Winning state and federal grants can be an important strategy for diversifying your revenue. So few foundations make multi-year grants anymore, and even fewer, it seems, are willing to fund large programs. However, even seasoned grants professionals are often intimidated by state and federal grants. Fortunately, you can take some simple, concrete steps to assess whether government grants are right for your organization, and you can master the techniques needed to compete in the government arena. If you are just starting out, here are the most important steps you can take:

1. Identify Funding Opportunities

Do your research. Find out which agencies are funding organizations like yours. A great way to do this is to look at the grants your peers are receiving. You can also search such free sites as and Once you identify an agency or two, visit that agency 's website. Search for "grants" if there is not a clear link for you to follow. What sort of grants does that agency make? When are the deadlines? Often, federal deadlines occur only every three to four years. Read as much as you can about this agency's priorities and the types of programs it likes to fund. Review the lists of who won grants in the most recent rounds.

2. Review the Guidelines

If you have found a grant program that sounds like a good fit, don't wait until the next competition is announced. Download a copy of the guidelines from the most recent competition. Don't be surprised if the guidelines are 80 to 100 pages long. But don't be discouraged. You don't have to read this cover to cover - at least not at first. Key in on the most important facts by searching the guidelines for the answers to the following questions:

  • Are we an eligible applicant?
  • What is the funding amount?
  • Are we required to match the funds? If so, can we do that?
  • Will the program fund what we do?
  • Will there be several grants made nationwide?

3. Decide Whether to Apply

If the answers to the initial questions make the funding opportunity look like a perfect match for your organization, that's the time to really dig into those long guidelines. Find a place where you won't be disturbed, maybe with your favorite coffee in hand, and read. For now, you can skip over all of those pages about how to register for, getting a DUNS number, and requesting a waiver if you can't submit electronically. You need to focus on what's unique about this specific grant.

Take notes about important details. It's a good idea to type up a short executive summary of the pertinent details and to keep a record of the ultimate decision to apply. Once you find the perfect match you'd be crazy to miss out on, make the decision to apply.

4. Begin Work Early

One of the biggest mistakes those new to government grants make is to wait until the guidelines for this year's grants are announced to begin working. If you wait until the RFA is released, you usually have only 30 to 60 days to prepare your application. Instead, use the guidelines from the previous competition to start working several months ahead of this year's anticipated deadline. When this year's guidelines are released, review them carefully for changes, and update your application as appropriate.

If a grant you want to pursue is usually due in June, start working in late winter. Secure your community partners. Confirm the program design with your program staff. Create the program budget. Design your evaluation plan or contract with an external evaluator to do this for you. All of this, and more, can be completed ahead of that 30 to 60 day window that starts when the RFA goes public.

5. Writing the Proposal

If you have written successful grant proposals to foundations, you can write a successful government proposal. The two main differences are that government applications are longer and they require more detail. As with any grant proposal, follow all of the rules of the RFA. Answer every question, even if it's repetitive. Answer them in order. Support everything you assert with evidence. Because you are likely writing 40 or 50 or 60 pages, you will want to pace yourself.

Be extremely specific about the program design. Get into the nitty gritty details. What questions would you have before handing hundreds of thousands of dollars over to an applicant? You may have to include organizational charts, resumes of qualified staff, job descriptions for new positions, descriptions of your facilities, or a discussion of how you plan to secure any required matching funds.

Give yourself time to break the project down into manageable tasks, and you will conquer the application. You can do this!

Are you intrigued about government grants now? Great! To find more resources on the topic, click here.

CHERYL KESTER, CFRE, is Principal of The Kester Group and co-author of Writing to Win Federal Grants: A Must-Have for Your Fundraising Toolbox. She has more than 30 years of experience in the nonprofit sector and has been a grants professional since 1999. Today, her firm specializes in winning federal grants and serving as an external evaluator.

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