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.