Cheryl Kester and Karen Cassidy
How Federal Grants Work
Before we delve into the details of how to find the right grant opportunities and how to write an excellent proposal, this article provides an overview of the federal grants process. We promise, no quiz at the end.
First, let’s take our first foray into the world of federal alphabet soup. What grant professionals are used to calling “the guidelines” go by many names and acronyms in the government grants world. Here are some:
- Request for Applications (RFA)
- Request for Proposals (RFP)
- Program solicitation
- Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA) or Funding Opportunity (NOFO)
- Solicitation for Grant Applications (SGA)
- Broad Agency Announcement (BAA)
- Annual Program Statement (APS)
- Federal funding announcement
- Program guidance or the guidance
All of these refer to the same thing: the instructions that tell you that there is funding available and how you can win it.
We will most often refer to the guidelines or the RFA. But get to know this list and creative variations on it so you don’t miss the opportunity to apply for a grant because someone called it a Funding Opportunity Announcement instead of an RFA.
The Life of a Typical Funding Opportunity
With the caveat that there can always be exceptions and that any funding agency can take its own approach, here’s an overview of how federal grants usually work. Yes, we know that a lot happens behind the scenes before a funding opportunity is announced, but we begin at the point at which most applicants get involved.
- Funding agency may announce funding opportunities that will be available later in the year. Some do this, but many do not. Agencies do their best to predict upcoming deadlines and the release of RFAs. But much can happen to affect when a grant opportunity is finally announced and a deadline set. Just do your best to keep track of when agencies anticipate releasing program guidelines by watching the agency website or subscribing to commercial services that track funding programs. If you know about an upcoming grant opportunity, you can begin planning your program and
drafting your proposal based on last year’s guidelines.
- Notice of funding opportunity and the application deadline are published in the Federal Register with information about how to get the complete guidelines. You may have only thirty days between the notice that an RFA is available and the submission deadline. Some grant competitions are one-time-only events. The RFA will usually make this clear. Some come out every year, while others are released in alternate years or every three or four years. It’s important to know this when weighing the pros and cons of responding to a particular RFA.
- Applicants download the complete RFA and application package from Grants.gov or the funder’s website. In fact, we recommend scouring every resource you can find for FAQ, times of possible conference calls or webinars that may be held to give advice to applicants (usually called technical assistance), and lists of previous grantees. Don’t just download the RFA and assume that you have all of the important information.
- Some funding agencies ask for a letter of intent (LOI) prior to the application deadline so that they have an idea of how many proposals to expect. Sometimes this is required—and you cannot submit a full proposal if you do not submit an LOI first. Other times, an LOI is optional. The RFA will tell you.
- Applicants submit grant applications by the deadline. We dissect the grant application piece by piece in our book.
- The funding agency assigns grant reviewers to panels and divides grant applications among the panels. Sometimes reviewers are agency staff members. Sometimes they are recruited from previous grant recipients and other qualified people. Regardless of who is reading your proposal, your number-one job is to make each reviewer’s job easy!
- Reviewers read and score applications. They usually have only a small window of time to read a large stack of proposals and enter scores into an online system. If they are volunteers instead of agency staff, reviewers are usually squeezing reading applications in among their own jobs, taking their kids to doctor appointments, cleaning up dog messes, and casting their votes for Dancing with the Stars. It’s your job to make important points of your proposal stand out like flashing red lights. Otherwise, tired, overworked, but well-meaning reviewers may miss them entirely.
How Your Application Gets Scored
Officially, the decisions regarding which applications get funded are made as objectively as possible. Once reviewers are selected, they usually score proposals in groups called “panels.” Their job is to grade the applications assigned to their panel and award a score to each one. This score is based on the evaluation criteria provided in the RFA.
Reviewers usually receive a scoring matrix drawn directly from the RFA’s evaluation criteria. The reviewers read your proposal to ensure that you earn all of your points. They often write comments explaining why they gave you an excellent score or why they did not award you the full points for that section. Other times, you will receive no reviewer comments.
The review panels then pass their scored proposals up to the agency staff. In some situations, agency staff then have the leeway to bump applications up or down on the list according to other award criteria. Agency staff also often have the authority to reduce the final award amount of some or all grantees, and this is a common strategy to enable them to make more awards. Regardless of how the final funding list is comprised, the agency then awards grants down the list until it runs out of money.
