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Federal Money

By Barbara Floersh - March 1, 2013

When it comes to applying for federal grants, the most common complaint is the quick turnaround time. The federal agency releases the Request for Proposal (RFP) only shortly before the submission deadline and you’re sent scrambling.

Unless you’ve already got a program plan that responds exactly to the RFP, and the needed collaborations and evaluation experts are in place, producing a competitive proposal will require setting up camp in your office.

To develop competitive federal grant proposals while maintaining your mental health, you need to know what competitions will be coming up so that you can begin work before the RFP is released. This takes research. You’ll need to explore all existing federal grant programs related to your organization’s field of interest, determine which are a good match for your organization’s work, find out all you can about each competition, then make a game plan.

The first stop

The starting place for federal research is the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance (CFDA) (www.cfda.gov), a free online database that provides information on all federal domestic assistance programs that have been established by statute–including grant programs. The CFDA is searchable by keyword, type of support, target population, and numerous other fields.

Each CFDA listing explains the purpose of the grant program, what funds can and can’t be used for, what types of organizations can apply, what level of non-federal matching funds are required, the level of funding allocated to the program by Congress in the last few years, whom to contact for more information, and much more.

When you find a promising program, you’ll need answers to these six primary questions:

  • Is it likely that Congress will allocate funds to this program for the coming year?
  • Does the program run a competition each year? Is a competition expected in the coming year?
  • When is the RFP typically released, and when are proposals generally due?
  • Where can you get a copy of the most recent RFP for this program? The agency website or the link to closed competitions on grants.gov may provide this, or the agency may need to send it to you.
  • Is the program expected to change radically in the coming year?
  • How many applications were submitted in the last competition and how many of those were funded? This will clue you in on the odds of winning an award.

Start with the federal contact identified in the CFDA, and if you have problems, ask your Congressional delegation to help you find out what you need to know. But before you contact anyone, do your homework. The website of the agency that operates the grant program can be helpful. Get as much information as possible and organize your questions.

Answering these primary questions will allow your organization to select the competitions to which it will apply, establish a rough calendar of submission dates, and establish a work plan for the year. And because you’ll have copies of the most recent RFPs you can begin the planning, data gathering, collaboration, and budgeting well in advance.

Even though you won’t be able to finalize things until the new RFP is released, you’ll be well ahead of the crowd. While new RFPs for established grant programs generally include a few new twists and turns, the structural bones of the grant program rarely change — especially when the program is established by statute.

Wild Cards

The CFDA doesn’t include information on grant programs that are not established by statute, so an agency might decide to operate a grant program that won’t show up in your CFDA research. Here are a few tips for uncovering these opportunities as soon as possible.

  • Grants.gov (www.grants.gov) – (1) Sign up to receive daily notifications of new funding competitions, but be aware that this won’t give you a jump on the RFP. (2) Use the advanced search function on this website to look for both open and closed competitions. The issue is not whether a competition is presently open, but whether it might open again in the coming year.
  • Federal Agency Websites – Explore the websites of agencies that are clearly related to your area of interest. The Department of Education, for example, publishes a forecast of grant competitions for the year. Opportunities might also be found in unexpected places. The Department of Agriculture makes numerous grants in the area of youth services and the Department of Defense supports some medical research initiatives, for example. Once you’re fully familiar with the websites most connected to your topic area, branch out.

Being proactive in research and planning will give you the time you need to develop more competitive federal grant proposals. And while nothing can remove all of the stress involved in federal grant applications, being proactive certainly helps. NPT

Barbara Floersch, director of The Grants­manship Center in Los Angeles, Calif., has more than 35 years of experience in nonprofit management, proposal writing, grants administration, and nonprofit consulting. Her email is Barbara@tgci.com and the website is www.tgci.com

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