Winning a competitive government grant can dramatically increase an organization’s capacity to fulfill its mission. A major grant from a local, state, or federal government has the potential to transform an organization’s annual budget and bring heightened credibility that can help secure new partnerships and additional grants from other sources.
The prospect of an influx of federal funding is especially appealing now in the wake of the challenges brought by the COVID-19 crisis. It’s hard to conceive that there could be any nonprofit organization that is not experiencing disruption, financial distress, and fundraising uncertainty as a result of the current state of emergency.
Many nonprofits on the front lines of the pandemic require immediate additional funds to respond to urgent community needs. Even organizations not delivering emergency services face unexpected expenses, like new technology to support vital remote communication and virtual programming.
Yet at the same time, social distancing and shelter-in-place decrees make it harder than ever for organizations to fundraise for the financial resources they desperately need. With traditional revenue streams in jeopardy, organizations are struggling to remain operational. Many have been forced to furlough staff and some are even shutting down for good.
Fortunately, we anticipate that assistance is coming to the nonprofit sector in the form of emergency federal grants. This Guide to Federal Grants During Crisis is intended to help organizations compete successfully for emergency federal grants. In this guide we will review these essential topics:
- What to Know About Emergency Federal Grants
- How to Prepare to Apply for Emergency Federal Grants
- Why to Communicate Directly with Federal Funding Agencies
- Other Sources of Emergency Grants
What to Know About Emergency Federal Grants
The CARES Act was passed by Congress to relieve the financial pressures on small business entities, including nonprofits. Much attention has been paid to the commitment of $349 billion to be distributed to organizations in the form of forgivable loans to keep employees on the payroll and stay open.
But this isn’t all the CARES Act offers for nonprofits in distress. The legislation designates hundreds of billions of dollars to federal funding agencies as well as state and local governments to be made quickly available in the form of grants to organizations that span the nonprofit sector.
The appropriations that are of greatest potential interest to nonprofits awaiting aid in the form of emergency grant funding include:
Administration for Community Living – $955M to support nutrition programs, home and community based services, support for family caregivers, and expanded oversight and protections for seniors and individuals with disabilities.
Department of Education – $30.75B for an Education Stabilization Fund for states, school districts, and institutions of higher education for costs related to COVID-19.
Department of Labor – $360M to invest in programs that provide training and supportive services for dislocated workers, seniors, migrant farmworkers, and homeless veterans.
Family Violence Prevention Services – $45M to support families and prevent and respond to family and domestic violence.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration – $425M to increase access to mental health services, suicide prevention programs, and emergency response spending.
Institute for Museum and Library Services – $50M to expand digital network access in areas of the country where access is lacking, including the purchase of internet-enabled devices and provisions for technical support services.
Housing and Urban Development – $12.4B for housing activities for vulnerable populations.
Health Resources and Services Administration – $275M including support for Ryan White HIV/AIDS programs, support to rural critical access hospitals, rural tribal health and telehealth programs, and poison control centers.
National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities – $150M (split between the two) to help save jobs and maintain operations.
Legal Services Corporation – $50M to help legal aid organizations with technology upgrades to allow for more remote work and to support individuals with legal needs arising from COVID-19.
These allocated funds are already beginning to be distributed via new emergency federal grants. The Grants Plus team is closely watching the announcement of these funding programs. We are still waiting for many funding agencies to announce deadlines and share eligibility guidelines, but there are some things we can already say certainty about the emergency federal grants that will be made available:
#1: Deadlines will come fast
The intention of the CARES Act is that funding be moved as quickly as possible to the communities and organizations that will use it. Federal granting agencies are acting with tremendous speed to announce emergency grant opportunities with the expectation that grantees act just as fast in turn.
An example is an emergency grant opportunity released by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The agency announced the grant opportunity guidelines on April 8, explaining: “In an effort to provide funding to save as many jobs as possible, as quickly as possible, these time frames are faster than the schedule used in 2009 to distribute relief funds.”
The NEA opportunity has a rapid-fire, two-part deadline: Part 1 due April 22, just two weeks from the date the guidelines were announced, and Part 2 due May 4. All in all this means applicants have less than a month to review the requirements and submit a finalized application.
#2: Funds can be used for flexible purposes
We anticipate that these emergency federal grant programs will allow for significant flexibility in how awarded funds may be used.
For example, the NEA opportunity described above will provide funds to be used for staffing and overhead expenses that the organization considers to be essential to its mission and core work. We expect that some of these emergency opportunities may include funds to replace significant lost revenue. Other grants may be intended to help providers of emergency services, like mental health and other treatment providers, to fund the operational expenses of transitioning to new methods of service delivery.
