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The future of competitive grant making – in both public and private spheres – is of considerable interest to grant seekers and to those professionals who work with and/or for them.

 

This post explores four administrative and political trends impacting the future of public grant making, particularly at the Federal level. Its purpose is descriptive, not normative. Arguably, although the trends’ context is American, their scope and consequences are potentially global.

 

Targeted Funding:

Targeted funding is not new, but it becomes more popular and more intensive during periods of perceived or actual economic malaise. It reflects a widely held premise that public grant funds in general – and Federal grant funds in particular – should focus narrowly on the needs of certain pre-defined groups. As a question of public policy, it is most often framed in terms of advancing equal access or fairness or equity, least often in terms of resource allocation or even redistribution of wealth. The legislation enabling a grant program may designate its eligible beneficiaries as ‘underrepresented populations’ or as ‘underserved communities’. Statutory definitions amplify what these are. Those communities, subgroups, and individuals who seldom if ever qualify as targets may doubt the need for targeting; those who do qualify may demand more of it.

 

Budget Earmarks:

Creating earmarks is the practice – once rampant, very recently abated – of attaching or embedding provisions in Federal legislation that assign Federal appropriations to benefit one or more of a specific legislator’s local constituencies. The earmark recipients acquire the funding without putting the merits of their plans to any test – no competition, no panels or peer review, no ranking against other proposals. Those organizations and locales that don’t already get one or more earmarks may question why they should bother competing for grants when such shortcuts – and such certainty of outcomes – seem available for the asking.

 

Formula Drift:

The formula drift, as I term it, is the discontinuation of discretionary grant programs in new legislation and their replacement with formula-based ones, if any at all. The drift strongly tends to favor larger cities over smaller communities, more urban states over more rural ones. Recipients of such funding no longer need to compete for it, but can acquire it so long as they satisfy certain eligibility criteria, submit a pro forma application, and comply with legislated accountability standards.

 

Accountability:

Of two main types of accountability – fiscal and programmatic – it is a public grant program’s degree of success in obtaining desired outputs and outcomes across its pool of grantees, which more broadly impacts the future of grant seeking. If too many grantees report too little success, legislators may zero-fund the entire program. Even though grant awards may fund multiyear projects, every grantee must report its progress in achieving its objectives every year. And every year, discontinuation of funding for the entire program in subsequent years is possible.

 

Later posts will explore other trends imperiling the future of grant making in both the public and private spheres.

For virtually every grant proposal you ever will submit you will need to answer: How? When? Who? What? Where? and How Much? Consequently, as you plan your grant proposal, be sure to:

  • Identify needed resources: Equipment? Materials? Personnel? Facilities? Funds?
  • Identify the sources for every needed resource: In-house? Partners? New grant funds?
  • Identify and list the numbers of units and unit costs for every needed resource.
  • Revise the budget line items as you organize and write the proposal.

HOW?: Refine your approach to your project by asking how will you:

  • Staff the project?
  • Train the staff?
  • Retain consultants or other contractual services?
  • Manage the project?
  • Equip the project?
  • Recruit and select participants?
  • Design and conduct activities?
  • Select and develop materials?
  • Market or promote the project?
  • Evaluate and report the results?
  • Share information with key partners?
  • Continue the project after the grant ends?
  • Locate and operate the project?

WHEN?: Define a timeline and milestones by:

  • Revising initial estimates as you proceed.
  • Looking at each program design component in terms of schedules and milestones.
  • Estimating the start dates and end dates for each key activity.
  • Anticipating that many key activities may take longer than you expect.

WHO?: Determine the personnel you will need by:

  • Revising initial estimates as you proceed.
  • Looking at each program design component in terms of personnel.
  • Considering the sources of the personnel: in-house, project, or partners.
  • Ensuring that someone leads or guides the entire proposal development process.

WHAT?: Identify the resources you will need by:

  • Revising initial estimates as you proceed.
  • Looking at each program design component in terms of needed resources.
  • Aligning needed equipment, supplies, materials, and services with key activities.
  • Identifying the sources of the needed resources: in-house, project, or partners.

