From Matthew Lesko's ubiquitous commercials about free federal money to the torrent of funding available through the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act (i.e. stimulus funding), it would seem that all nonprofits should be pursuing the mountains of government grants available. But is your nonprofit ready to pursue government funding?
Competition for all grants has intensified significantly since the recession began in 2009. And by the time government grant competitions are announced, deadlines are generally just four to eight weeks away. That doesn't give you the time you need to develop a competitive grant proposal. So before you spend 80 to 100 hours of your precious time writing a grant application for government funding, consider if your nonprofit is positioned for success.
The most successful organizations in the government grant competition have:
- A history of successful grant seeking
Government agencies look for evidence that your organization has already been successful in securing grants from local and regional foundations, local community foundations, family foundations, and/or corporate philanthropy programs.
You should also have ongoing support from your board of directors -- some funders require evidence that 100% of your board donates to your organization every year.
Why should the state or federal government support your work if you don't have the support of your local funders and your own board?
- Capacity and credibility
Do you have the right staff with the right qualifications in place to implement your program? If you are planning an academic counseling program, for instance, you should have staff in place (or plan to hire) people who have worked in higher education, who have worked with financial aid programs, and who have worked with disadvantaged populations. The head of the program should have a Master's degree or higher.
Do you have sufficient technological resources to implement your programs and manage complex government grants? Do you have the right site or space to run your proposed program?
- A history of successful outcomes
Do you have outcomes related to your past work? How strong are those outcomes? Do you use Logic Models to design and evaluate your programs (recommended)? Can you quantify the social return on investment for your work?
- A proposed program that reflects nationally recognized best practices
Reviewers want to see that you have done your homework. Your program must be aligned with national best practices that are recognized in the literature or by your funding source. Good examples are available through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention best practices (state and community best practices and violence prevention best practices) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. You may also find information about best practices in your field's peer-reviewed literature.
- A need that is supported by current, relevant data from credible sources
You must provide sufficient evidence (i.e. statistics, demographics, community descriptions, anecdotes, etc.) to support your proposed solution (i.e. the program or project for which you request funding).
Think of your data as a teaching tool for grant reviewers. If your data is old or from less than credible sources, grant reviewers will be more likely to think you don't know what you're talking about.
Include information from the national, state, and local levels (in that order) to substantiate the problem. Use information culled from government reports and databases, industry white papers, peer-reviewed literature, and other reliable sources. Reliable data sources include:
- U.S. Census Data
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Kaiser Family Foundation State Health Facts
- Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's County Health Rankings
- Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count
You may also find useful data at your state or local department of health websites. You can use anecdotes or case histories to put a human face on 'dry' statistics, but never rely on anecdotes alone. Use emotion appropriately: find a balance between reason (the data) and emotion (the human element) to motivate the grant reviewer.
- A credible evaluation plan or external evaluator
Do you have a solid evaluation plan in place that uses multiple evaluation types to assess success in the short-term, mid-term, and long-term? If not, have you established a relationship with an external evaluator (i.e. a PhD) who will design your outcomes measurement strategy?
- Relevant collaborations that are backed up in writing
Most government grants require Memoranda of Understanding or at the least letters of support. These should include a detailed description of each organization's roles and responsibilities on your project. State how your proposed program is not a duplication of existing local programs.
- Current Central Contractor Registration and Grants.gov account (if pursuing federal funds)
Still not sure if you're ready? JustWrite Solutions has developed a Grant Decision Making Matrix to help you on your way. This assessment tool can be helpful for assessing your nonprofit's readiness for both government and private funding sources.
By following these guidelines, you will position your nonprofit for success. Now -- what elements do you already have in place, and what do you need to do better for more competitive government grant applications?