This is not usually the case: federal grants typically come with tight restrictions to fund very specific programs and purposes. These emergency grants, however, are broadly intended to enable nonprofits stay afloat and support more general operations.
#3: Partnerships could give you an edge
With so many nonprofit organizations in desperate need of funding, federal funding agencies are braced for a flood of applications for these emergency federal grant opportunities.
Federal reviewers will be inundated with requests. They will not only be stretched for time to review all the applications, but will have a limited pool of funds to distribute. It’s likely that this will mean they must decide how to award funds between very similar agencies, whose applications may describe fairly similar challenges as well as solutions.
You may give your application a competitive edge, and be able to propose a better solution, by applying in partnerships with other agencies. It’s probable that some federal funders will look favorably upon coalitions of organizations that submit a collaborative application. Rather than choose among three agencies submitting independent requests, for example, a funder may be more compelled to fund a larger request that articulates a coordinated vision and allocates funds between the partners.
This approach may be more relevant to some organization types than others, so consider what is appropriate given your organizational context.
#4: You must be a strong contender to win
While these emergency federal grant programs will bring relief to many nonprofit agencies, they are competitive. Not every organization that requests a grant will receive one, and those that do may not receive as much funding as they requested.
Even in this time of urgency, the quality of your grant application matters. The organizations that stand the best chance to win an emergency federal grant are those that meet the hallmarks of a strong application:
- Adheres to instructions: Your application must wholly and completely abide by the guidelines. Don’t assume for any reason that your submission can be the exception to any rule. Pay close attention to detail. Observe page or character limits. Answer every question or section completely.
- Communicates ideas clearly and succinctly: These emergency grant applications may be briefer than typical federal grant applications. This will require that applicants can clearly and succinctly describe ideas and details in a more limited format.
- Demonstrates relevancy: Federal funding agencies are aiming for maximum impact. You must make a convincing case that an infusion of federal dollars will not only make a meaningful, measurable difference for your organization but for the economy and/or community around you.
An example of demonstrating relevancy in the current context is this case made about libraries: “Libraries are centers for learning, for trusted information, and critical resources that communities need to thrive. They connect us with each other, with the world, and with vital information—online, through books and other resources, and through activities and services. Now more than ever, as schools and universities close, programs and events are canceled, and we are asked to physically distance ourselves to help mitigate the spread of coronavirus, libraries and those who work there are rising to the challenge.”
To ensure your application meets a winning standard, review our complete Grants Plus Guide to Grant Writing. Here you’ll find more tips and techniques that apply to preparing any grant application.
You may want to rely on the help of a federal grant writing expert to be positive you’re putting forward the most compelling and competitive grant application. The Grants Plus team is deeply experienced at federal grant writing for nonprofit organizations of all types and sizes. We can guide you through the entire process of preparing and submitting a federal grant. Contact us to talk about emergency federal grants for your organization and how we can help.
How to Prepare to Apply for Emergency Federal Grants
Preparation is always key to winning a federal grant. But it’s even more important when it comes to being ready to compete for emergency federal grants. That’s because we anticipate these emergency grant programs will give applicants only a few weeks between the time the application instructions are released and the final deadline.
Federal grant applications are almost always complex and time consuming. Completing a federal grant application is a heavy lift even in the most normal of circumstances, but especially now.
Take these key steps today so you are in position to complete an emergency federal grant application with more ease once its announced.
Step 1: Make sure your agency is registered
Your nonprofit can’t compete for federal grants if it isn’t registered. Registration can be complicated, requiring multiple steps and a waiting period, and must be renewed annually.
We typically recommend beginning the registration process six weeks prior to an application deadline. Under the present conditions, that means you should make registering a priority today so you don’t lose another precious day in the process.
The following steps are required to apply for federal grants; follow the links for more information:
- DUNS Number: Securing a Data Universal Number System (DUNS), or a unique number used to identify your organization, is the first step to registering in the federal grant systems.
- SAM.gov: Your nonprofit must have an active registration with the U.S. Government’s System for Award Management (SAM), to do federal business.
- Grants.gov: Register your organization with Grants.gov, where you can “find, apply and succeed” in relation to government grant opportunities.
Also be sure to investigate any unique registration requirements of the specific federal funding agency. For example, several agencies including the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration require registration in a separate system called eRA Commons. Look into the special requirements of federal agencies relevant to your organization, so you can take any additional registration steps.
