What to know before applying for federal grants

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In one of my first jobs, I was asked to write a federal grant. I accepted this assignment eagerly, only to become overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task. First, the Request for Proposal (RFP) was nearly 100 pages. Even worse, I had less than 30 days to coordinate the response, write the proposal, get it reviewed by the appropriate leadership and in those days, get it to the post office before midnight on the due date. And if awarded, the organization struggled to get the grant up and running. Sound familiar? Since that time, I’ve written more than 100 grants successfully and I promise you that it does not have to be this way if you know a few things on the front end that will prepare you for success.

Once a nonprofit becomes aware of the federal RFP, frequently the first thing done is to dive right in and start preparing the response. This is ill-advised. The first thing that should be considered is whether or not your organization has the appropriate infrastructure to administer federal funds.

Federal grants are funded by taxpayer dollars and therefore have significant regulatory requirements associated with managing these funds. Nonprofit organizations that apply for federal grants must be familiar with the rules and regulations governing the application process and allowable uses of the funds. Everyone in the organization who is responsible for grant management — from the grant writer to those who record and report on grant project activities — should understand the administrative requirements.

Be honest in critiquing whether or not your organization has the appropriate accountability systems in place including: funds management, compliance and reporting, and other internal controls.  The RFP contains the contact information for the program and compliance officers of the federal agency responsible for administering the grant funds. Work cooperatively with these officers by contacting them on the front end to clarify any requirements and ask any questions you may have about the RFP. 

If awarded federal funding, your organization must be able to immediately implement the regulatory policies that govern reporting and administration of funds. Noncompliance with these requirements can lead to increased federal oversight, funding reductions and even debarment. But that does not mean you should not apply for this type of funding—it just means that you need to be prepared.

I always viewed federal grants as a way to obtain ‘seed money’ rather than entitlement funds because there’s never a guarantee that these funds will always be available. Nevertheless, I like federal grants because they can be a source of significant dollars for a nonprofit. The amount of the grant award may be as much as six figures awarded over multiple year — enough for an organization to build or enhance its infrastructure and programming. But applying for federal grants should not be undertaken without understanding the requirements or having the appropriate systems in place to procure and administer this type of funding. Do that review first. Then decide if this source of funding is right for your organization.