You’re Eligible to Apply, But Are You Eligible to Win an Award?

Eligibility is the number one factor in go- no-go decisions about applying for federal grants. Determining eligibility to enter a competition is straightforward. In Grants.gov you can search funding opportunities by eligibility category (i.e., nonprofit, city or township government, for profit, etc.), and funding guidelines detail eligibility requirements for entering a competition. If you have questions, you can reach out to the federal staff member assigned as the “Point of Contact” for the opportunity. “But being qualified to apply doesn’t mean you’re eligible for an award,” said Barbara Floersch, grant expert and author of the new book You Have a Hammer: Building Grant Proposals for Social Change. “Eligibility to win a grant can only be assessed by detailed study of the funding application guidelines for each specific competition.”

The feds use various terms for application guidelines: Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA), Request for Proposals (RFP), Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA), etc. Whatever they’re called, the guidelines lay out the must-dos, must-haves, and rules of the road for each funding competition. “Because the federal grant review process results in a numeral score indicating how well each proposal meets review criteria published in the guidelines, begin with a look at the criteria to determine whether you can compete,” said Floersch. “If it looks hopeful, move on to a deep study of the full guidelines.

Guidelines are often over 60 pages long and review criteria may comprise only five of those pages. “Studying the document can take several hours, but don’t skimp on this review,” said Floersch. “Many parameters and must-dos won’t show up specifically in the criteria but will still impact your ability to win an award.” Here are a few examples.

Funding Cap. Most federal competitions cap the amount of funding applicants can request, and often that cap must include both direct and indirect expenses. If the cap is below what’s necessary to operate a program that meets community needs and complies with federal requirements, you’ll have to come up with a solution or bow out. 

Indirect Costs. Not every competition will honor your organization’s full negotiated indirect cost rate. “Some competitions cap indirect costs at astounding low rates,” said Floersch. If the competition won’t honor your full rate, or if you don’t have a negotiated rate and will have to use the 10% de minimis rate, can you live with that?”

Service Numbers. Some competitions require programs to deliver a minimum amount of service. For example, your organization may be expected to serve a minimum of 100 young people struggling with opioid addiction. When service levels are set, you’re only eligible for an award if you can meet the mandate.

Evidence-based Approach. Competitions may require that programs operate in strict compliance with specific evidence-based models. Funding agencies may allow you to skirt that requirement, but only if you can prove your alternative is well-researched and likely to produce results similar to their first choice. If you don’t have solid research supporting the alternative, you’ll have to deliver the required model or won’t be eligible for an award.

Must-dos. Guidelines include myrid requirements that dictate aspects of the program plan. These may include staffing levels and credentials, on-call availability, facility specifications, evaluation approaches, attendance at annual conferences, and much more. To be eligible to receive an award,  your proposal must indicate that each requirement will be met.  

“Be meticulous in your study of the application guidelines,” said Floersch. “Those tell the real story of whether your organization is eligible for funding.”  ©2021 Barbara Floersch