Landing a government grant from your local, state, or the federal government could be a wonderful thing for your nonprofit. However, it is not as easy as it might look at first. Applying for government grants can be an arduous process.
One important point to remember: Don’t believe or respond to the ads you might see that advertise free government money. In short, anything being promoted as free is a scam — there's no such thing as free money.
Are You Sure You Are Ready?
Before you decide to apply for a government grant, it might be wise to apply for a foundation grant first. Even if you are turned down by a foundation, the experience of researching foundations and writing a grant will make applying for a government grant easier or at least more familiar.
Also, take a good look at the readiness of your organization to apply for any grant.
Are you a registered 501c3 nonprofit? How long have you been operating? Do you have a track record of delivering robust programs in your community? Are your finances solid? Do you have a good board? Do you have a strategic plan? All of these factors affect how ready you are to apply for grants.
You might want to check out your motivation for applying for any kind of grant as well. Grants will not solve your financial problems, help you establish a brand new nonprofit, or sustain you for the long haul.
If you've determined that you are ready, have some experience in grant writing and want to look into government grants, read on for a closer look at the pros and cons of government grants and what you need to qualify for them.
The Pros and Cons of Government Grants
- Many government grants are quite large and could provide much support for your cause.
- Government money provides nonprofits credibility so that they can attract other funding.
- Government agencies often provide free technical assistance to their grantees. There may be workshops or even consulting to assist your nonprofit in delivering services or to improve your technology.
- Government agencies might introduce you to a network of potential partners or resources.
- Government agencies could come to consider your nonprofit an expert in your field and give you more say on public policy issues.
- Complicated grant applications. Just getting a grant application for a government agency ready can be quite labor-intensive. Federal grant applications for nonprofits can take 80-200 hours to complete, and hiring a grant writer to prepare one will likely cost several thousand dollars.
- Short lead times. By the time government grant competitions are announced, deadlines are often just four to eight weeks away.
- Increased oversight and monitoring of how funds are spent and whether results achieved matched those promises.
- Slow reimbursement. Government agencies typically do not shovel out the money in advance. They reimburse you after you spend money. That payment can take too long, creating a temporary funding gap for your nonprofit.
- Displacement or reduction in other funding. For instance, some individual donors might feel that your charity now has enough money and stop donating
8 Ways to be Successful at Getting a Government Grants
Before you spend precious time applying for government funding, make sure that your nonprofit is positioned for success.
Organizations that are the most successful in landing government grants have these qualities:
1. A history of successful grant seeking. Government agencies look for evidence that your organization has already gotten grants from foundations such as community, family, or corporate foundations.
You should also have ongoing support from your board of directors — some funders require evidence that 100 percent of your board donates to your organization every year.
2. 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, with financial aid programs, or with disadvantaged populations. The head of the program should have at minimum a Master's degree.
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?
3. A history of successful outcomes. Do you have outcomes related to your past work? How healthy are those outcomes? Do you use Logic Models or a theory of change to design and evaluate your programs? Can you quantify the social return on investment for your work?
4. A program that reflects nationally-recognized best practices. Reviewers want to see that you have done your homework. Your program must use national best practices that are acknowledged in the literature or by your funding source.
Good examples of those best practices are available through the Centers for Disease Control and 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.
5. A compelling need supported by relevant data from credible sources. You must provide sufficient evidence (i.e., statistics, demographics, community descriptions, anecdotes) to support your proposed solution (i.e., the program or project for which you request funding).
Consider your data as a teaching tool for grant reviewers. If it is old or from questionable sources, grant reviewers will believe that you do not know what you are talking about.
Include information from the national, state, and local levels (in that order) to verify the problem. Use information 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 may use anecdotes or case histories to put a human face on those dry statistics but never rely on anecdotes alone. Use emotion appropriately: find a balance between reason (the data) and emotion (the human element).
6. A credible evaluation plan or external evaluator. Do you have a solid evaluation plan in place that uses multiple ways to assess your success in the short-term, mid-term, and long-term? If not, have you established a relationship with an external evaluator (i.e., a Ph.D.) who will design your outcomes measurement strategy?
7. Relevant collaborations that are backed up in writing. Most government grants require Memoranda of Understanding or 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.
8. Current Central Contractor Registration and Grants.gov account (if pursuing federal funds). To apply for federal funding, you must have current Central Contractor Registration and Grants.gov accounts. These can take a few days to establish (Do not wait until the last minute).
By following these guidelines, you can set your nonprofit up for success.