How to Keep the Funding Agencies Happy

It is almost impossible to be successful in grant writing unless one is very much attuned to the thoughts of those reviewing the application. Most staff members at the funding agencies actually welcome the opportunity to provide feedback to applicants.

My relationship with reviewing officials has made my job much easier. We freely share ideas back and forth. This has provided invaluable information which has greatly helped me in the quest for grant funds. The following is a compendium of what I have heard them say over the years. Much of this will seem like common sense, but it bears repeating. I have seen enough applications where directions have not been followed, the formatting is not done properly, or avoidable mistakes have been made. This list provides a quick and easy way of digesting the body of knowledge I have obtained over the years from those who have control over the money. If the grant writer follows the rules and works diligently at grant searches and on the grant applications, she can count on a good level of success.
•Read through the entire NOFA before starting the application.
•Review the NOFA with an eye toward looking for deal breakers.
•Identify the need before proposing a solution or searching for funds and quantify the extent of the need.
•Gather as much statistical and background data as possible before designing the project.

•Discuss possible solutions with key people prior to designing the project – get as much input as possible.
•Discuss the project with funding agency staff by telephone or e-mail before starting the application.Call a potential funding source if there is some doubt as to whether it should be included in your search results. When making these calls, go to the trouble of finding out which staff member can best help.
•Check several grant search resources – try at least 3 or 4.
•When doing a search, do not hesitate to contact peers in other organizations for ideas.
•When writing the results of a grant search, develop a clear strategy for action which is realistic and offers the best chance of receiving funding as soon as possible.
•Follow up on letters of inquiry to foundations if no response is received. Many foundations do not reply.
•Make letters of inquiry brief (no more than 2 pages) but informative – stress the need for the project, your organization’s ability to carry it out, and the benefits which will accrue from it.
•Respond promptly if a foundation requests a full proposal based on a letter of inquiry.
•Check the web site of a funding agency thoroughly before e-mailing or telephoning so as to avoid asking questions which are clearly answered on the web site.
•Ensure that you have the latest version of the application and regulations.
•Check the math in the budget – although this is obvious, many applicants make mathematical errors.
•Pay attention to those agencies which require that a Letter of Intent be filed prior to a full application. In nearly all cases, there is a specific deadline for submitting this letter.
•Pay careful attention to the rating and ranking criteria when crafting a proposal. Incorporate the application language into the narrative.
•Be concise but thorough in the narrative.
•If there is a specific page maximum, be sure that you come as close to that as possible without exceeding it. You can rest assured that the other applicants will provide as much information as possible.
•Give a descriptive narrative with specific examples.
•Be crystal clear in your writing. Do not “beat around the bush”.
•Be complete and thorough in the narrative – do not leave the reviewer wondering what you mean. Answer the questions completely.
•Use good grammar and correct punctuation and spelling.
•Re-read the application at least twice.
•Give proper attribution for all information derived from others and cite sources for statistical data
•Answer the funding agency’s requests for additional information completely, cheerfully, and on time.
•Send letters of support with the application itself unless the guidelines state otherwise. However, some U.S. Representatives and Senators will only send support letters directly to the funding agency.
•If there is any doubt whatsoever about whether an application will reach the office of the funding agency on time, send it overnight or two-day guaranteed delivery.
•Send the application directly to the person named in the solicitation, with the correct number of copies.
•Check to see that the application arrived on time.
•Start on-line applications early so that you can get your questions answered before the deadline.
•Keep the user name and password for on-line applications in a handy place where they will not be lost.
•Do your best to stave off performance anxiety as the due date for the application arrives – this will impair your ability to do the best job possible.
•Do your best to be available for site visits when the funding agency wants to come. Only change the date if there is an emergency.
•Sign and return the grant acceptance documents promptly.
•Read the grant agreement carefully.
•Call the funding agency or foundation with any questions regarding the administration of the funds. They would rather have you call frequently than have a mess to clean up at the time of the audit. They are worried about those grantees who do not call.
•Ensure as much accuracy in financial recordkeeping as humanly possible. This is what the funding agencies will check first.
•Begin to implement your project as soon as you possibly can. Funding agencies do not like to give extensions and in many cases will not give them for any reason.
•If you are passing funds through to a sub-recipient, monitor their work closely. Your agency will be held accountable if anything goes wrong.
•Check to see what procurement procedures the funding agency requires for any purchases.
•Check periodically during implementation to be sure that the project is meeting the need and fulfilling the goals.
•For projects involving individual beneficiaries, be sure to get all of the pertinent information qualifying that individual or family (such as income verification) prior to approving or disbursing any benefits.
•Be completely cooperative during a monitoring visit and provide everything the funding agency asks for.
•Answer any monitoring findings completely and promptly. Funding for your next project will depend upon it!
•Keep accurate and up-to-date records as the project proceeds

Putting an Application Rejection Into Perspective

Most grant writers tend to blame themselves unduly if an application is rejected. Granted, there are sometimes instances where obvious mistakes have been made on the part of the grant writer. However, I have found that most professionals in this field are sincerely dedicated to their jobs and really want to receive the grant money. This is a very big incentive to do the very best job possible on the grant application.

