Best PracticesGrants

What you can and can’t control when applying for federal grants

Federal grant applications, and the funding process, can be overwhelming—even for veteran grants professionals. Take a deep breath, focus on the things you can control and your proposals should be pretty darn competitive. Let’s start with the short list…

Things you can’t control

  • Amount of funds appropriated by Congress. This is related to the program(s) being funded. Large programs with national impact, will have bigger budgets while smaller niche programs will have smaller budgets. (Thank you, Captain Obvious.)
  • Number of awards being made. Tied to the above point. Funds appropriated will impact the number of grants an agency can award.
  • Your competition. Always a wild card. You never know who else is going to apply. You might be competing against much larger organizations with a longer track record and greater need. Or, maybe those organizations are sitting out the latest round of funding. You just never know.
  • Geographic distribution. Funding agencies prefer to spread grants around the U.S. as evenly as possible. That can work for and against applicants–especially since there’s a greater emphasis now on more even distribution between urban and rural applicants.
  • Agency priorities. The funding agency has to work within the authorizing legislation.
  • The deadline. The calendar is a cruel taskmaster. It waits for no one.
  • Politics (micro). Ties back in to geographic distribution. Politics can come into play when grants are made. Agency officials don’t like it but that’s how it works unfortunately.
  • Politics (macro). You can’t control who is in the White House or which party controls Congress. When you’re going after grants, just bend with the political winds instead of fighting them.
  • The reviewers. Nine times out of ten, an industry expert will review your proposal; however, there are occasions when someone outside your industry will read it so make sure your narrative is understandable for a wide audience.

Things you can control

  • Checking the Federal Register and every day. Essential so you don’t miss grant opportunities.
  • Starting early. Once a grant becomes available, assemble your team and get to work on the proposal.
  • Deciding too late to get started. Yeah….don’t do that.
  • Establishing “go to” external partners. Have relationships with outside organizations you can call upon to collaborate with when a grant becomes available. Partnerships are essential to grant programs nowadays.
  • Knowing when to pass on a grant opportunity. Sometimes it’s better to wait for a good opportunity than to spend time and energy on a long-shot or a program that isn’t a good fit for your organization.
  • Knowing when to go “all in.” When the right grant program opens, go for it!
  • Establishing relationships with your congressional delegation (state and federal levels). It never hurts to know your elected officials and their staff. If they don’t know you, they’ll never know about the awesome work you’re doing.
  • Knowing when to go against the grain. Not everyone in your organization will initially be excited about a new grant opportunity. If you see the big picture and know how the grant will benefit the organization, address your team members’ concerns and get them on board to work on the application. Push-back often occurs from a lack of understanding which can easily be overcome through open communication.
  • Data. You must be able to document the need for your proposed project. Local data is preferred over statewide and national data.
  • Application workflow. The application’s deadline is simultaneously your enemy and your friend. We understand the former. But how can a deadline be your friend? Easy: the deadline allows you to structure your workflow. Start with the deadline date and work backwards to the present day, marking various milestones you want to achieve along the way until D-Day.
  • Using the proposal’s evaluation matrix. Don’t just answer the questions in the main part of the RFP. Flip to the back of the RFP to check out the evaluation matrix reviewers will use to score your proposal.
  • Project evaluator. Nearly every grant has an evaluation component. Hire a project evaluator to help you write the evaluation section of your proposals. It makes all the difference.
  • Scalability. Design your programs so they can be expanded and contracted based on demand and funding ebbs and flows.
  • Sustainability. “We’ll apply for another grant” is not a sustainability plan. Spend time developing a realistic plan to sustain your program after grant funding ends.
  • Registering with System for Award Management ( and Don’t wait until the last minute. Registrations can take upwards of two to three weeks. You don’t need the additional stress while writing a proposal. Even if you don’t plan to apply for a grant anytime soon, get the registrations out of the way now.
  • Proposal formatting. Make your proposal reader-friendly. Avoid page after page of dense text if possible. Make use of open space, bullet points and tables to break up your narrative.
  • Proofreading. Always have someone (preferably outside your organization) proofread and critique your proposal before you submit it.
  • Jargon/industry lingo. Resist using too many technical terms, industry jargon and acronyms. Chances are the reviewers will understand, but you never know when you’ll get a novice reviewer or a professional who’s tired of their industry’s lingo. Keep your message straightforward and simple.
  • Systems, policies and procedures. Do you have your systems and written policies and procedures in place? If not, get on it. Federal funding agencies want to see you have controls in place that will safeguard public funds.
  • Readiness. Self-awareness: is your organization truly ready to apply for and manage federal grants? If you’re unsure, use our Readiness Assessment to help you decide.

If you want to see my full commentary, check out my presentation below.