Understanding Federal Grants: Finding and Reading Federal Grant Proposals (Part 2)

In our first article on Federal Funding, we considered where we might find federal funding and used the local shopping mall as an analogy. That is, we should be looking for opioid use reduction grants (for example) in a logical place—health, policing, safety—not necessarily at NASA or the USDA. The latter two groups might have funding to stem the opioid crisis, but it’s not likely.

Finding Federal Grants: The Money-Dress-Mall Analogy (Part 1)

In this second of our three-article series, we will try to get a better understanding of how a federal grant proposal differs from, say, a grant to the local community foundation.

Let’s begin by considering another analogy. Let’s say you were determined to write a crime novel. You have a great idea, a fabulous set of characters, and a plot twist to die for (pun intended). It is likely that you have read dozens of such novels in your life. You understand the genre. You understand good writing vs. bad writing. You inherently appreciate the “conventions of text,” that is, the use of white space, short sentences, and dialog to keep the reader interested. And because you’ve read so many of these types of books, you also appreciate subtlety; clues are slipped in here and there until a case is built and a killer is revealed.

Wow! I can’t wait to read your book! It will be an award winner!

Unfortunately, the same things that make your fiction writing strong are the same things that will cause you to fall short when you write your first federal grant proposal.

What?

That’s right. If we want to write a strong federal grant proposal, shouldn’t we read strong grant proposals?

When put that way, it sounds rather obvious. But how many of us have actually done so? Certainly, it is a challenge. Federal grant proposals—while clearly public information—are not made publicly available. So what are we supposed to do?

Never fear! There are (at least) four solid ways to put your hands on an awarded grant proposal: serve as a peer reviewer; ask the writer for a copy; be an editor; and, ask the feds for it.

#1: Serve as a peer reviewer.

There are lots of ways to become a reviewer or, as its sometimes called, a field reader. When a grant program is announced, the “Call for Reviewers” is often posted on the same page. Just click the link and follow the instructions. Some agencies (HRSA) leave the link up year-round. And states often require folks to live in the state where the grant will be implemented.

All programs that make grant awards have some type of review process. When I’m in the mood to review, I will spend 2-3 hours emailing various programs about their process and how to apply. If I apply to 10 agencies, I’m likely to make it onto 1-2 panels (and that’s plenty for me in a single year).

The same is true for state grants (which are often federal flow-through grants). Find the program most aligned with what you want to do and email the program staff. They will lead you to the appropriate contact. As an example, the Commonwealth of Kentucky each year has a review for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant program. At least 40 reviewers are needed from throughout the state; they each apply through a link on the Competitive Grants page. And many states in the U.S. have that same program with similar peer review requirements.

#2. Ask the writer for a copy.

I sometimes call this “phoning a friend.” When the awards are posted, scan them for organizations like yours or for awardees in your state. Then, simply email the program about their new grant award. I try to determine—through the awardee’s website—who may have written the grant proposal and email them directly. This is sometimes easy, sometimes not. Once I’ve found an appropriate contact, I email him/her to set up a time to talk about their winning grant proposal. I don’t straight out ask for a copy; that would be rude. But, after a few minutes of talking, I ask whether the writer’s organization has any rules against sharing their funded proposals.

I find that my odds of getting a copy are 50/50, and I’m happy with that. Again, you are not asking for private information. Federal and state proposals are public information and could be retrieved in other ways. Making a phone call, though, is one of the easiest.

#3. Be an editor.

Many of us are in professional associations and rub elbows with others in our own areas of expertise. For example, recently on the Grant Professional Association’s Grant Zone (an online message board of sorts), the Public Safety group asked all its members to list what grants they are working on right now. And many of them responded! What if, as an extension of that, some “newbies” offered to do some free editing of those pros’ proposals? That would be a definite win for both sides. Having an editing buddy is an easy way to read more federal grants—at least in the draft stages.

Subcontracting is another way to read more grants. For example, I’m a member of a grants team; we write every imaginable type of grant, from federal to state to foundation to manufacturing. I have learned more by working alongside other experts. And, because I’m contributing, I get paid for it.

#4. Ask the feds for it.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Federal and state grants are public information that must be provided to anyone seeking that information. The formal process is an “FOIA” request, that is, a Freedom of Information Act request. Each federal department and agency is familiar with the process. Simply go to a funder’s page and search for “freedom of information” or “FOIA.” You will find instructions on how to find a specific grant application or a handful of applications.

Sometimes, you get a surprise. Last year, I searched for a specific Department of Ed proposal and could not find it. So, I did an FOIA request. Within a couple of days, the program contacted me. They found the proposals had been posted and were totally available. I felt a little dumb, but I also was able to see all of the funded proposals. Ego assuaged.

But, typically, an FOIA at the federal level will take time—at least 3-4 weeks. And, it may cost you. Some federal agencies will charge you for the effort related to the search (typically $25-50). Your organization won’t pay for that? Yes, they will. Tell them it’s for professional development. And it is. Anytime you can learn a lot for a little money, you should grab the chance.

FOIA requests at the state level vary greatly, but it is my experience that the process is quite simple. You just have to find the right person. In Kentucky, an attorney is assigned with the task. Once you know her name and email, it’s easy to make the request. Typically, I have the grant(s) I want within two or three days. Some Kentucky programs also post last year’s winning proposals as part of the new year’s competition, which is a nice touch.

Just remember, as you are making an FOIA request, you do not want to ask for all the winning proposals. Again, go back to the list of awardees, review the abstracts and types of organizations awarded, and choose carefully. I typically choose up to three proposals that either match my general type of activities or my type of organization—always looking for the types of proposals that most closely match mine.

Finally, remember, you should never start writing a new genre without reading in that genre (novel, grant proposal, business proposal, whatever). Seriously. Next time, do your homework. Find proposals to read. Examine how the awardees addressed the criteria. Feel free to bring your own spin to your proposal. But, at least be educated about what has been successful before. Your boss/clients/kids/puppies/homeless-orcas all deserve it!

About the Author

Johna Rodgers

Johna Rodgers, GPC, has been there and done that. And almost every step of her divergent path included grants. For nearly 30 years, Johna has helped organizations of all types and sizes address their most critical needs—at the federal, state, corporate, and grassroots levels. In 2015, she opened Johna Rodgers Consulting, LLC, a full-service consulting agency. With more than $162 million in grant awards, she has the competitive experience needed to ensure proposals are fundable; as importantly, she has learned to work efficiently with dozens of partners and their conflicting ideas, missions, and concerns. Johna is a Board Member of the Grant Professional Association (GPA), a member of the National Grant Management Association, a national trainer for Grant Writing USA/Grant Management USA, and a GPA Approved Trainer. She is also a former board member and exam administrator for the Grant Professionals Certification Institute (GPCI).

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