Evaluating Your List of Grant Prospects

Now that we have finished our research, it is time to put it all together and develop a strategy, or plan of action, by which we can access grant funds for our project. The most important rule to follow here is to be inclusive when it comes to developing a list of potential funding sources. If there is any doubt at all, it is best to keep that source on the list. This is particularly true of private foundations where often the first inquiry is a two-page letter. In most cases, the same letter can be sent to multiple foundations with very slight variations. There is therefore little or no cost involved in including additional foundations on the “potentials” list. It is much better to include some sources which may not work rather than miss out on a source which might later prove to be a beautiful fit for the project.

Most governmental grant programs are generally rather clear in their guidelines. Once again, the idea here is to look for “deal breakers” such as project eligibility, applicant eligibility, geographical eligibility, due date, and matching funds. If there is any doubt at all, it is absolutely essential to contact the funding agency to get clarification. It makes no sense to commit significant staff resources to write an application only to have it be turned down during the initial review without being rated or ranked due to ineligibility. It can also be quite embarrassing to explain to your boss or to your Board of Directors.

Once the grant writer determines whether the project (or the applicant agency) will meet threshold (eligibility) review, it is time to determine the chances of success versus the staff resources required to complete the applications. There are several variables here, and the process somewhat resembles a juggling act. If the application is relatively simple, it makes sense to apply even if chances of getting the funding may not be the most promising. In this case, relatively few resources will be utilized, but yet there is still a chance of receiving grant money. There is no magic formula which tells you when the committal of resources is worth it. This is a highly personalized decision made by the applicant agency and will in part depend upon how ample the agency’s resources are. If the organization is operating on a shoestring, it may not be worth the effort to have three staff members take two entire days to prepare an application which only has about a 10-15 percent chance of being funded. There are better ways to utilize staff resources.

On the other hand, an application with a relatively high chance of being funded should be submitted even if a significant amount of time and resources is involved. It is better to stretch oneself a bit and “go out on the limb” in order to have the best chance of succeeding at grant seeking. Even if the first try does not succeed, the organization is in a better position the following grant round and may very well receive the funds at that time. A re-submittal of the same application obviously does not involve nearly as much work. In addition, if your agency submits two or more of this type of application, even if the staff is hard-pressed for a short period of time, the odds are that you will receive approval for least one of these applications.

Most federal applications require a substantial amount of work. It is also well to keep in mind that federal programs are awarded through national competitions. It is a good idea to not apply to federal programs if the project is marginal and significant resources are needed to complete the application. For this reason, it may be well to give preference to state programs.

Other search criteria which can eliminate certain private foundations are geographic eligibility, eligibility of the applicant, and eligibility of the activity. The chances of receiving funds from a local foundation or from a foundation which only awards grants within a certain state are much higher than receiving funds from a foundation which gives on a national basis. The grant seeker is also advised to try to match its proposed project as closely as possible with the interest areas of the various foundations. A client recently asked me to search for funding to construct a building which would house a local Boy Scout troop. When searching foundations which give nationally, I only specified those which are interested in giving to Boy Scout projects. If I had searched for national foundations which are interested in giving to youth activities, the list would have been too long and it would have been very difficult to sort it out. However, in searching local and state foundations in my area, I included both areas of interest — Boy Scouts and youth. The advantage in applying to local and state foundations was enough to include those only stating an interest in youth activities.

When making telephone or e-mail inquiries to private foundations in order to determine the eligibility of your project for their funding, keep your questions short and
direct. You will be much more likely to receive an answer this way. Do not ask them to make a detailed critique of your project’s eligibility. They do not have the time for this.

