How to Win a Government Grant

By Laurence A. Pagnoni, MPA, and Perry W. Kaplan

Federal and state agencies provide significant support to nonprofits each year through government grants.

But the process for applying for government grants is far from easy.

In fact, it’s quite complicated.

Competition for government support is intense — and the application process is fraught with complexity.

Winning a government grant requires nonprofits to carefully align the main pieces of their grant proposals.

Here are seven tips for effectively competing for — and winning — a government grant.

Match the Funder’s Priorities

More than ever, getting funded requires that you propose projects that address all the funder’s priorities or goals for each request for proposals (RFP).

You are significantly less likely to win funding by shoe-horning your project into an RFP.

It’s also a waste of your time and resources.

Align Your Proposal With the Scoring System

You should write your proposal 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 often enough to secure funding.

Today, because of increased competition, it is rare that a proposal gets funded if it scores below a 92 or 93.

Every point counts. As a result, it’s important to  do everything you can to avoid leaving points on the table.

Balance Evidence With Innovation

The most fundable proposals balance evidence-based practices (EBP) and innovation. You can show you are paying attention to and using what works by incorporating EBPs in your proposal.

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.

Prioritize Partnerships

Federal funders typically favor proposals that include partnerships to avoid service duplication — so it’s important to document and list linkages that show you understand the meaning of a continuum of care.

Save your memoranda of understanding for the partnerships that drive your proposal, demonstrate alignment with the funder’s goals/objectives, and clearly state how you will work together.

We recommend highlighting partnerships with organizations that you have worked with for at least two years.

Use the Funder’s Language

Every federal and state agency has its own language. It’s important to make sure your application is written in the funder’s lingo.

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 substance use disorder treatment.

Keep It Simple

Simplify the evaluation section of your proposal to respond only to the funder’s requirements.

Some evaluators want to show off — to demonstrate their mastery of statistics or complicated evaluation instruments, for example, by devising an evaluation section that requires a Ph.D. in statistics to understand.

Keep your proposal simple and attend to the funder’s requirements.

Work With Experienced Grant Writers

Producing a winning grant application is an art form. Experienced grant writers who know the nuances of the process are rare and valuable.

Many nonprofits choose grant writers based on price. But you will achieve better results by choosing a grant writer who has a high success rate.

After all, if you pay a grant writer $5,000 for a proposal, but do not win an award, and a competitor pays $10,000 and secures the award, who made the better choice?

Experience is important, but success even more so. Ask grant writers for a list of their applications that have been funded before deciding whom to hire.

You can see LAPA’s Report Card showing our clients’ return on investment by clicking here.

Also, in-house staff often cannot compete with a full-time grant writer who studies the funder every day, attends the funder’s webinars, and in many cases, has even been trained by the funder as a reviewer!

Has your nonprofit had success with applying for government grants? Please share your experience by posting a comment below.

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