Finding and applying for US government grants
Grants, broadly understood, are financial gifts that include guidelines and obligations. Government grants have particularly strict guidelines and accountability standards — but can be a valuable source of funding for many nonprofits. Here's what you need to know about finding and applying for U.S. government grants.
Who receives government grants?
Federal grants often go to state and local governments or government agencies. In turn, state and local governments make some of those funds available to nonprofits to support health and human services, advocacy, art and culture, and education. The federal government also offers some grants directly to nonprofits.
The best predictor of receiving a government grant is having already received one in the past. Although government grants are unlikely to fund offbeat or experimental projects, nonprofits that combine innovation with expert planning and attention to detail — along with a record of successful outcomes — can make themselves competitive for government funding.
What are some ways to find government grants?
"Prospecting" is the primary way to search for government grants. Prospecting includes using keywords and other database tools as well as professional organizations and subscriptions, and even real or virtual social networks, to find and build relationships with potential funders.
You might start with a database such as Grants.gov, which is publicly available and offers information on both federal and state-level grants. Some states, counties or cities have their own databases as well. Also consider databases such as Grant Navigator, which requires a paid subscription. A subscription fee may not be prohibitive if the database saves money in the end by tailoring or streamlining the grant matching and application process.
It's also helpful to be included on request for proposal (RFP) mailing lists for your area of service. When funds become available, RFPs are widely circulated to announce the grants. In turn, grant proposals are competitively evaluated — which encourages transparency and openness as well as accountability. Grants.gov offers an RFP listserv that can be refined by topic. Individual states and state agencies also offer RFP mailing lists.
What does the grant application process involve?
Applying for a government grant can be an exhaustive process.
The application typically requires granular data and extensive analysis of that data. Applications should describe effective outcomes with concrete detail. In addition, financial records should be impeccable, as should the tracking of grant funds — which must be spent or returned to the state or U.S. treasury. Audits are commonplace for recipients of government grants, so meticulous record keeping must continue after the fact as well. A detailed prospectus is also essential, supported by evidence of previous experience.
According to some estimates, government grants may require 80 to 200 hours to prepare. To support the process, you might seek in-kind help from a consultant or recruit an intern or volunteer to compile information. If resources allow, you might consider hiring a professional grantwriter.
How are government grant proposals evaluated?
Government grant proposals typically undergo two stages of review.
The first stage determines compliance with the grantor's guidelines, while the second stage involves review by a panel, or panels, of experts in the field. The second stage may include peer review as well as review by the particular government or state agency issuing the grant, such as the National Endowment for the Arts at the federal level or a state-level children and family services agency.
Successful grant applications are also checked against available funds, which may fluctuate depending on state and federal budget allocations.
What are some tips for successful government grant proposals?
If you're considering applying for a government grant:
Apply for grants to help scale or replicate the things your nonprofit is already doing. Most government grants are not for start-ups or experimental projects.
Successful grants must not only show a record of successful outcomes, they must also plan each step of the project funded by the grant. Who will administer the project? Who will participate? How will the project anticipate contingencies, such as participants who leave the project early?
The application for a federal grant that funded a collaborative education initiative in the U.S. and Mexico focused on creation of a pilot program, but also laid out a structure for replication in subsequent years. Once the courses are up and running, they can continue with minimal additional support.
Follow grant instructions to the letter, making sure budgets and timelines are appropriate and replicable based on evidence of past work. The more specific you can be about planning, budget and analysis, the more successful your application is likely to be — both in receiving funds and in accomplishing your stated goals. Budgets should be detailed down to the cent, and project plans must be similarly comprehensive.
Take advantage of the expertise of board members and staff — who can, for example, monitor RFP lists in their professional fields or provide research support for a grant proposal. With appropriate support, it's feasible for a small nonprofit to be awarded a government grant.
MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.
Community Consulting & Grant Writing: Sample grant proposals
The Balance: Is your nonprofit ready to apply for a government grant? by Heather Stombaugh (2016)
The Balance: 4 steps to finding government grants for nonprofits by Heather Stombaugh (2016)
JustWrite Solutions: Grants primer: How to find grants by Matthew Stombaugh and Heather Stombaugh (2011)