One last word on eliminating various sources- clearly, those funding agencies whose applications and administrative requirements are beyond the scope of your ability should be taken off your list. One example which comes to mind is many of the programs funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The majority of the funding awarded by this agency is for scientific research which must have a principal lead investigator with sufficient academic and research credentials. In addition, the project must be rigorously designed in order to follow the protocols accepted by the scientific community. The applications are extremely lengthy and complex and it is most helpful if a scientist completes the majority of the items. It is almost impossible to “get your foot in the door” unless you are a recognized academic/scientist/researcher. Several laypeople have approached me about applying to NIH for rather loosely organized studies dealing with mental and physical health. I have told all of them that such an application would be a waste of time. This is something that I very seldom tell anyone.

Dos and Don’ts Straight From the Funding Agencies-Part II

“Dos” in Searching for Grants:
 Look for organizations in the area which offer the free use of search resources, including Foundation Center Online. This could include community foundations, colleges and universities.
 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.

Dos and Don’ts Straight From the Funding Agencies-Part I

This is the first in a series of posts regarding my conversations with funding agencies over the 35 years I have been a Grant Writer. These posts will cover what the reviewers think is the most important pieces to the puzzle of getting funded. This one covers the “Dos” in general and in project design.
• 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.
Designing 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.
 Review the solutions implemented by other organizations which have a similar need – however, be aware of your unique circumstances.
 If necessary, be willing to travel to see other projects which have a bearing on yours. If this is not possible, talk on the telephone.
 Think “outside of the box” when developing a project – the sky is the limit!
 Use common sense in project development – sometimes your own best judgment is the answer!

Obligations That Come With Grants

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. Most grantees have their attorney review it. I have only seen two or three grantees who decided to not proceed with the project after reading the grant agreement. Most of the provisions of the agreement relate to administering the project according to the laws governing that particular program. In addition, the grantee is signing off that the project will proceed just as it was described in the grant application.

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.

Free Resources to Search for Foundations

The Foundation Center is the source that I most commonly use when searching for funding from private foundations due primarily to the comprehensive nature of its information. This organization has been in existence for over fifty years and offers information on 98,000 foundations and 1.8 million individual grants. However, this is merely a matter of personal preference. To check it out, go to www.foundationcenter.org. The following is the free information available from this organization:

• A list of the one hundred wealthiest U.S. foundations
• A list of the amount of funding provided by subject area for each year, and the recipients receiving the largest amount of funding for each subject area
• Foundation Finder- the grant seeker may locate foundations by searching either by their name, location, or their employer identification number, which is assigned by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
• 990 Finder- the searcher may locate a particular 990 by inputting either the 990 form type, organization name, location, Employer Identification Number, and/or year.
• Trend Tracker-the user of the service may specify up to five foundations at a time and receive information regarding how much those foundations have given over a seven-year period. This information is provided in bar graph, line graph, and table form.
• Search for Requests for Proposals- the grant seeker may search by subject or browse all of the requests for proposals listed. The website shows a summary of each RFP with a link to the original posted opportunity.
• Map showing grants by U.S. grant makers to groups abroad-this map is interactive and the researcher may click on specific countries to get information about the grants given in that country. • Common grant application forms used by various associations of grant makers throughout the country
• Research studies showing trends in grant making

What is the most useful component of the Foundation Center in your opinion?

Tips for the Application Process:

 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.

The Importance of Critical Thinking


In the grant field, critical thinking is absolutely necessary. The caveat here is to take nothing for granted. I would like to point out several areas where grant writers should think critically. These are just examples and it is incumbent upon the grant writer to use this type of big picture thinking in all aspects of their work. These examples are as follows:


  • Do not assume that what has worked in another place will work in yours.  It is necessary to consider how the geographic location of that project affected the results.  If that is the case, then it might not be completely transferable to your area.
  • Do not assume that intangibles do not count in a project. Not everything can be measured in a scientific and mathematical way. Most projects do not take into account how individual will (or lack thereof) can affect the results. This is particularly true in projects having a social services component. An after-school program may not take into account students who are unusually ambitious and dedicated.
  • Do not assume that the staff of your agency necessarily has the capacity to carry out a particular project. It is necessary for the grant writer to mentally put herself and her colleagues into the picture of the new project and try to visualize the various pitfalls as well as strengths there might be in a given situation.
  • Do not assume that commonly accepted remedies to problems are always the best way to go. One of the best examples of this is working to create new jobs in a community and not being selective about what types of companies come in. Always putting the creation of new jobs ahead of environmental considerations will, in the long run, be detrimental to the community.