WHERE?: Ascertain what facilities or venues you will need by:

  • Revising initial estimates as you proceed.
  • Looking at each program design component in terms of facilities or venues.
  • Aligning needed facilities or venues with key activities.
  • Identifying the sources of the needed facilities or venues: in-house, project, or partners.

HOW MUCH?: Build the budget you will need by:

  • Revising initial estimates as you proceed.
  • Looking at each program design component in terms of budget line items.
  • Obtaining actual costs and cost estimates for each line item.
  • Identifying the sources of the needed budget items: in-house, project, or partners.

If you plan your proposals by developing answers to these six basic questions, you will improve the likelihood of winning a grant.

If your organization intends to compete to win a highly coveted and widely sought grant award of $50,000, $500,000, or $5,000,000 or even much more, teamwork and persuasion often will prove indispensable. A funded proposal is a product of both attributes, which are key aspects of nearly every effective grant proposal.

1. Teamwork:

Ours is an era of ever more intense competition for grants from public and private sources. Strong teamwork is invaluable.

Virtually anyone can play a valuable part on a grant-seeking team. For example, in the context of grants for public education, specialists, experts, and technicians can serve as contributors of professional knowledge and research-based rationales. Parents, students, and other types of clients can share perceptions and insights about needs and priorities. Teachers, clinicians, and other types of practitioners can identify appropriate activities and effective strategies.

Although good technical writing helps a proposal to command attention and win approval, shared commitment, networking, energy, and imagination are equally indispensable.

2. Persuasion:

Grant proposals both describe and persuade. They appeal to both heart and mind. Good proposals respond meticulously to selection criteria. Their narratives support identified needs with data and research findings and build compelling arguments around them. Since successful applicants keep their decision-making audience in mind at all times, the proposals also incorporate the grant maker’s interests and priorities. They offer cost-effective solutions to problems regarded as important on both sides of the grant funding equation.

3. Product:

It is seldom enough these days only to use a team to develop a proposal or to make a compelling case for funding. The finished proposal, as a final product, will play a critical part in funding outcomes as well. Its outward appearance must connote the quality and completeness of its contents and the processes used to generate them. It must look the part it plays as a fund-raising document and an instrument of persuasion. In all respects, both its appearance and its contents – in every detail – must match the specific grant-making occasion.

It always takes time and effort to win a competitive grant. Eventual success requires a high degree of readiness and planning. Often it is difficult to know where to start. Having answers to basic questions often makes the entire process far less intimidating.

1. How Can We Prepare for a Grant Proposal?

Create or activate a broad-based proposal development team. Start by defining a local problem, documenting local priority needs, and reviewing existing local, regional, and state plans of action related to the problem and the needs. Identify funders who interested in similar problems and similar needs.

A strong proposal will match local unmet needs and priorities with those of each potential funder. Each funder will describe its interests in its publications; each proposal solicitation and each solicitation’s selection criteria will reflect them. After you have selected the specific funder and a funding opportunity, the selection criteria will offer a starting point for creating your proposal. Responding clearly to each funder’s criteria will help to ensure your proposal’s success.

2. What Parts Do Grant Proposals Have?

In general, a typical proposal has a narrative, a budget, and attachments. The narrative responds to explicit prompts, often called selection or review criteria. It discusses need, a plan of action, organizational capacity, staff qualification, evaluation, and budget. The budget itself consists of line items. Each line item falls under a specific cost category. Common types of cost categories are personnel, travel, and supplies – among others. The more completely your application meets specific funder’s requirements, the more likely the funder is to conclude you are worthy of funding.

3. Do Grant Proposals Have Other Parts?

Many proposals may need an abstract, a table of contents, and a transmission letter. Many applications also include several attachments or appendices, which vary widely in required number and type. Proposals for government grants often require special standard forms, such as an executive summary or a budget summary. Some foundations and corporations also require special application forms. Such forms may be unique to a specific funder or may be common among several of them.

No matter who requires them, many such forms require certifications and signatures from chief executive officers. In addition, a funder may require proof of eligibility, proof of non-profit status, names and affiliations of board members, audited financial statements, and similar supporting materials.

As I’ve noted previously, everyone who has ever won a grant award has ideas about what caused that result. No single explanatory idea is likely to be exhaust why it won funding.