This field of work has some features which are different from many others. There is a need to remain focused and stay on track, as tangible products must be produced. It is hard to “slack off” when there is a submission deadline to be met. The funding agencies will not accept late applications. Grant writers who do not produce an application on time will not have many more chances to redeem themselves. Not meeting the deadline and therefore not being able to submit an application is considered to be a failure of the worst sort.

This of course produces a pressure to perform, which can, in extreme cases, induce performance anxiety. This is exacerbated by the highly competitive field in which the grant writer operates. In the case of most federal and state grant opportunities, all municipalities, counties, or nonprofits applying are in competition with one another. This does nothing to reduce the pressure.

Conversely, when an application is approved, the grant writer becomes a “rainmaker”. As one can imagine, this is a highly respected person who is given a great deal of importance within the organization.

The purpose of saying all of this is to caution the grant writer to not become overly identified with the results of any one particular application or even several applications. In order to preserve one’s sense of balance, it is necessary to not become overly dejected when an application is not funded or to take too much of the credit for successful applications.

Documenting What You Say in the Grant Application

This is nothing more and nothing less than proof or backup for what the grant writer says in an application and is invaluable in establishing credibility. This also pays off not just in the current application round but in subsequent rounds, as funding agencies begin to see that your agency always presents truthful and complete information.
Examples of documentation include the following:
• Proof of matching funds (this can be a letter from the funding agency or a grant agreement)
• Rejection letters from other funders
• Memorandum of Understanding with a cooperating agency which shows that the applicant has solid partners to carry out the project
• Resumes of key project personnel
• Engineer’s or architect’s estimate of costs
• Income survey results
• Census or Bureau of Labor Statistics maps and tables
• Other research results
• Letters of support from community organizations or groups which will benefit from the project
• Drawings or renderings of the facility to be constructed or rehabilitated with the grant
• Map(s) of the project area
• Progress reports for previous grants from the agency from whom the funds are being requested
• Photographs
• Organizational documents (charter, Articles of Incorporation, Bylaws)
• Certificate of Good Standing issued by the state (for nonprofits; this may have different names in different states)
• Environmental review documents
• Financial statements, audit reports, operating budgets and tax returns
• Proof of 501©(3) status
• List of Board of Directors
• Resolution of support from a local government or the Board of Directors of a nonprofit organization

What To Do If Your Grant Application Is Not Approved

Many of my posts here have focused on ways to make your grant application better or more attractive to those giving out grant money. Regardless of how hard you work there is always a chance of failure be it from a small but critical detail missed in the application, your project not being as attractive as you thought, or simply being faced with an overwhelming amount of competition for a highly sought after grant. With that in mind, here are some helpful pieces of advice for when an application is not approved.

First you should find out why your application was turned down via a debriefing. A debriefing is a discussion with the funding agency as to why the application was not funded. Many governmental agencies will be happy to discuss the reasons for rejection. However, I would urge the grant writer to listen to the debriefings with a bit of caution. Feedback is sometimes given by staff members who were not actually reviewers and were not charged with the responsibility of assigning points to the application. When this is the case, something can sometimes get lost in the translation.

Overall, however, it is an excellent idea to request a debriefing. This information can be invaluable in developing the proposal for a re-submittal or for a submittal to a different agency. This is especially true for beginning grant writers. As one gains more and more experience, it will be easy to see the weaknesses in your proposal even prior to submittal. I would definitely recommend that a proposal still be re-submitted even though there are minor flaws in it. Sometimes these can be worked out with the funding agency. Sometimes they are so insignificant as not to matter. It is important to take to heart the information received in a debriefing and attempt to remedy the problems identified.

Foundations are not as likely to give debriefings. I have heard from numerous nonprofits that they are sometimes not even notified that their grant has been turned down. In other instances, when a letter is sent, it often does not give a reason for rejection. I would still advise applicants to attempt to receive a debriefing from private foundations. However, I would caution you not to be too optimistic about the foundation staff members being willing to take the time to provide this information.

After identifying why the grant was turned down, if the problem is something fixable one has to then decide whether to resubmit the application in the next round of funding or move onto another grant program. Most places allow resubmission and there is often little reason to not try again, especially since most of the narrative can likely be used with minor modifications. However, one should not depend on a single source of funding if at all possible. It thus is a good idea to apply to other funding agencies as well. The answer to the question posed in the opening sentence of this paragraph is to do both if possible!

