put it in more than one place. That’s OK.
Now you have an outline.
The outline will help you complete the narrative much easier than starting with a blank sheet of paper. You know exactly what the application needs to include and exactly where to put it.
Trust us on this one.
Starting with a blank page is one of the most intimidating things you can do.
So don’t do it.
Some things to remember as you write:
- Grant reviewers are tired. They’re overworked, and they’re probably sleep deprived. Make their job easier. Don’t require them to turn back to another page in search of information or data points. Include the data point every time you reference it instead of telling them where it's located elsewhere in the document.
- Use formatting to increase readability. Make friends with bold, underline and italics.
- Turn criteria questions into proposal statements. This will reiterate your point and clearly show how how your program will address the need identified in the RFP.
- For every data point, make sure you answered the question “so what?” Why does your data matter? Why is it significant?
- Give information three, preferably four times. Help the reviewer remember the points you’re trying to drive home.
Here’s the real key.
Approach writing the grant narrative like a story. You are telling the story of your organization and its ability to solve a social problem.
Grant narratives should be persuasive. But they should also be academic. And interesting to read. And full of information. And they should closely follow the directions put forth in the RFP.
We’ll admit it. It’s not the easiest thing to do.
Writing a grant narrative is a combination of art and science, prose and data. It’s a specific style of writing that takes years to perfect.
We’ve been honing the skill for more than two decades now and have gotten quite good at it. That’s why we’re happy to share our tips and tricks.
We haven’t shared them all here. Let's consider this the “abridged” version of how to win grants.
If you’d like more tips on writing a winning grant narrative, check out our self-guided course. You'll find everything you need to build your confidence so you can start winning grants.
The Question Mark Guy was right about one thing. The funding is out there. You just have to know how to get it.