Sunday, October 18, 2015

How Do I Follow the Money? Cool Websites Simplify Your Grant Research Chores

I think that everyone in the grant writing business has probably asked themselves: How do I follow the money for non-profit groups getting federal grants and contracts? As a political scientist, I was trained to follow the money no matter what as a tool for determining who had the most power and clout in Washington, D.C. Now, as a grant writer, I still follow the money. I follow the money in order to understand where it is coming from and what I need to say and do to get it.

One of my most important secrets of success is to research the competitors who are also applying for the same pot of grant money. If you would like to start researching your competitors, then you need to know about the following websites.
Check out Guidestar:

You can find another non-profit organization's IRS Form 990’s on Guidestar by going here and registering to use it.  Of course, you will need to use the non-profit's exact name as it appears on their Form 990. The IRS Form 990 is quite interesting because it includes a list of their largest funders along with details on how much they pay their high-level staff and, sometimes, board members. Although key information like phone numbers and addresses may sometimes be blocked out, you will still get enough basic information that a simple Google search will help you fill in the details on any cool information you discover through this remarkable service.

Check out

This website is the publicly accessible, searchable website mandated by the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 to give the American public access to information on how their tax dollars are spent. Most folks have no idea that this website even exists. Nevertheless it is a terrific way to investigate how much and what kind of federal funding your competitors are receiving from their grant campaigns. Again, you need to look up the exact name that they used when they applied for funding. This is a little tricky, but you can do it with a little persistence and imagination.

Check out annual reports to Congress:

These annual reports are a virtual cornucopia of information on grants. This data is also useful in identifying broad trends in government funding too.

Check out

This website is particularly good for laying out the basic financial facts about a competitor organization without the tedious detail of reviewing the IRS 990 Form. The downside, however, is that it will not give you the names of the specific funders who give to the organization. Nevertheless, this is a good resource for getting the big picture overview of the folks you are competing with in the non-profit marketplace.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Fire Up Your Whole Charity by Moving on the Budget First, Not Last

Too often, charities work on their budget at the last minute.  They will only focus on the budget after they have written much of the grant.  This is odd, when you think about it, because the grant writer would have a better idea of what to write if there was a realistic budget.

Ironically, some busy grant reviewers will skim (or not read at all) the text of the charity's grant application. 

Instead, they turn to the budget to make an informed decision about whether the charity has a clear enough plan and a realistic understanding of their proposed project.  In this context, it is easier to understand why a strong, detailed, accurate budget will always give an agency an unfair advantage over its competition.

Since the budget is a great management tool for overseeing the implementation of your grant project, the short-cuts used by the hurried grant reviewer may actually be a shrewd and effective use of their time. 

One of the best ways to get started on your budget is to work off of a copy of an existing, winning budget.  You can obtain copies of winning budgets from other agencies, through the internet, or from your own agency's own previous grant applications.

Learn Grant Writing in a Flash By Reading Copies of Winning Grants

One of the best decisions I ever made was to exercise my charity's right to read the winning grant application in an Orange County grant program. 
I remember that I felt like Bob Woodward the day I read through all the applications for a $400,000 program designed to serve foster care youth. 
I'll never forget the experience of seeing the successful application face-to-face.  It was filled, for example, with unneccessary but really beautiful color charts and graphs.  
It had a level of slickness and perfection that I did not even think would be normally expected of a struggling non-profit charity. 
Over the years, I have learned other lessons from looking at real world examples of grant writing success.  Ironically, I have learned that grant proposals do not need to be perfect to succeed.  Sometimes, incredible needs in your community are so great that the foundations appear willing to "throw money" at a problem, even if the proposed grant project is not the best possible solution. 
All of this reminds me that appearances matter in the world of grant writing - even though the highest rewards still go to those willing to take action, no matter what.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Pay Attention to the Points: Simple Tips for Winning Federal Grants

Writing a successful federal grant demands the exact same skills, resources, and product positioning skills discussed in A Really Great Booklet on Grant Writing.  The only real difference is that you need to apply these skills with even greater depth and discipline.  As you may know, I created my best, early successes writing federal grants.  

