Life cycle phase I: Research and planning
Strategic grants planning is more thanidentifying an opportunity and running with it—not that there’sanything wrong with that. Rather, a strategic approach to grantsplanning looks beyond isolated opportunities and seeks to integrategrantseeking into your organization’s overall development.
To this end, strategic grants planninginvolves a complete assessment of your organization’s needs, resources,current health, opportunities and fundraising goals. Once you havethese on paper, it’s helpful to find someone with grants experience whocan help you prioritize between the most “fundable” items on your listof needs and opportunities, and those that may need to be securedthrough other sources.
A sense of fundability comes from the mixedexperience of both securing and being denied grants, as well as aknowledge of grants programs applicable to your organization’s fieldand mission. If you are working on a grants plan without assistancefrom someone with this expertise, with some legwork you can familiarizeyourself with appropriate opportunities by investigating the successesof peer organizations.
The most successful grants plans are in synchwith organizations’ evolutions. Just finished a needs / opportunitiesassessment? Use the results to set objectives for your grants plan.Recently published a strategic plan for your organization’s growth andcontinued health? Use that information to frame your initial approachto funders. Building your case for support on the front end conveysintentionality, purposefulness and timeliness.
Before committing to a grants plan, it’simportant to assess your current resources to determine whether youhave the manpower, expertise and financial flexibility to pursue yourfundraising goals. Unfortunately, the old maxim “it takes money to makemoney” is generally true of fundraising, unless you have individualswithin your organization who have the time to research grantopportunities, write the proposals, and offer administrative supportonce the grant has been received.
Once you’ve identified the in-house supportyou’ll need (or located a consultant or freelance grant writer),gathered the materials necessary to determine your fundraising andproject goals, made judicious decisions regarding which projects toprioritize for grant-seeking based on need and fundability andidentified appropriate grant opportunities, it’s timeto open acalendar and, working backward from deadlines, determine how much timeyou’ll need to complete each grant.
Many grantwriters advise that you shoulddedicate at least one month to the proposal development process. If youbelong to a large organization that has complex approval processes orintend to apply to competitive federal programs, it may be wise todedicate six weeks to the project.
For example, in cases where relationshipsneed to be developed in order to be a viable candidate for funding, youmay need to begin laying the groundwork several months in advance. Ifyou find yourself in a time crunch and need to skip a program in orderto pursue an opportunity that is either more likely to be successful orthat will address a priority area, remember, there’s (almost) alwaysnext year.
Life cycle phase II: Proposal planning
Bring all participants to the table as earlyas possible. This will help you assign roles for both proposaldevelopment and project implementation, should you be successful inyour request. Making sure all participants are involved in at least oneearly discussion also helps pave the way for gaining approvals fromsenior management. Since all grants, no matter how small, have animpact on the grantee agency, it is important—even when notrequired—that decisionmakers know of your intention to apply.
Now’s the time to dust off that request forproposals (RFP) that you found during the research and planning phaseand distribute it to all parties involved. While they probably won’tread it, even though they should (and you should direct them to do so),it’s useful for all participants to understand the rules of engagement.Sometimes the sheer heft of the document alone will drive home thepoint that a grant proposal is not something to be entered intolightly. Naturally, anyone involved in proposal development will needto carefully read the RFP and refer back to it frequently.
RFPs frequently provide all the informationyou need to submit, but they are not always clearly written andoccasionally questions arise that are not answered in the RFP or anyother materials provided by the funding agency. When in doubt, contacta program officer, or the contact listed in the RFP. While the roles ofprogram officers vary from grant program to grant program, mostofficers are quite helpful and are happy to shed light on anymysterious aspects of the program or submission, particularly if theysense that you’ve carefully read all the provided materials. Someprogram officers may even offer to provide you with insider tips on howto strengthen your proposal and fine-tune your case for support. Toomany people are hesitant to approach program officers, which is a shamesince, in most cases, they are remarkable resources, rather than thestern gatekeepers that many people assume them to be. If you have takencare to become informed, ask reasonable questions and are respectful oftheir busy schedules, it is likely that you will receive the bestavailable advice regarding your submission.
Life cycle phase III: Proposal writing
If you’ve built an argument into yourgrant-seeking strategy, the proposal development process is little morethan putting your already organized thoughts on paper in accordancewith the guidelines outlined in the RFP. All RFPs are different, so allproposals are different, but there are some content areas common toalmost all proposals: need, objectives, implementation, assessment,future plans and the budget.