Let’s say that the Big Government Agency has $1 million to award to applicants during this competition. They received 450 applications requesting a total of $5 million in funding. Clearly, only 20 percent of applications will get funded. Here’s an example of how the agency decides:
|Application 1: Score 100—grant request $250,000||
At this point, only
|Application 2: Score 100—grant request $200,000|
|Application 3: Score 99—grant request $225,000|
|Application 4: Score 98.8—grant request $250,000|
|Application 5: Score 98.5—grant request $200,000|
|Application 6: Score 98—grant request $225,000|
Applicant 5 may get no award. Or the funding agency may give grants to the top five applications but require all applicants to reduce their grant budgets. Applicant 6 and all other applicants are out of luck.While the above example is fictional, the point at which applications are cut off is right from real life. It is not unusual for highly competitive programs to have cutoff scores of 98.6 or higher. That means, in the example provided above, that any application that scores less than 98.6 will not receive funds. You can never afford to lose a single point. Be sure to take advantage of any opportunity to earn “extra credit” through competitive preferences or bonus points.
While the above example is fictional, the point at which applications are cut off is right from real life. It is not unusual for highly competitive programs to have cutoff scores of 98.6 or higher. That means, in the example provided above, that any application that scores less than 98.6 will not receive funds. You can never afford to lose a single point. Be sure to take advantage of any opportunity to earn “extra credit” through competitive preferences or bonus points.
Whether you win the grant or are declined, most funding agencies have a process by which you can request a copy of your scores and the reviewers’ comments. Do this whenever possible, because reading reviewers’ comments can help you understand your proposal’s strengths and weaknesses. If you were not funded, the reviewers’ comments and your scores can help you improve your application for next time. Some program officers will even review your score sheets with you and can provide additional insight. You won’t know unless you ask.
The funding agency decides which applications will receive grants. Usually this is based on the order of the points awarded by reviewers. However, agencies do have flexibility to apply other criteria to their rankings, such as geographic diversity (meaning grant dollars are spread around the country rather than being used to benefit only a few states), points awarded for previous performance, bonus points, or priorities (such as whether the applicant is in a rural location or an enterprise redevelopment zone).
The funder may notify congressional delegations of awards that will be made in their districts. If this happens, your first indication that you have won the grant may be a congratulatory call or email from your representative or senator’s office. Don’t worry if you don’t hear from your delegation. Not every agency notifies them.
If your organization is selected to receive a grant, the funding agency sends a letter or email. This is usually called a Notice of Grant Award (NGA) or something similar. This notification confirms that you were selected to receive an award, assigns an award number, and includes other such details as the starting and ending dates of the grant period and the amount awarded. It may also explain reporting requirements, but if it does not, we tell you later how these requirements might be specified by the agency.
Your organization may have to sign an agreement and return it or other documents to the funding agency before the grant becomes official. Sometimes the program officer (an agency staff member assigned to this funding program) contacts you to renegotiate parts of your budget, especially if you were awarded less than you requested. The agency sometimes even wants you to change your project activities or objectives. Usually this is fine. However, consider all such requests carefully and make sure you can meet them. If not, it is better to reject the grant at this stage than to take on something that you can’t achieve or that jeopardizes the organization’s finances.
Once your organization is selected to receive a federal grant, you will be assigned to a program officer at the funding agency. This is a very important person to get to know. Contact the program officer as soon as possible to begin building that relationship. Ask about communication preferences. Are emails or phone calls preferred? Some program officers appreciate periodic anecdotal information about your project. Some only want the reports to be filed on time. And filing reports on time is critical.
We know this life cycle is oversimplified, but it hits the highlights most relevant to those responsible for preparing proposals. Focus on what is within your control—designing an excellent program and producing a top-notch proposal. While there will always be some factors beyond your control (such as how an agency decides to distribute funds around the country or whether a reviewer on your panel did not read your proposal carefully), an excellent proposal gives you the best chance of success.
- RFAs go by many different names. Getting to know those terms can help you avoid missing an opportunity to apply for funding.
- Focus your energy on submitting the best proposals possible.
- Receiving the word that you won the grant is only the beginning. It’s not unusual to be required to adjust project activities, your planned outcomes, or the budget as a condition of the award.