I have found them to be an arena that verifies everything I have said earlier on the sudden appearance of money, and the need to move quickly when money arrives.  The necessity of quick action in this field makes perfect sense to me because of the process surrounding federal grant applications.  After these grant appropriations are approved by Congress, the money slowly trickles down, and then the government agency that is giving away the money needs to scramble to let everyone know that the money is now available.  Often, it is not really their fault that they could not move faster, simply because they are not sure what is going to be available.  (I imagine this was done on purpose in the past to give an advantage to existing interest groups over insurgent interest groups.)

For whatever reason, the same process is still taking place today.  Accordingly, to win one of these federal grants, you need to have everything set up ahead of time.  The main season for federal grants runs from January to May.  So, ideally, if you get yourself set-up with in the Fall, you will be able to apply for funding in the Spring.

There are some things about applying for federal grants that are remarkably different from applying for corporate or foundation grants.  It pays to know, for example, what some of these differences are if you want to get ahead.  For example, federal applications list their guidelines so that you can find out what criteria are used to screen your application, and you can even find the score attached to each separate criteria. 

It is best to request this on behalf of your agency, not as a consultant to an agency.  (I tried this as a consultant and federal staff frightened the nonprofits into backing down and not insisting on their rights.)  I have found it extremely profitable to pay great attention to the weighting of the different sections of a federal grant application.  There are also great advantages in answering questions exactly according to what the federal request for proposal demands from you: word for word.  This operating strategy can, at times, create an almost idiotic question and response style of writing useful to nobody in the real world.  As crazy as this sounds, perfect and consistent compliance will win you funding in the long-run.

In my experience, it seems to help to have a good friendship with your member of Congress, Senator, or other political official.  They and their staffs can be very helpful in assisting you in finding available pots of money.  Surprisingly, you can even include letters of support from local political figures in your applications for funding - a fact that first struck me as almost like cheating.

Finally, one good idea for winning money from the federal government is to focus on those programs which have the largest amount of money and the largest sheer number of potential grants.  I like looking for programs like Drug-Free Communities which offer up to 300 grants every year in the $100,000 to $200,000 range.  As a taxpayer, you may be very disappointed by how easy it is to receive funding from the federal government for your pet project.  As a recipient, however, I think you will be very happy.

Yes. There are Grants for Small Businesses

Red Onions with a Copper Pitcher by John C. Drew, 
October 2014.
Normally, I cannot provide much hope for small business owners seeking funding from the federal government. The idea that the federal government wants to help you start a small business is, for the most part, a complete myth. As the Small Business Administration notes on its own website, "SBA does not provide grants for starting and expanding a business."

Most of those who get support from the federal government do so by receiving loans given by private lenders that are guaranteed by the Small Business Administration. This guarantee lowers your interest rate, but it is not free money. 

Money for Scientific Research 

Nevertheless, if your small business is engaged in scientific research and development, then the federal government is interested in hearing from you. They have opened their doors wide to receive proposals in this area and they are more than willing to fund them if you are doing research which matches their own pre-selected research interests. 

The two most important programs you need to know about are the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and the Small Business Technology Transfer (SBTT) programs. If you work on a SBTT grant application, then you will need to find a research institution like a major research university to collaborate with you on your research project. You will also need to share a least 30% of the research expenses with a collaborating research institution. Some of the best funders for business owners in the lucrative medical equipment field are the National Institutes for Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Regarding the NIH and NSF

I was amazed to learn that you can send unsolicited applications to the NIH without worrying about their current research interests. The next deadline for such an application would be January 5, 2016. The initial Phase I grant would be for $150,000 and any subsequent Phase II grant would be significantly higher, up to $1 million. They make it easy to give them a phone call and check whether or not there is a match. One great thing I noticed about NIH is that there is a conference in Seattle between October 27-29, 2015 where you can learn about how to apply for the NIH’s SBIR funding.

Medical equipment inventors would also be eligible to apply for NSF funding under their various medical categories. 

Tips for Winning

In general, the NIH and NSF are looking for projects which are very near to the marketplace, but still need to be tested on human subjects. From what I understand, if you do a high quality application in an appropriate funding category you have a 50% chance of winning funding. It is best to plan your Phase 1 and Phase 2 research project as one entire research operation. It seems like you are virtually guaranteed to win the much larger Phase 2 funding as long as you can prove your mettle during the Phase 1 funding research.