Federal Grants

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The Importance of Grant Planning

If you wait until you see the latest funding announcement or RFP from a private or federal funder before beginning the grant planning process, you’re already behind. Funding announcements typically have tight turnaround deadlines for applications and don’t allow time for gathering data and formulating a competitive project and proposal. Theoretically, the reasoning behind those tight deadlines is that funders want to provide support for organizations that already have clearly identified needs and concerns and that have already developed strategies and solutions they want to implement.


Planning to apply for a grant well before a notice of funding availability or RFP is released can help your organization in two ways: 1) your organization can pursue the best funding match for your needs instead of chasing funding dollars that may not entirely align with your mission or primary goals and 2) your organization has more time to fully develop projects or programs, obtain data, and involve collaborative internal and external partners during the program development phase. The grant planning tips below will get you started with the grant planning process and increase your organization’s odds of submitting a competitive proposal.


Begin with Strategic Planning and Continuous Quality Improvement (CQI) Processes

All planning, including grant planning, should begin with a strategic plan because a strategic plan gives your organization a solid basis upon which to make decisions about organizational priorities and needs. With a strategic plan in place, an organization is better able to prioritize specific needs related to maintaining or expanding services and meeting the needs of consumers.


While continuous quality improvement (CQI) is a term more commonly used in the business sector, nonprofits and higher education institutions can benefit in many ways from supplementing strategic planning with CQI techniques. In other words, solutions to problems and organizational priorities should always reflect the purpose of the organization and be aligned with what the organization hopes to accomplish. If proposed solutions and needs don’t align with the organization’s basic mission and purpose, you may experience “mission creep” which hinders the organization’s overall success.


CQI involves an ongoing and systematic process to pinpoint, analyze, and define what works well and what doesn’t and usually involves processes rather than people. CQI also involves positing appropriate solutions and process improvements, trying those solutions out, and revising them if needed. For instance, if your college has identified student advising as an area that needs improvement, putting together a team to conduct CQI around that issue will help you formulate improvements to the process of student advising and test your theories.


Since the CQI process helps organizations identify problems and propose solutions, it can be fundamental to any grant planning. Once you know what problems your organization wants to address and once you’ve developed an appropriate response to those problems, your organization will need funding to implement your solutions. At that point, your organization can begin to research the types of funding available for your specific needs. This pro-active approach is more effective in meeting organizational priorities since you are focused on finding funding opportunities that match your needs rather than trying to create programs and organizational priorities in response to funding announcements that you otherwise might not pursue.


Be Aware of the Grant Cycle

Grants, especially established federal grant programs, are often announced on a rolling basis. For instance, some grant programs are announced annually or bi-annually at approximately the same time of year. These cyclical grant announcements and criteria usually don’t vary much from year to year, so once you know what types of funding will best benefit your organization, you can review past grant announcements that match your funding needs. One way to search the availability and prior RFPs for federal grants is to conduct a keyword search on Grants.gov. Many times you can also review information about the specific projects that were successfully funded in the past and, therefore, explore the similarities to your proposed projects.


Having access to previous RFPs or NOFAs is invaluable in the grant planning process because you have all the information needed to begin planning an application well in advance of the formal grant announcement. Because federal grants are extremely competitive, JCCI Resource Development Services recommends planning at least a year ahead of an anticipated grant announcement. This time frame allows your organization to gather data, seek input from a variety of stakeholders, develop a comprehensive plan, and craft a competitive proposal. During this planning phase, working with an external grant consulting team such as JCCI Resource Development Services can improve your organization’s focus on identified problems and solutions and will bring an objective perspective to the table.


Check All Applicable Registrations

Often, organizations believe they are ready to apply for a grant, only to discover that the user name and passwords for federal portals such as Grants.gov and SAM.gov are no longer accessible. Personnel changes and upgrades to these services make checking accounts well ahead of any grant submission a best practice. Online tools such as Grants.gov and SAM.gov also must be able to “talk” to one another and must be linked organizationally. If you need to update any information or account settings, the process could take several weeks. SAM.gov offers online tips for setting up accounts.  Similarly, Grants.gov will walk you through the applicant registration process and also provides an overview of tools such as the Workspace feature.


From Planning to Submission

Taking time to prepare adequately for a grant submission will improve the competitiveness of your organization’s proposal. Once a funding deadline is announced, you will still have adequate time to craft a compelling case and discuss a strategy for meeting identified needs that is based on data, feedback and input, and evidence that you’ve had time to gather. You will also have time to have an external reviewer read your draft and make helpful comments prior to submission. The grant process is typically extremely competitive, and taking advantage of the grant planning strategies recommended here can make a difference in earning a winning application score.

Why Title III SIP is Unique

Among all the U.S. Department of Educations grant opportunities, the Title III Strengthening Institutions Program (SIP) is most unique. The JCCI Resource Development Services team monitored the federal budget proposals presented in 2017 and was shocked to learn that the initial budget from the president’s office removed the entire line item for Title III SIP. The Trump administration stated that funding was removed from the budget because they felt Title III SIP duplicates other grant funding opportunities. Every educational institution that has ever received an SIP grant award understands how this program is different from most other DOE grants. Fortunately, Congress’s final budget returned that line item funding to cover grantees at least during the 2018 year. With much debate about government spending and the national debt and an uncertain future for Title III SIP, it seems appropriate to consider what makes SIP different and why continuing this type of funding will, indeed, strengthen our higher educational institutions.

