In the course of my career, I've written dozens of federal grant proposals for different departments and agencies. Each time I finish one, I am convinced that, NEXT TIME, the process will be smoother!
While federal grants are far less intimidating to me these days, the process is never very smooth. I can count on one hand the times I have submitted the grant before the last day - typically my clients and I are still scrambling around the deadline day making final changes and edits. But they are typically just small things and we are able to submit several hours before the cut-off.
When I speak with clients and other nonprofit executives, many express their concerns regarding federal grants. The amount of time it takes, the extensive guidelines and the pages of required documentation appears to be overwhelming. So I decided that I would share some tips and guidance through The Federal Grant Series.
To kick us off, let's ask the question: "Is there a method to the madness?" The answer is yes, there can be. Some grant writers have very specific strategies and organizational methods they use when they are tackling a federal grant. But, no matter what your method, I believe there are some traits that will help you succeed:
Time Management - Putting together a federal proposal takes a great deal of time and you MUST block that time in your schedule in order to get it done. How much time depends on the proposal, and each one is different. As a rule of thumb, I base estimates on the page limit of the narrative. For clients I've worked with a long time, I estimate a base of thirty hours, then an additional half-hour for each narrative page (double spaced). For new clients, it is one to 1.5 hours per page.
Organizational Skills - I have put together proposals with more than 300 pages of documentation. You must be able to organize and manage these elements in order to be successful. You've also got to develop and manage an effective set of tasks and internal deadlines for your team.
Detail Oriented - Information must match across several documents. If you change one element in the budget, you will have to make the same change in several others. You must be detailed enough not to miss those - or have a team member who is really good at spotting those details.
Patience - Federal Opportunity Announcements are often 90+ pages long. Federal grant webinars are how I envision the Seventh Ring of Hell. But participating in these is vital to success. You must have enough patience to slog through them.
Grace - After submitting a grant, I often find several things I wish I had done differently. When the review comes back one of those as a stated weakness, I want to kick myself. However, it's important to offer grace for those things. I've helped write some fantastic grants, with great reviewer comments, that DIDN'T get funding and I've written some last-minute, cobbled together proposals that DID get funding. Offering yourself and your team some grace is vital to surviving.
Management Skills/People Skills - Federal grants typically take teamwork from several departments (finance, personnel, programming, executive) to complete. You must be able to manage each team member's expectations and time. You’ve also got to navigate “the care and feeding of” each person on the team - understanding the best way to get information from them.
Writing Skills - Notice how that's last? As a writer, I always think good writing is the most important element, but Shakespeare himself would not be able to write a good federal grant proposal if he didn't have the other traits listed here.
Federal grants can be intimidating to say the least. I hope that as we explore this series you will obtain skills, techniques and tips to help you be successful - and you can always send us an email.