Step 2: Gather standard materials that you’ll need for the application
Be prepared by making your toolkit of core materials ready. The following items are standard attachments required of many federal grant applications:
- Audited financial statements
- Overall organizational budget
- Detailed compensation information including salary, benefits, and expenses for key staff members
- Program/project budgets
- Bios, resumes, and job descriptions for key leadership and program staff
Also be prepared that many of these emergency grant opportunities will allow organizations to use the funds for COVID-related expenses already incurred. Organizations should keep clear records of all relevant expenses to-date, as well as project future needs.
There may be additional financial information and other materials required as part of these emergency federal grant applications. Since you won’t know what these are until the application instructions are released, get ahead by at least having the above listed standard materials prepared.
Don’t forget that you may encounter unusual delays and difficulties. Many nonprofits are adjusting to a remote, work-from-home environment for the first time. Some are not set up for cloud computing, making file storing and sharing difficult and slow. Communicating with colleagues isn’t as simple as popping your head into an office and convening meetings is more complicated as coworkers juggle new work-life balances and home disruptions.
Get in front of these hurdles by identifying and notifying colleagues in advance that you will be relying on them for information.
Step 3: Be Ready to Convey Your Organization’s Relevancy in the Crisis
Federal grant reviewers will review your emergency grant application against others. They will need to decide how to distribute dollars in a way that makes the biggest and longest-lasting difference. Because these emergency federal grants are competitive, your application must make a strong and compelling case to stand a chance to win.
That means you must do more in your application than describe your organization’s need for funding. You must put your organization’s need in context.
Can you show that your organization is a driver of employment in your local community, and that keeping jobs is not only good for the organization but the region overall? Can you illustrate that your organization’s direct response to the crisis is saving and improving lives? Can you explain why an investment in your organization now will make a lasting change in the future of your sector and our society?
Before the application guidelines are released, you won’t know exactly what details and information you’ll be expected to convey. But you can begin now to construct a vision for what makes your organization relevant in the current context and how funding will enable it to be relevant in the future.
A successful, persuasive application will take the reviewer on a journey to understand the relevance and significance of your organization in the context of our world today and in the future. Your objective is to compel them to award a grant not only for your organization’s sake but for the sake of something bigger.
Being able to craft this vision must start with assessing what is real for your organization. Before writing, you should engage in a process of evaluating how the crisis is affecting your organization now and how you project it will continue to in the future. This process should involve the key leadership of your organization to discuss these and similar questions:
- How is the crisis immediately impacting our ability to fulfill our core mission? This may include the impacts on your staff, operations, services and programs, as the people you engage or serve.
- Does the crisis showcase our major competencies and underscore our priorities? Does it expose any vulnerabilities?
- Do the we expect the crisis will fundamentally change who we are as an organization? Will we change how or who we engage or serve in the future? Will any adjustments we are making today be lasting?
Of course it’s unrealistic to expect any organization to embark now in a formal strategic planning process or be able to predict the future. No one has a road map to our “new normal” or a crystal ball to see what’s coming. But in order to make a competitive case for emergency federal funding, you need to do your best to translate your present reality into some sense of how your organization will be relevant and even essential in the future.
Step 4: Research Emergency Federal Grant Opportunities for Your Organization
To find emergency federal grant opportunities appropriate to your agency, start by visiting the websites of the federal agencies you have applied for or received funding from in the past. On many agency websites, you can sign up for an alert to receive new funding announcements directly via email.
The best resource for proactively researching federal grant opportunities is Grants.gov. This website provides one central portal to search for and find grants from federal agencies. Clicking on the “Search Grants” tab on the top of the home page will automatically bring up all of the most recently released funding opportunities. Use the search filter to limit results by funding category, funding agency, and other criteria.
It’s possible that some emergency federal grant opportunities may not be discoverable via Grants.gov. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released a program to provide $200 million in funding for COVID-related telehealth services. This opportunity was announced on the FCC website but not via Grants.gov.
The Grants Plus team is carefully tracking funding announcements as they are released. Review our growing list of emergency federal funding opportunities that you may be eligible to pursue.
Why to Communicate Directly with Federal Funding Agencies
Applicants often assume it’s out of bounds to reach out to a federal funding agency. But in fact, most government agencies (not only federal, but also state and local agencies) have a program representative who is likely to be accessible. As with private foundations, communicating with a program staff member at a government agency can be a crucial step that helps you make a more successful request.
Here’s why to communicate with a federal program staff member both before and after an emergency grant opportunity is announced.
Communicate Before an Emergency Federal Grant is Announced
Even before a federal funding agency releases an emergency grant opportunity, making contact with the program staff member can put your organization in a stronger position to apply.
