What Does It Really Take To Win a Government Grant?

By Laurence A. Pagnoni, MPA

Many readers ask, “What does it really take to win a Government Grant?”

To answer this key question I turned to a dear colleague, Perry Kaplan, a key LAPA team member, whose track-record at winning the most competitive federal grants is stellar.

At a time when the number, size and length of federal direct service grants all seem to shrink before our eyes, Perry wrote two successful SAMHSA grants: one for a Connecticut-based client that was awarded $524,670 per year for three years; and one in New York for $347,276 for each of three years. Perry also serves as a reviewer for SAMSHA grants.

Long story short, he’s a reliable source for how to write a winning grant.

We talked at length and Perry shared these six tips.

What Does It Take to Win A Government Grant?

There are more providers chasing fewer federal grant dollars for direct services. Cuts to service dollars at the state and local level have made competition for federal grants even more fierce. Providers that used to manage with government contracts are now forced to compete for grants in order to maintain key services.

Winning a government grant nowadays requires providers to carefully align the main pieces of their grant proposals:

First, the proposed program must match the funder’s priorities. More than ever, getting funded requires that you propose projects that address all the funder’s priorities/goals for each RFP. “Shoe-horning” your project into an RFP with which it does not align well virtually guarantees you will not be funded.

Second, the proposal should be written with a keen-eye for how it will score. A few points can make the difference between securing an award and coming up empty. Just 10 years ago, a score of 80-82 (out of 100) was enough for funding. Due to increased competition, it is rare that a proposal gets funded if it scores below a 92 or 93. Never leave points on the table.

Third, the most fundable proposals balance evidence-based practices (EBP) and innovation. Incorporating EBPs in your proposal shows that you are paying attention to and using what works. But don’t throw EBPs in indiscriminately. Proposals with inadequately justified EBPs will be scored down. Fundable proposals now serve as “proof of concept,” which requires something different or original. When you read your proposal, if there is nothing about it that makes it more effective, more efficient, or more appropriate than the status quo—or if it is a collection of barely related EBPs—reconsider your approach.

Fourth, federal funders typically favor partnerships to avoid service duplication. You can include a long list of linkages to show you understand the meaning of a continuum of care. Save your Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) for the partnerships that drive your proposal, demonstrate alignment with the funder’s goals/ objectives and clearly state how you will work together. Strive to include partnerships in which the partners have worked together for at least two years.

Fifth, write your proposal in the language of the funder. If your agency provides clinical mental health services and you are responding to an RFP for integrated health/behavioral health services, your use of language should demonstrate your understanding of the issues involved in primary care and SUD treatment.

Sixth, simplify the evaluation section to respond only to the funder’s requirements. Some evaluators want to show-off—to demonstrate their mastery of statistics or complicated evaluation instruments by devising an evaluation section that requires a Ph.D. in statistics to understand. Keep it simple and attend to the funder’s requirements.

From my own view, producing a grant that actually wins the award is an art-form and experienced grant writers who know these nuances are rare and valuable. Many nonprofits choose a grant writer based on whomever submits the lowest bid but looking at the grant writer’s success rate will yield better results. For example, if you paid $5,000 for your proposal but did not win an award, and a competitor paid $10,000 and did secure the award, who made the better choice? Experience is important, but success even more so. Choose grant writers that produce more funded applications and ask for a list of those awards from them before hiring. You can see LAPA’s Report Card showing our client’s return on investment by clicking here.

Also, in-house staff often lack the time to enter the funder’s world sufficiently. They can’t compete with a grant writer who studies the funder every day, attends their webinars, and in many cases has even been trained by the funder as a reviewer!


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