Most proposals begin with a statement ofneed. If you’ve been careful with your project planning, you should beprepared to produce a statement that outlines your organization’scurrent health and needs in terms of your long-term goals. Needstatements should look beyond the walls of your organization, however,and include hard data on your community and constituencies.
A need statement should answer the followingquestion: Who do you serve and what do you intend to do to serve thembetter? For example, if the economic situation of your region has madeit difficult to meet demands placed on your organization, includeinformation on the number of students enrolled in school lunch programsto demonstrate local poverty. In short, provide quantifiable evidenceto support each need whenever possible. Also, balance your needstatement with information on the available resources that will helpyou meet these needs. If your need statement is too full of doom andgloom, funders may decide that you do not have the resources toadequately address the needs that you’ve described.
You cannot be too clear in grant proposals.This is not an exercise in creative writing; it is a structured andsubstantive argument. While the objective should be clear from thefirst paragraph, after you’ve stated your needs it’s advisable to tiethem explicitly to your objectives.
Having established your needs and reiteratedyour objectives in a way that clarifies how they will address thoseneeds, it’s time to describe how you intend to meet your objectives.Project implementation is the heart of the proposal, giving life to allthe other disparate elements. It is your opportunity to explain why youdeserve funding and how you will use it wisely. Implementation plansshould be as specific as possible. They should include information onkey individuals involved in the project. If a hire needs to be made,it’s wise to provide information on the qualifications for the proposedposition. Implementation plans should also follow a calendar. Specificdates may not be required, but the proposal reviewers will need to havea sense of when specific steps will be launched and when you anticipatemeeting certain benchmarks. It is understood that implementation plansevolve over time and that the grant-funded initiative will need to betweaked as project leaders learn from their successes and failures.Still, it is important to be clear that you have a carefullythought-out plan that outlines each activity necessary for successfulproject implementation.
To varying degrees, proposals will need toinclude detailed information on assessment or evaluation plans,benchmarking and outcomes or outputs. If your proposal is simply arequest for a piece of equipment, your assessment section could be assimple as stating when you would procure the equipment and what dateyour project it would be ready for use. If your proposal is to supporta more complex project, with multiple steps and stages, your evaluationplan should closely mirror the activities outlined in yourimplementation plan. It is helpful to establish benchmarks for eachphase of project implementation.
While providing the granting agency withassurance that the project will be closely monitored to help ensuresuccess, benchmarking also protects the grantee by providing him withopportunities to tweak the program as it evolves. (Note:Most grant programs will require you to contact a program officer ifyou change the course of your project during the life of the grant.) Tothe greatest extent possible, results should be measurable. Forexample, if the applicant is proposing a training program, it isimportant to ballpark the number of individuals who will receivetraining and, if possible, gauge the success of the training throughinterviews, surveys and other performance measurements.
If you are proposing a project that willcontinue beyond the life of the grant, you will need to explain yourplans for the sustainability of the project outlined in the proposal.While this is not true of every fundable project, many programs expector even require that projects continue once the grant has expired. Yourstatement for future plans may be as simple as providing assurancesthat, subsequent to the grant’s closure, your organization will assumethe costs of program continuance; or it may involve assurances that theorganization is prepared to dedicate resources to securing additionalfunding through other channels. If your project involves equipmentpurchases, replacement costs should be factored into continuationplans. In some cases, continuation may be based on project assessment:i.e., if the project has proven to be of value, theprogram will becontinued.
Some grantwriters are ardent believers inbeginning proposal development with the budget. Not everyone iscomfortable with this model, and budgets are often left to the lastminute, but there is some logic to seeing the budget as the naturalstarting point for the proposal, since all other information isessentially there to justify the dollar amounts you have provided.While virtually every aspect of the proposal can make it or break it,this is especially true of the budget. Reviewers have an uncannyability to sense when an applicant is padding a budget and will usuallyerr on the side of caution should their suspicion be aroused. The bestway to avoid inciting reviewers’ suspicion is to be as clear aspossible with your budget, clearly displaying the formulas used tocalculate benefits, travel expenses, indirect costs (when allowable),etc. In many cases, RFPs will request that a budget narrative beincluded in your proposal submission. When this is the case, ensurethat the narrative directly mirrors your budget, line item by line item.