Here are five more imperatives that, if heeded, should help to ensure your success from the start.

1. Be Persuasive: 

Every proposal is an act of persuasion. Convince a grant maker that investing in your organization’s proposed solution is prudent risk-taking. Rally succinct analyses of need and research-based plans of action to eradicate doubt. Demonstrate that your personnel, resources, and expertise are up to the task.

2. Create Context:

The more distant the grant source, the less likely it will know anything about your organization’s background or its problem-solving capacity. As an applicant, you must provide concise contextual information. Your organizational capability statement may set a context for both the problem you propose to address and its solution. The funder’s analyses in its publications may contribute to defining the problem’s context and possible solutions as well.

3. Be Logical:

Define a specific problem and offer a clear solution. Use data to demonstrate need and present comparative data to make your case whenever possible. Apply current research on best practices to support the solutions you propose. Make your conclusions flow directly from your premises. Offer a data-driven assessment of needs that leads to research-based strategies and logically sequenced action steps to address them.

4. Be Concise: 

Good proposal narratives are user-friendly, easy to follow. They move directly to the point. They demand guesswork of no one. Anticipate, avoid, and alleviate the tedium of seemingly interminable text. Try to merge well-selected data tables or other clear and simple graphics with text in a single seamless narrative. Always follow the funder’s directions about tables and other graphics and its instructions for format and other facets of your proposal.

5. Follow Criteria:

Selection criteria are the rules of the grant making game. Often, they are explicit; sometimes, implied as common knowledge. You must respond to all of them. You will seldom succeed when you omit or ignore or dispute them. When criteria remain unstated, you must apply the principles of effective grant proposal writing to discern and address them. Start with some of the most basic questions: Who? What? Where? How? Why? When? How often? By answering these few questions you’ll discover other basic questions that need answers.

Four more imperatives for winning grants will follow soon.

Virtually everyone who has ever had a grant proposal funded has ideas about what made it win funding. Some grant recipients may attribute their success to connections and networking. Others may attribute it to comprehensive planning and solid writing. Still others may attribute a grant award to great ideas and an exceptional history of accomplishments. All of such causal attributions may explain why a given proposal was funded; yet, seldom is any one of these attributions an exclusive cause of a funding outcome.

Here are five imperatives that, if heeded, should help to ensure your success from the start.

1. Communicate Quality:

Grant makers want to invest in projects that will succeed. Reassure them that you will be a capable, competent grant recipient. Provide evidence of past successes. Make your proposal a model of quality. Create a positive and memorable first impression.

2. Cultivate Funders:

Create a long-term relationship with a potential grant maker based upon a common purpose and commitment. Use an initial contact to explore shared points of concern, exchange insights about needs, and identify desirable solutions to problems. Be aware that grant makers seldom plunge into marriage. A suitable courtship must precede a union.

3. Prepare Thoroughly:

Do your research homework. Study public records to detect patterns in grant making. If approaching a private foundation, review its website, its annual report, and its recent filings of annual 990-PF forms. If approaching a public agency, review its website, its guiding documents, and its database of recent grant awards. In both cases, look at who got what, for what, for how much, and for how long.

4. Accept Priorities:

Every grant maker has a mission and an agenda. Arguing with a grant maker’s priorities, goals, and objectives is futile. Adopt and become one with them. Whatever you do, don’t quarrel with them! If accepting rather than rejecting them proves impossible, then pursue other grant makers instead.

5. Know Yourself:

A grant is an investment of scarce resources undertaken to solve a defined problem. You need to convey your organization’s competence at solving similar problems. Your proposed solution must fit the problem. In turn, your local capacity must fit the solution. Redefine the problem in a way consistent with the funder’s definition of it, then propose a solution and describe how you can deliver it cost-effectively within the available funding period.

More imperatives for winning competitive grants will appear here soon.

As I’ve noted, sometimes we need someone to remind us about why we want a grant in the first place and what we can expect a grant award to do for us. If we do want a grant enough to seek one, we have to accept what one entails. Here are five more reliable keys for unlocking the grants vault for your organization and for getting a grant you can live with after it is awarded.

