School GrantsGovernment Grants

The Basics of US Government Grant Writing

Have you ever read about a generous grant a neighboring community just received for an exciting project – and felt just a tiny pang of jealousy? Did you think about what your own community could have done with that money? Did you wonder exactly how your neighbors got the money? How did they even know there was money available? Who helped them with the application? And what was it about their particular application that made it successful?

Getting Started:

As you think about projects to improve your community – be it adding a bike path in the park, storing municipal records electronically, or opening an after-school youth center – one of your first thoughts is bound to be “Where will we get the money to pay for this?” One potential way to finance these projects is by obtaining grant money.

Why don’t more municipalities apply for grants? Usually it’s because the grant writing process is something of an unknown. In fact, when I’m asked what I do, and I respond that I am a grant writer, the response is almost always the same: “Uh. so you, uh..???” While many people have a general sense of what a “grant” is, most really don’t quite understand where the money comes from or what’s involved in getting it.

A grant is basically a gift for a particular purpose. In this case, we are talking about a gift of money that will be used to undertake a specific project. There are two main sources of grant money: private foundations and government entities.

A typical private foundation is set up to allow an individual, a family, or an organization to take a large amount of money, grow it by investing it and/or receiving additional donations, and then give a portion of that money to non-profit organizations. The advantage to the donor is that the foundation can give large contributions to non-profit organizations, while receiving a variety of tax incentives (for example, there is no capital gains tax on the foundation income). By federal law, this type of foundation (a non-profit organization in and of itself) must give a certain percentage of its assets to other non-profits annually. Most foundations have what they call “funding priorities”, or fields of interest (for example, the arts or the environment) in which they are more likely to make grants. The original funder and/or the trustee(s) generally determine these funding priorities, and decisions about whom and what will get funded are then at the discretion of the trustee(s). If your project fits within their field of interest, and you present a clear and compelling case that your project deserves to be funded, you have a good chance of getting a grant.

Government funding can come from any level of government (federal, state or local). This type of funding usually has a very specific, clearly defined purpose and rigid application guidelines and deadlines. Proposals are read by a number of “readers”, and each section is rated on a points scale. Proposals garnering the most points are the ones that get funded.

Improving Your Chances:

There are many reasons why a grant proposal may or may not be funded, and some of them are beyond an applicant’s control. For example, there may be twenty well-thought-out, cost-effective proposals that are a good match for the funder’s priorities, but only ten grants can be awarded. In some cases, personal and professional connections can enter the picture. For example, if one of the applying organizations has an existing association with one of the trustees, their application will probably be viewed more favorably. These are factors you really can’t control.

However, there are also a number of factors that you can influence. Whether you are seeking funds from a private foundation or a government entity, there are things you can do to improve the chances of getting your project funded. In this article we’ll discuss the first – and probably most important – step in the process.

Step #1 – Plan the Project

While you might think the place to start would be finding the right funder or a Request for Proposals that looks like a good match for your project – it’s not! The fact is that any proposal will have a better chance of being funded if the project has been thought through and planned out well in advance of actually writing the grant application. The best process is to first thoroughly plan out the project, then look for potential funders, and then write the proposal.

While each funding source will have its own proposal format, the basic components of the proposal will always be the same. By keeping these elements in mind as you plan your project, you’ll be in good shape when it comes time to find a funding match and then write the proposal itself. Ultimately, the process of mapping out the project before you even start looking for funding sources will improve your chances of getting funded.

As you plan your project, keep in mind the basic components of almost any grant proposal:

  1. Establish the need and desire for the project: How do you know this project is needed? How will the residents of your community use the services provided? To the extent possible, this needs to be hard data. Detailed needs assessments can be very useful here.
  2. Define the desired outcomes with specific, measurable objectives: What do you want to accomplish, and how will you measure whether the project has indeed addressed the problem?
  3. Describe the methods you will use to achieve these objectives: What will you actually do in order to meet the objectives? How do you know that this is an effective method to address the problem you have identified, and will lead to the desired objective(s)?
  4. Establish your organization’s credibility: Why are you the right organization to undertake this project? Have you had success with similar projects?
  5. Determine how you will evaluate the success of the project: How will you know whether the desired objectives have been reached? For example, will you be surveying constituents, or tracking the numbers of individuals using a particular service?
  6. Create a detailed budget: What are all of the expenses related to the project, and what other potential funding sources exist? Will your organization be contributing funds toward the project?
  7. Describe the future of project: When the money from this funder is used up, how will the project continue? Is it a project that will require a continuous influx of money, or will it somehow become self-sustaining?

So take your latest project idea, and start planning it out in detail. In the next two articles we’ll look first at how to find potential funders, and, finally, how to put together a proposal. If your project is already mapped out, you’ll be ready to move on to those next steps!

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