Some Tips on Applying for Federal Grants

Sue Fox gave a workshop on preparing an application for a federal grant. The workshop was based on a series of documents that are available through NPCC's Government Grants Information Service (GGIS). The documents are The Federal Funding Process: An Overview (#5001), Preparing Federal Proposals: An Introduction (#5002), and Accessing the Federal Register Online (#5003). These documents are available by calling NPCC's fax-on-demand system at 212/502-4157 and requesting the documents by the number cited above. All NPCC members are eligible to enroll in GGIS. Call the number above and request document #6000 for a two-page overview, instructions and application. Or click here to go to the site at

Federal agencies tend to send huge packets with a seemingly endless number of items to complete. While it looks like a big deal to apply for these grants, it's really just a matter of fitting in the pieces like a jigsaw puzzle.

Some Basics

When you receive a NOFA (Notice of Funding Availability) through GGIS, you've usually got one to two months to apply. There are some things you can have ready ahead of time. Your certificate of incorporation, board list and addresses, staff resumes, job descriptions of those people who are involved in the project, your 501(c)(3) determination letter are some of the items you will need to submit. You probably will also be required to submit a summary of the demographics of the community you serve.

Read the NOFA carefully. Every NOFA clearly spells out eligibility, what is expected of the project and the evaluation criteria.

Adhere to the directions and don't break the guideline rules. For example, if the guideline says to use certain margins on attached sheets, do so. If it requires a certain point size type, don't try to sneak a smaller font size in. Remember that these guidelines help make it easier for the reviewer. Due dates vary: sometimes it's a "post-marked by" date, sometimes it's by "close of business" date. Every federal agency is different and can make their own rules.

Write the best proposal you can. The average grant application takes 80 hours; winning proposals generally take twice that. Don't view the time spent in developing a proposal as a waste if you don't receive the grant. There are a number of ways that it can be used: at a minimum, it should have helped you to think clearly about your organization, its needs and the future.

It is very important that a proposal is consistent; it should flow from one section to the next. However, you may need to be repetitive as some of the questions ask somewhat the same thing. Finally, each section also has to stand alone. Don't expect a reviewer to jump around from section to section trying to make sense of what you're saying--they're reading a large number of proposals and you don't want to make it difficult for them--that won't help your chances.

Proposal Components

Establish your need. You shouldn't change what your organization does in order to get funding. Instead, look at what you do to see how your organization might answer their needs. Remember that the people reading your proposal may not know New York City, so clearly spell it all out for the reviewer.

Goals and Objectives. Goals are broad in nature and often idealistic; they're mission-type statements that may or may not be measurable. Objectives are usually measurable: they're specific, concrete, realistic. Do not overstate your objectives; don't exaggerate in an attempt to impress.

Program Description. Spell it all out richly and with feeling. Allow the readers to get a sense of your commitment and enthusiasm. If collaborating, spell out what each organization will do; a letter of agreement between collaborators will help with this process.

Budget. Most federal agencies use the same form (Form SF 420A) or something similar for the budget portion of the application. Be sure that your budget makes sense and is in accordance with your narrative. The reviewers are going to know if you are padding the budget -- and conversely they'll know if you are underestimating costs. Fox recommended that the budget narrative describe every line of the actual budget.

Getting Help(aka TA)

Federal staff are not allowed to help you prepare your proposal. They can offer technical assistance, but they can't give you an edge over other applicants.

A bidders conference is a meeting that allows applicants to come together prior to the application deadline to meet with the agency staff. Some people feel that they are not helpful and are expensive to get to, but Fox thinks they're worth it for any nugget of helpful information. Plus you get to meet and become known to the agency's staff. This is your chance to ask questions that federal program staff may not be able to answer if you asked privately.

You are entitled to get the reviewer's comments after the fact. Depending on the agency it varies as to how you get them: via phone, in writing, or you may have to apply under the Freedom of Information Act.

Also after the fact, you can ask for technical assistance from the program staff as to why your proposal didn't get funded. Use that information to help make a better proposal for the next round. Try to meet with program staff during off-times--not when applications are being evaluated and certainly not when you have an application pending.

Improving Your Chances

Many funders encourage coalitions among grantees. This is also true of the federal government. You have to be prepared to work together, so in thinking about potential partners, consider other nonprofits you see as competitors along with houses of worship, police services, local businesses, city agencies, etc.

Apply for an appropriate grant even if it seems that the odds are against you. For example, if only three grants are to be awarded throughout the country. Submitting a proposal helps get you into the loop and you become known to the agency. Fox also encouraged organizations to apply for the next round if they don't make it during the first time, "Persistence pays and proposals usually just get better with time."

Finally, write an executive summary even if it's not required. Often called an abstract, an executive summary is a concise overview of your proposal. Write it after completing all the other components.

If a checklist is provided use it from the beginning. It will help you focus and help fit the pieces of the puzzle together.

And, don't wait till the last minute: your copy machine will certainly die and the ribbon for that under-used typewriter will run out minutes after Staples has closed.

Sue Fox is President of Arlen Sue Fox, Inc. specializing in research, planning, communication and program evaluation services for nonprofit organizations. She can be reached at 212/222-9946.

Copyright 1998 Nonprofit Coordinating Committee of New York