 

1. Use grants to advance an agenda. All grant makers have agendas and they rarely fund outside them. Usually, the agendas are explicitly stated in program authorizations or annual reports. Sometimes, they are implicitly stated in the grant makers’ recent patterns of grant making. Try to adopt a grant maker’s agenda as your own. Show how you will advance that agenda at a reasonable cost through what you propose to do and how you propose to do it.

 

2. Respect differences among grant makers. Each grant maker is unique. Respect that uniqueness. Know what types of budget items are allowable costs. Avoid writing from a generic template. Do not pretend that one size fits all. Adapt your proposed approach to match the interests and priorities of each particular grant maker. Demonstrate your willingness to treat each potential funder as a special partner. Plan to involve the funder substantively throughout a project, not just at its start and its finish.

 

3. Know what you expect to accomplish with a grant. Ask critical questions before you start. Know why you are seeking a grant from a particular funder. Be prepared to answer why you feel your organization fits well with any given funder’s menu of grant programs. Know how you will be accountable for generating the benefits and results you describe in a proposal. Express a willingness to share progress and outcomes with the funder and with other appropriate audiences.

 

4. Stay on the good side of your decision makers. Always consider the backgrounds, needs, comfort, convenience, and concerns of your proposal reviewers. If a grant program limits an application to five pages, do not submit more. If it specifies its review criteria, address each criterion in sequence. If it identifies required forms or other attachments, provide only those and not others. And exercise due discretion when contacting a grant maker after it has completed its proposal review process. Be courteous even when you are not funded.

 

5. Share the load. Collaborate or perish. Involve other individuals and agencies in seeking grants. Make your constituents aware of your plans to seek grants. Request their input and insights. Whenever appropriate, recruit other organizations as partners in planning, implementing, and monitoring a proposed project. Leverage local financial and programmatic resources. Show the presence of strong local commitment, community involvement, and an intention to share costs and sustain an initiative after a grant ends.

Sometimes we need someone to remind us about why we want a grant in the first place and what we can expect a grant award to do for us. If we do want a grant enough to seek one, we have to accept what one entails. Here are five reliable keys for unlocking the grants vault for your organization and for getting a grant you can live with after it is awarded.

 

1. Use a grant to fill a gap. Grants often can help to fill gaps in existing service programs, for example, by expanding them to reach new populations or by revamping them to improve services to existing populations. Only a very few types of grants, such as capacity-building or seed money grants for start-ups, can be used to defray ordinary operating expenses. Such grants commonly come from private foundations. Not even these grants should be used as a total substitute for local commitments of funds. And no grant should be used to supplant, rather than to augment, existing efforts.

 

2. Treat a grant as a means, not as an end. Grant makers tend to favor already-established applicants who have sufficient operating funds to remain viable without a new grant. They seldom award grants for an applicant to meet its existing payroll or similar needs. Instead, grant makers award them to support research-based innovations, to advance pervasive or systemic reforms, and to serve as catalysts for improving the human condition.

 

3. Consider seeking grants as a process, not an event. Looking for grants should be part of a larger plan for financing projects and initiatives. It should be an ongoing activity rather than a hasty and sudden reaction to a particular funding opportunity. Grants should be one among an organization’s several financial resources, not its only such resource. They should advance its mission, vision, agenda, and guiding plan, not distort or dictate them.

 

4. Consider writing grant proposals as a process, not an event. Developing a fundable proposal requires organizational commitment of often-scarce resources, such as time, brainpower, and money. It demands extensive coordination with other initiatives. It also commonly involves creating a narrative, devising a budget, and communicating with internal and external audiences. Expect to expend greater effort for greater return. Expect the required effort to reflect proportionately the amount of funding you plan to request.

 

5. Know what the grant-making marketplace wants and sell it that. Grant programs have rationales for their existence, well-defined purposes and visions their funders seek to advance. Grant seekers need to resonate with these as well as with their own reasons for applying for a grant. They need to reflect the funders’ agendas in their proposals. And they need to sell the funders on the benefits and results they are likely to obtain if they receive a grant. Most of the time, merely peddling new means or methods, or lamenting about acute and unmet local financial needs, is unlikely to yield a grant award.

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