Like anyone else, program staff are themselves affected by the COVID-19 crisis. They likely are concerned how the pandemic is affecting organizations and communities on the ground. You have the opportunity to bring them a first-hand report of the impact of the crisis. This may not only be meaningful to them personally, but will also give them context and perspective that enriches them in their professional role and duties.
If your organization has an active federal grant, reach out to your existing contact at the appropriate funding agency. Explain how the crisis is or is not changing your agency’s ability to carry out the terms of the active grant. Many federal agencies still expect grantees to draw down funds on schedule and to submit reports on time. If the crisis has made it difficult to spend grant dollars or meet deadlines, be proactive to talk to the program staff member now about the option for some flexibility.
If you don’t have an active grant or a current contact at the federal funding agency most relevant to your organization, seek that person out. You can find contact information for program staff on most federal funding agency websites. Reach out now to offer an introduction. Be prepared to briefly describe your agency and its relevancy in the current crisis. Ask if the agency will be releasing an emergency grant program and if there is any early information they can provide. You may get a tip that allows you to get in front of the deadline.
Communicate After an Emergency Federal Grant is Announced
If you weren’t able to make early contact with the program staff member at a federal funding agency before an emergency grant opportunity was released, try once the information is available. Keep in mind that program staff may be fielding many questions after the RFP is released, so be patient and keep trying if you have trouble getting through.
Usually we advise a phone call as the best method of initial contact. However, federal program contacts are likely working from home along with everyone else. It’s possible they may not have access to their phone systems. In our present circumstances, we advise starting with an email.
Send a brief email message to introduce yourself. If you are writing to ask a technical question about the application process, get to the point directly in your email. But if you are hopeful to get input or advice on a more nuanced question, phone may be best. Request the opportunity for a phone conversation. Offer some times you have available so they can efficiently reply back to you to schedule an appointment.
If you manage to get a phone conversation, employ all of your best techniques to establish rapport: Be warm. Be human. Express empathy; they too are dealing with challenges. Be succinct and respectful that they have limited time. Prepare in advance how you plan to present the organization, leave them with a memorable grasp of your organization’s relevancy, and gain their advise on specific aspects of your request.
In our experience helping hundreds of organizations in the grant seeking process, we have found federal program staff members to be accessible and willing to talk with grantees. Remember that though funds are distributed by a federal institution, applications are reviewed and funding decisions are made by people. Make a positive impression in this initial phone call and you may find an advocate for your application on the other side.
Other Sources of Emergency Grants
The federal government is not the only source of emergency funding. The philanthropic community is also stepping forward to help nonprofits through this crisis.
Hundreds of foundations, businesses, and other partners have mounted COVID-19 rapid response funds to disperse billions of dollars in crisis grants to nonprofits around the country.
The Grants Plus team has been carefully tracking the availability of crisis grant opportunities nationwide and recommending steps nonprofits can take to secure them. The philanthropic community has rushed to the aid of the nonprofit sector in this moment of need.
Visit our Resource Center for Grant Seeking During Crisis for a schedule of free webinars and other helpful guidance for maintaining your grant seeking effort through the pandemic.
Additional Help With Federal Grants
A federal grant application is a time consuming and high-stakes endeavor, especially now. If you lack the experience of preparing a government grant application, or if you are experienced but lack sufficient time and bandwidth to manage another grant project on your own, you may benefit from enlisting an experienced professional to help you prepare and submit a winning application package.
Grants Plus is here to support organizations in their journey to seek federal, state, and local government grants. Our team is deeply experienced at guiding nonprofits through every stage of the government grant writing process, from working with your team to gather needed information, to writing and refining the grant application, to incorporating your edits, assembling the final application, and submitting on your organization’s behalf.
Contact us to help you pursue an emergency federal grant or other government grant opportunity for your organization. You will have the confidence and peace of mind knowing your application package is as complete and competitive as it can be, putting your organization in a stronger position to win the maximum award.
You may also explore these fundraising resources written by the Grants Plus team:
- Grant Seeking During the COVID-19 Crisis. Here you will find resources that will help you continue proactively seeking grants during the current emergency, including our free webinar series and a listing of emergency funding opportunities.
- Nonprofit Grant Writing: How to Secure Grants for Your Cause. Grants are a vital consideration for any smart nonprofit fundraising plan. Using our guide, learn how to create strong proposals to secure more grants.
- Emergency Grants From Donor-Advised Funds. Don’t overlook grants from donor-advised funds, both now and after the current crisis. This guide will help you take the right steps to maximize this often-overlooked source of funding.
Grant seeking can be challenging and highly competitive. To help guide your efforts, reach out to Grants Plus today!