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Federal Grants: The Lure of the Mother Lode

Federal grant guidelines read like Harvard dissertations these days.  Gone are the times when government bureaucrats pulled together RFP’s that typically were short on substance and long on ticky requirements, the expectation being, I believe, that people in the field would know best about how to address a particular problem.  The result of this open door to program ideas was mixed — a lot of brilliant programs but as many true duds that burned up federal dollars and helped no one.

I plowed through two sets of  federal grant guidelines (RFA’s – Request for Funding Applications) this week.  Both of them for complex, high-impact programs and both with impressive, almost intimidating, levels of content sophistication.  No bureaucrat hoping to get an RFA out the door in a hurry wrote these RFA’s. As substantial as the general content was, the programmatic requirements were even more impressive – what needed to be done, by whom, in partnership with which entities, and for what outcomes. 

No place for amateurs.  That’s the message running through all 50+ pages of these literary gems.

So what does this mean for you if you’re a grant writer?  I know established grant writers – in business for many years – who have never broken out of the $25,000 foundation grant application.  When I talk federal grants to them, they shudder and start backing up. Whoa, I’m not in that league.

Sure you are.  But you need to be smart.  Here are three things to consider:

1.  Everything takes practice.  Just because you can play Chopsticks on the piano does not mean you can play Chopin.  I know this because I can barely play Chopsticks despite years of wishing. So in terms of writing federal grants, you need to get in on some group efforts so you can see how complex proposals are put together, get familiar with the strategy, and understand the language.  You need to start practicing.

2. The competition is extraordinary.  There are certain types of proposals, like the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) grants, where professional grantwriters have made careers and pretty dandy incomes from just writing those grants.  That’s all they do, they know every teeny thing about how to win, and they make a lot of money.  But these folks weren’t born with the Midas touch.  They started out being nudniks like us.

3.  Winning a federal grant is the same only different.  This was one of my grandmother’s favorite sayings — always perplexing to me — but here’s how it applies in this case.  Everything it takes to win a foundation grant – good program, sound outcomes, decent management – is necessary to win a federal grant and then some.  Assume that every applicant has met the minimum standard and has a lot of then some.  At first, you won’t know how to ratchet up your proposal to the next, the next, the next level.  And then it will become clear what you need to do.  This makes federal grant writing a lot of fun, especially if you’ve got a good strong competitive streak.

A federal grant can easily provide ten times the amount of funding provided by a local foundation grant.  That’s a lot of good that can be done for your organization and the community.  It is the mother lode.  Now go find your pick axe and get going.

This summer’s Planners and Grantwriters Roundtable, sponsored by the Nonprofit Center of Milwaukee,  will have a whole session devoted to federal grants. (July 18, 2012).  Check out PGR on Facebook for more news.


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Get The Money: Part 2: Ditch the Blue Smoke and Mirrors

I probably say it a dozen times in my workshops:  Writing funding proposals is a competitive sport.

And just like in sports, there’s no charity.  There’s no forgiveness of mistakes. There’s no dismissing poor performance as a fluke. There’s no fooling.  Blue smoke and mirrors just don’t work.  Sorry.

It’s serious competition and the result is winner take all.

Most proposals, especially high dollar federal proposals, are scored by independent panels of peer reviewers.  What this means is that experts in the field who have been trained to score proposals are in charge of your fate.  This refers to high level national competitions but much less so to state and local funding.  Foundations run the gamut. Depending on their size, interests, and investment plan, foundations may use a formal point process or put more store in relationships, reputation, and their program officers’ gut about certain projects.

For those of you who write proposals that will be formally scored, here are three tips gleaned from many years in the federal grantwriting business:

 1.  Read the proposal guidelines very carefully.  You’re looking for two things here.  First,  how the points are distributed, e.g. how many for the problem statement, how many for the program design and so on, will tell you what’s important to the funding source.  You need to score high in all sections.  But the point distributions tells you where to focus your planning and preparation efforts. 

Second, what are the specific criteria on which the point allocation will be made?  Proposal guidelines can be tricky, providing information about the required elements in one place and the evaluation criteria in another.  And they don’t always match.  Your job as the proposal writer is to create an integrated list of criteria.  In other words, you are going to respond well to everything.

2. Understand that each proposal section is scored separately.  This means that the problem statement, program design, organizational description are scored independently of each other.  Sure, it’s possible to cross-reference information from one section to another (a good strategy to save space in a document), but you must make sure that each section pretty much stands alone and fully addresses the point criteria.

3.  Look under the rock.  Proposal reviewers, especially federal reviewers, hide their detailed review under a big rock.  What is the big rock?  It’s applicants’ fear of criticism.  Review comments are available upon request.  So, if a panel of three peer reviewers scored your proposal, you can receive all of their scores and comments.  This is the road map for the next proposal.  It will tell you where you were weak and why.  Your competition is combing through those review comments looking for ways to improve next time.  The fools – the ones with their programs’ pockets turned inside out, complaining about the unfairness of funding sources – will write the same failing proposal next time or, if they’re really special, find new ways to fail.

Think about proposal writing like a football team prepares for a game and then reviews a loss.  They watch film.  They play as hard as they possibly can. They watch more film. They analyze their strengths and weaknesses.  They win.  (Yes, sports fans, I know I’m oversimplifying here but you get my point.)

That’s what winning proposal writers do.  I learned this the hard way so I know it’s true.  Good luck!


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