Life cycle phase IV: Post-award administration
While the proposal process can feel like asignificant hurdle, the real work begins once you receive the award.Grants are not gifts—consider strings attached. By accepting a grant,you have made a commitment to the grantor that you will use his moneywisely and as specified in your grant application. In this sense, it’sbest to think of your proposal as a contract. Any significant deviationfrom it should be reported to a program officer prior to veering fromthe established track. Generally, grantors understand that projectsevolve and require modification in order for them to succeed. Youshould, however, report any changes to the program officer that: (1)require the replacement of key personnel; (2) seriously set back oradvance the project’s timeline (especially important to avoid cash-flowproblems), or; (3) alter in any way the terms established in the awardletter.
Careful financial administration of yourgrant is crucial and can be greatly eased by avoiding cominglingproject funds. If at all possible, set up a dedicated account to trackyour grant expenditures. This will ease your reporting responsibilitiesdown the road and help ensure that your project is on track. Unspentfunds or over-budget expenditures can be early warning signs that theis in trouble.
Virtually all grant programs will requiresome level of reporting. Most funders require annual financial andnarrative reports through the life of the grant, concluding with afinal financial and narrative report once the grant has expired.Generally, specific reporting requirements will be outlined in theaward letter. Reports usually do not need to be lengthy, but they doneed to be specific. If you have carefully monitored and documentedyour project’s progress, the burden of reporting should be minimal.Annual reports generally include a narrative, explaining successes,benchmarks achieved, the progress of the grant-funded initiative and afinancial report outlining expenditures to date. Final reportsgenerally include evaluative information from all years of the grant’slife, as well as plans for continuation and dissemination and a finalbudget outlining all expenses year-by-year.
Stewardship is essentially the idea that yourobligations to the granting agency do not end when the check arrives.But post-award requirements such as reporting are not intended to be aburden on applicants. Rather, they are a reminder that the grantor isquite literally invested in your success.
Good proposal preparation is nothing short ofgood project preparation. Likewise, responsible post-award stewardshipshould work seamlessly with conscientious project implementation.Grants are meant to be a tool, an enabler, a means to an end. The prizeis not the grant, but the ability to advance your organization’sability to perform its mission. With your eyes on that prize, you havethe ultimate competitive advantage.
Good luck and happy hunting. HST
Top Five online grant research resources for the homeland security professional
An immensely large, but easy to navigate, database of federalgrant opportunities. Your first stop for federal grant information.
Managedby the Department of Health and Human Services, grants.gov was intendedto be a one-stop source for federal grantseekers, but development ofthe site has been slow. If required to submit a grant throughgrants.gov, make sure you register with the service a few months inadvance.
UPstreamis a subscriber-service database created by the research, consultingand proposal-writing firm Grants Office LLC that captures federal,state and foundation grant programs. The company intends to implementa free-of-charge database service for non-profits in the near future.
TheFoundation Center’s subscriber service database contains an impressiveamount of information on foundation giving. The database allows usersto search by grants awarded or by foundations. The service is pricy,but the foundation search feature is largely current and does anexcellent job of summarizing foundation priorities and applicationprocesses.
Funding Opportunities at the Office of Justice Programs provides a deadline-driven list of current opportunities.
Tips for finding the right program
- Discover which programs have awarded grants to organizations similar to yours.
- If your organization has a development or grants office, get to know those individuals and keep them apprised of your efforts, needs and interests.
- Think about your available resources: Are matching costs a concern? Do you have the time, administrative support and human resources to assemble a competitive application?
- Contact past recipients to discuss their experiences with the grant program.
- Check the websites of authorizing agencies for workshops, news or other events that may shed light on their funding priorities.
Proposal Do’s and Don’ts
- Follow the RFP to the letter
- Use precise language
- Support all arguments with facts
- Provide quantifiable performance measurements
- Consult a program officer if you have questions not answered in the RFP or other materials provided by the funding agency
- Include supplemental documentation not specifically requested in the RFP
- Treat a proposal as an exercise in creative writing
- Use generic terms such as “proven track record,” “at-risk,” or “highly successful” without providing supporting facts
- Make promises you can’t keep
- Call the program officer before doing your research
Budget Do’s and Don’ts
- Follow the guidelines established in the RFP
- Include formulas when necessary to calculate the total cost of a line item
- Research fair market value when quantifying in-kind
- Read the appropriate OMB circulars when in doubt
- Check with your financial or business office if the grant will require your organization to assume project costs after the grant expires
- Try to pad the budget with unnecessary or unrelated expenses
- Include any ambiguous information or figures
- Request more than the grant allows
- Use a format only an accountant could understand
- Worry about absolute accuracy—funding agencies understand that these are estimations that will evolve with your project