Problem Solving

Though there are many federal grants that target under-resourced institutions serving low-income students, only Title III SIP compels an institution to examine a significant problem that is unique to their operations and their student body. Successful applicants will not only identify this problem, but will also propose a research- and evidence-based solution to that problem. Project evaluations must demonstrate successful problem solving and achievement of outcomes within the 5-year grant time frame. The grantee is responsible for showing that the problem has been resolved with no future need for additional DOE funding. This grant enables institutions to solve problems that impact the long-term future of the organization and the students they serve and requires grantees to resolve the issues “on time and within budget.” In fact, awardees cannot re-apply for the same problem, and they must wait a minimum of two years before applying for a Title III SIP grant to assist in resolving a different issue. If a grantee applies in another grant cycle, the institution receives no benefits for being a prior SIP recipient.

By Comparison

For those who are unfamiliar with the way other federal grant programs work, the problem-solving and time-frame benchmarks for Title III SIP grants may not seem that unique; however, by comparison to other DOE grants, the unique nature of SIP becomes clear. Consider SIP in comparison to DOE TRIO grant programs. Like Title III, there are several specific grants under the TRIO umbrella. For example, Talent Search and Upward Bound are under the TRIO umbrella of grant funds. Like Title III, TRIO grants are intended to help higher educational institutions provide educational services to students from disadvantaged backgrounds who may have to overcome challenges to completing a degree program. Challenges might include low income, disabilities, or being a first-generation college student. TRIO grants provide important funding to address a variety of socio-economic challenges to student success and higher education.


Unlike Title III SIP grants, though, TRIO grantees can literally receive continual funding for decades without a waiting period between grant applications, and, for most programs, previous grantees are awarded an additional 15 points for prior experience in the competitive grant cycle. The additional points which previous grantees receive make it even more challenging for new and innovative programs to obtain enough points to be funded.


The TRIO programs’ goal of helping institutions serve segments of the population that may need additional support to accomplish educational goals is, of course, a worthy goal. Title III SIP grant competition is fierce, but equitable, as no organization automatically receives points for prior award status. SIP awardees are held accountable for resolving identified issues with a specified time frame in a manner that is sustainable without continual federal funding. No other DOE grant program is designed specifically to support under-resourced institutions (defined by the institution’s educational and general expenditures compared to a national mean for its sector) serving low-income students while ensuring institutional efficiency and sustainability within a 5-year period. Title III SIP remains a unique and transformational investment in our educational system.

How Competitive is Federal Grant Funding?

It’s the question on everyone’s mind when considering applying for federal grants: what are the odds of being approved for funding? Just how competitive is federal grant funding? The question is legitimate since applying for a grant can consume both human capital and financial resources when organizations and institutions often have little of either to spare. At the same time, receiving competitive federal grant funding can be the catalyst for moving programs and even entire organizations to the next level of service. Grant funding allows nonprofit institutions to do more than they could ever do without significant capital investment, so pursuing federal grants is definitely worthwhile.


During a 2017 conference for community college grant writers, a representative from the U.S. Department of Education answered questions from conference participants about the recent Title III Strengthening Institutions (SIP) grant cycle. The questions and the answers provided during this session shed some light on the competitive nature of that particular grant, and the statistics are likely similar for many other federal grant competitions.


U.S. DOE received more than 125 applications for the 2017 Title III SIP Part A grant funding cycle. Only 10 applicants received funding. The cutoff grant application score for the Title III SIP competitive grant funding was 103 which included a perfect score on the criteria (100 points) plus utilization of a tie-breaking method to determine grantees. It often happens that the Title III SIP selection process ends in a tie and funds are not sufficient to fund all institutions. In this case, the U.S. DOE awards up to three additional points based on 1) total market value of endowment fund during a base year, 2) total expenditures for library materials during a base year, and 3) activities that the applicant proposes to carry out in the application. In the 2017 cycle, no applicant with a score below 103 received funding, and many applicants with scores of 103 did not receive funding.


The good news from this extremely competitive federal grant funding cycle is that DOE may decide to “fund down” in the following year rather than announcing a new cycle of funding for grant applicants (as they often do). To “fund down” means that the DOE will review high-scoring applicants from one year’s competition to make additional funding awards rather than asking all applicants to submit grant requests again. For the institutions with high-scoring submissions, that news is especially welcome as it means the resources put into that above-perfect scoring application might still result in federal grant funding.

Planning Ahead

Considering the competitive nature of these types of federal grants and JCCI Resource Development Services’ experience with funded proposals, we know there are some steps to take in making a grant application as competitive as possible. Planning ahead is the most effective means of writing a winning grant, and that means planning as far out as a year ahead. Many institutions who received funding in the latest DOE Title III SIP funding cycle had been outlining their needs and planning their strategies a year ahead of beginning the grant submission process. These institutions were able to gather compelling data during this time frame and were able to generate the best solutions to their problems. Waiting until the U.S. DOE announced the grant funding cycle before thinking about the best ways to serve students and gathering supporting data simply would not allow enough time to lay the groundwork for a successful proposal.


After competitive federal grant funding opportunities are announced, applicants must still research specific grant opportunities to ensure they can meet all grant criteria and that the institution’s project and needs align with specific desired grant outcomes. RFPs and FOAs will include details about the amount of funds available, the cap on award amounts, total number of awards planned, grant project timelines, evaluation and reporting requirements, restrictions on use of grant funding, and a host of other helpful details to help organizations decide whether to apply. Because federal grants are highly competitive, ensuring that organizational goals match grant funding goals is crucial to success. Planning well in advance of a grant announcement and appropriate research of grant criteria are vital for developing a grant proposal that will be competitive.