Reasons for Rejection of an Application

There are many and various reasons for rejection of an application.  Some of these are as follows:


  • The grant proposal is poorly written.
  • The project is a poor fit with the need and will not do much to alleviate that need.
  • The proposed activities are not clearly thought out and do not seem feasible.
  • The competition from other applications is overwhelming.
  • The application is good and the need is great, but other projects will serve even needier populations.
  • The funding agency does not have confidence that the applicant has the capacity to successfully carry out the project.
  • The applicant has had problems in administering other grants.

Part of the problem is getting to the real root of the rejection.  This can sometimes be difficult.

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.

Grant Administration- How Hard is This Going to Be?


The grantee should be prepared for many varying requirements in grant administration.  I feel that it would be helpful to give a few examples showing the difference in the required paperwork for various granting agencies.  All funding agencies will request documentation that the funds were spent appropriately and for the purposes specified in the grant application.  This is the very least that one can expect in terms of documentation. 


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.  Sometimes, no grant agreement is required.  The grantee is still obligated to use the funds for the purpose for which they were intended. I am not aware of any foundation or government agencies which would simply send the money and not require some accountability.


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


Letters of Inquiry to Foundations

Most foundations require a letter of inquiry as the first contact.  If the project seems to be within their guidelines and funding priorities, they will then invite the submission of a full proposal. 


First of all, the grant writer should restrict the length of this letter to no more than two pages if the guidelines do not specify.  In this letter, your only job is to convince the foundation that your project is a good fit with their fields of interest. 


Prior to beginning the letter, a decision should be made on the amount to be requested.  This will be dependent in large part on the resources of the foundation.  Search material should discuss the total assets of the foundation, along with the average grant amount, the smallest grant, and the largest grant.


The first paragraph should clearly state the purpose of the project so that the reviewer will know exactly what will be done. This is also the place for the total project cost and the amount requested from the foundation.  Lastly, a couple of sentences regarding how the project fits with the foundation’s funding priorities should be included.  These basic facts are important to have in the very beginning, so that they will catch the reviewer’s eye and she will want to read on.


The next paragraph should go into detail regarding the need for the project and include as much statistical information as possible.  This is also the place to make a strong appeal to the emotions of the reader.  It is wise to give one or two specific examples of the distress suffered as a result of the need for the project.  This is where the “human factor” comes in.  The grant writer will be wise to combine hard data and emotion in this section.


Following this, a history of your organization should be given.  This should include a description of similar projects which have been successfully undertaken.  This is also the place to discuss your organization’s mission and its priorities. You want to convince the reader that your organization has the capacity to undertake the project, that your staff has the appropriate skill sets for the work, and that you will give it the priority it deserves so that it may be completed in a timely manner.


The next section of the inquiry letter should go into some detail regarding how the project will be implemented.  It is important to detail each step in the process from beginning to end.  By doing so, the reader may see the feasibility of the project and feel confident that your organization knows exactly what it takes to get the project completed on schedule and within the budget.  Goals, objectives, and positive outcomes will also be discussed here.


Sustainability and evaluation should be discussed next.  Having solid plans in place for both issues assures the foundation that your organization has thoroughly thought through the entire process.  The foundation will want to know that resources have been identified to continue the project beyond the grant period and that a thorough evaluation will be performed in order to determine its effectiveness.


Close the letter by offering to meet with the foundation officials at their office, host a site visit, or discuss the project over the telephone.  Emphasize your willingness to provide any additional information requested by the foundation.