Grant Administration – Environmental Review

Last time we talked about the grant agreement which covers requirements that go along with most government related grants be they federal, state, or more localized. An Environmental Review is somewhat like that, but only with federal grants and with a much more narrow scope. The federal government wants to know whether a particular project will have an adverse impact upon the social, physical, or natural environment. Let’s discuss what each of those categories entail in a bit more detail.

The social environment refers to quality-of-life issues which affect human society. An example of this might be a housing project which will displace low-and-moderate income families. Although the project would not be funded without including money for adequate compensation for these properties, the residents to be displaced will still experience an upheaval in their lives. They will be forced to leave familiar neighborhoods with familiar faces and all that that implies. The idea of “home” is more than just a physical one. To the credit of the federal government, this type of issue is taken into account in environmental reviews. Many novice grant writers are surprised that this factor would be part of the equation in this type of review, as most people automatically think of the “environment” as being strictly natural resources, such as rivers, lakes, streams, forests, and mountains.

The physical environment refers to man-made structures. As an example, Form RD 1940-20 (Request for Environmental Information), used by the United States Department of Agriculture, asks whether a particular project will have an impact on the following man-made facilities: industrial, commercial, residential, agricultural, grazing land, mining, recreational facilities, transportation, parks, hospitals, schools, historical sites, and solid waste management.

The third type of environment, the natural environment, refers to features of geography and wildlife that most of us think of as comprising “nature”. Form RD 1940-20 separates these into categories as follows: forests, aquifer recharge area, steep slopes, wildlife refuge, shoreline, beaches, dunes, estuary, wetlands, floodplain, wilderness, wild and scenic rivers, critical habitat, wildlife, air quality, energy supplies, and coastal barrier resources systems. The federal government offers guidance as to exactly how each term is defined. This guidance is intended to assist the applicant in deciding whether a particular natural structure fits the federal definition.

Grant Administration – The Grant Agreement

Having a “grant agreement” is usually something found in federal grants but not always in grants from private foundations. Legally, it is assumed that the representations made in the grant application constitute the grantee’s agreement to carry out the project as stated. In general, most foundations which do require a grant agreement draw up very simple documents.

Grant agreements can vary in length from the two to four pages required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency all the way up to the thirty or forty pages of a CDBG grant agreement. Since the administrative and fiscal requirements are generally the same from grant to grant, much of the governmental grant agreement is boilerplate material, with information specific to a particular grant inserted in the appropriate places.

If the grantee is a local government, the chief elected official is the person designated to sign the agreement. If a nonprofit is the grantee, generally the President of the Board of Directors is the official empowered to sign. It is a good idea to review the agreement carefully prior to signing. Though I have only seen two or three grantees turn down a grant after reading the grant agreements, most grantees have their attorney review it regardless.

Standard information included in the grant agreement is as follows:

•a description of the project with the amount of the grant and the amount of the local match
•contact information for the agency and the grantee
•grant period or timeframe by which the project must be started and deadline by which it must be completed-this is generally at least one year. However, some programs offer multiyear funding. The timeframe will be spelled out in the grant solicitation. In general, most multiyear grants provide for no more than three or four years.
•listing of any information which the grantee must provide to the funding agency prior to beginning the project
•information regarding the penalties to be incurred if the grant terms are not adhered to
•provisions for modifying the project
•listing and description of the various laws which govern the program, including those dealing with environmental review, labor standards, historic preservation, fair housing, and equal opportunity

Once the grantee is satisfied that the requirements of the grant agreement are fully understood, it should be signed and returned to the agency. It is well to complete this process as soon as possible, as the project cannot start until the grant agreement is fully executed-meaning that it is signed by both the funding agency and the grantee.

Grant Administration – Overview

Most people focus on obtaining the grant, but even when you succeed that is not the end of your work effort. One has to be prepared to provide documentation to the funders to show that the funds were spent on what you said they would be in the grant application.

Virtually all grant makers be they federal, state, or private foundation will require some sort of proof of funds being used appropriately though how much proof can vary greatly. Probably the simplest grants to administer are those from private foundations. The application forms can be very simple, sometimes involving no more than two pages. Some foundations require several progress reports. It is also possible that special conditions may be attached to the grant in order to meet the specific preferences of the board members. These can vary widely. It may be that the foundation requires the grantee to only utilize American labor and products, or limits funding to certain geographic areas, or wishes to remain anonymous.

