Go Beyond the RFP: What You May Not Know About Federal Grants

Successfully competing for federal grants is about more than following the application instructions. The formal Request for Proposals (RFP) usually tells only part of the story. Savvy federal grant seekers know to seek out the broader context about a federal funding opportunity in order to assess their organization’s competitiveness and prepare the most complete and compelling proposal.

They also know where to find this useful context. To learn from the pros, we talked to Kerry Klein, Grants Plus’s resident government grants expert, who has extensive experience in researching, securing, and stewarding major federal grants. Below she shares her tips for accessing deeper details about federal funding opportunities using the most under-utilized information sources.

Go directly to the federal funding agency

Applicants often assume it’s out of bounds to reach out to a federal funding agency. But in fact, most federal agencies have a program officer assigned to each funding opportunity who will answer proposal or program related questions. I’ve found these federal program officers to be accessible and willing to discuss projects and opportunities. Unless an RFP specifically states that outreach is not permitted, feel free to pick up the phone. Look on the agency website or the RFP for the name and contact information of the appropriate person to call. This will give you the opportunity to clarify anything that’s unclear about the application instructions and process, as well as learn if there’s anything that might disqualify your organization or give your submission a competitive edge.

If you have awareness a funding opportunity will soon be announced, it’s best to make contact with the program officer even before the RFP is released. This is because he or she may be less available to answer questions during the solicitation period.

Review previously-funded applications

A helpful step to preparing a competitive application is looking at previously-awarded proposals for the same funding opportunity in prior years. This will allow you to understand the application components and project details that have been successful in the past. Slowly but surely, federal agencies are making awarded proposals and related details publicly available on their websites. But since this isn’t always the case, it’s useful to know how else to find this information.

The most reliable method is via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which provides the public access to federal records including awarded grant proposals. You can start by conducting a simple search on the FOIA website that will retrieve information from across all government websites. If you can’t find the detail you’re looking for, you can follow instructions for submitting a FOIA request. You’ll need to indicate the funding agency, specific grant, and name of the known grantee. This will initiate a process to retrieve a copy of the awarded proposal (note, financial information will be redacted) directly from the federal funding agency. However it may take several weeks and even months to get a response, so if you’re actively in the midst of preparing a grant application, don’t put your process completely on hold while you wait.

Examine federal awards to peer organizations

Identify the federal funding opportunities best suited to your agency by understanding the federal funding environment for organizations like yours. USASpending.gov is a searchable database that offers details on all government spending, including federal grants. In addition to searching by federal agency to see funds awarded, consider a “reverse search”: enter the name and/or location of an organization that provides similar programs and services. This can uncover details about the number, type, and amounts of awards received by peer agencies, which may help you set your own expectations and targets.

Seek input from past grantees

Don’t be reluctant to lean on your peers! Anyone who’s prepared a federal grant application understands it can be a long and tough road. I know that I’ve appreciated being a resource to colleagues going through the application process and I’ve often been the recipient of support from others myself.

Consider reaching out to nonprofit partners with experience going through the same application process. Connecting with past grantees can be a great way to gain first-hand insight into realities related to application quirks, program development, reporting requirements, and other expectations of the specific federal funder. I’ve found that grantees are typically willing to answer questions and be a resource, especially between funding cycles, in ways that have helped me be better prepared, more confident, and ultimately more successful.

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