Most governmental entities will require the following once the grant is approved:

• environmental review (this is sometimes done prior to approval)
• execution of the grant agreement
• documentation of banking information in order to expedite the processing of payments
• written progress reports at varying intervals — these could be either quarterly, semi-annually, or annually
• execution of grant closeout documents

Some administrative reports can require a single page while others such as funds from CDBG can be very extensive and require a large document covering Affirmative Action Plan, Minority Business Enterprise Plan, Fair Housing Plan, Retention of Records Plan, Personnel Policy, Section 504 Plan to cover issues related to services to handicapped citizens, and Procurement Policy to name just a few. Most grants will fall in between but regardless of how much work is involved in administration it is a good idea to plan for it early on in the planning stages of a grant application and to keep excellent records throughout so that you are not caught by surprise with little to no proof of how the funds were spent.

Use Webinars to Get Grant Dollars

The following comments were made by attendees at a 2-part webinar given for the Grant Professionals Association in Kansas City:

“This was a packed webinar, full of very useful information, presented in a professional, friendly manner by a person who knows her stuff. I got a lot out of it.”

“Very informative presenter”

“Solid information. The strategy module was a good inclusion. Well-structured and delivered.”

“Very well-organized and well-paced”

“Valerie presented the material in a practical, easy-to-understand manner. I thought she did an excellent presentation.”

“Valerie Mann was very knowledgeable of foundations and researching to match the foundation guidelines with the needs of your program. I found the webinar to be very informative in applying for a foundation grant.”

“Great webinar. Presenter was terrific!”

My most popular webinar is “Searching for Grants”. This is a very thorough and complete tutorial on all of the search mechanisms and software for finding federal, state, corporate, bank, and financial grant assistance. It consists of a 1 1/2 hour presentation, with 15 minutes for questions. I have consistently received a high registration for these webinars and have gotten numerous comments on how useful these webinars are. Most beginning grant seekers don’t really know all of the resources that are out there to search for grants, including grants.gov, the Catalogue of Federal Domestic Assistance, the Foundation Center and many others. I explain all of this in detail and discuss which search mechanisms are the most useful and which are the least useful. There is also a section on how to take the sources you have identified and decide your action steps. These webinars are given about once a month. See below on how to register. This is specific, concrete information which you can take back to your office and begin using immediately. The next webinar will be held on 6/12 from 2:00 to 3:45 p.m.

Elements of a Proposal

It is not enough to simply be able to write well when it comes to submitting a grant application. In fact, many critical aspects need to be addressed before one even begins to write the grant narrative! Having a solid project with well defined goals and objectives is of the utmost importance. No matter how talented a writer you are, if your project is shoddy in execution or scope nothing will hide that.

In addition to having a rock solid project, it is important to know exactly what is required of you as the grant writer on a given application. One should completely read the solicitation before beginning, preferably twice so that nothing is missed. Discussing your project with the contact listed on the application is a good idea if you are unsure if your goals mesh entirely with the funder’s. Even if you are confident that they do, it does not hurt to make sure and discuss the project anyways.

Even following all the above steps and being a great writer won’t mean anything if you’re not able to meet the application’s deadline. Look to see when you have to have it in by, and do an honest assessment of whether you (and those helping you if any) will be able to complete the application by the due date.

Lastly one needs to gauge the feasibility of getting the statistical and supporting information you will need to write the grant narrative. Without this information your project will look much weaker and including it is crucial. Even if you can track down the information, do not forget to take into account how long it will take to gather and include it and whether you can still meet the deadline.

By taking the above into account, as well as making sure to write specifically and in non-vague terms you will find yourself completing grant solicitations on time and of higher quality than you would otherwise.

Good luck and happy writing!

General Writing Tips Part 2

A while back I wrote a post with a handful of brief writing tips and promised to cover the topic in more depth at a later time. That time is now and once again I would like to further discuss several aspects of writing a grant application that I did not cover last time.

One thing I find a lot of people do during a grant application that hurts their chances is being too vague. Saying in general terms what your project needs or is going to do might be a good intro, but without going into specifics it will not be an attractive proposition to potential funders and will be much less likely to get funded. Talking about exactly what your project will do and having concrete goals and objectives can go a long way towards making a project more appealing.

Another problem that many writers overlook is not having proper grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Having a professional looking narrative is of the utmost importance and submitting something filled with mistakes and errors can make a decent narrative be rejected. It is highly worthwhile to review any writing you are going to submit more than once, possibly by someone else if possible (as people sometimes overlook errors in what they write). It is hard to overstate the importance of having your grant submission looking its best. One of the best ways to learn how to write is to read a good book on grammar. This is a relatively easy and inexpensive way to get started. It is also very helpful for the writer to keep a thesaurus close at hand while working.

Since the grant writer wants to make as good an impression on the reviewer as possible, it is necessary to ensure that any writing is “letter perfect”. As I have said before, small errors give the reader the impression that the writer is not attentive to detail and has sloppy work habits. This is why accurate editing is so important. It is worth taking the extra time to make that second review.

Stay tuned for further blog posts about grant writing and the entire process from searching for potential funders to what to do after you’ve sent your submission in.