Fighting Through a Federal Grant: Meeting and Beating the Challenges (Part 3)

In our first two articles, we tackled strategies for finding the right federal funding opportunities and for finding/reading actual awarded proposals. But those are only two of the very real challenges related to federal (or state) grant proposals. Now let’s talk about some specific complexities with writing a federal grant proposal including tons of tasks, limited time, content, and competitiveness.

Finding Federal Grants: The Money-Dress-Mall Analogy (Part 1) Understanding Federal Grants: Finding and Reading Federal Grant Proposals (Part 2)

#1. Tons of tasks. One of the first things I do when tackling a federal (or state) proposal is to define the “stuff” that must be done. Yes, you must write a proposal that follows the criteria, but you must also complete other related tasks. And there can be lots of them. I create a Gantt chart in Excel that includes the tasks (left-hand side of the page) and the dates for completion (top of the page). On the far right, I include the names of the people contributing to the project so I can “assign” them to specific tasks.

The tasks themselves include anything from letters of support to conversations about the criteria. I won’t lie; I often am clueless about how to respond to specific criteria. Therefore, we must have conversations about that. “What is the national significance of the project?” Well, how should I know?? I’m just a grant pro serving a client! So that (and many other things) goes on my Gantt chart. Everything goes on the Gantt chart. Reading the RFP goes on the Gantt chart. Checking the Sam.Gov registration goes on the chart. Writing, drafting budgets, doing the equity statement, everything. Submission goes on the Gantt chart. Developing the timeline, the needs assessment, the goals and objectives—it all goes in the Gantt chart. 

For me, that list of tasks takes at least four hours, often a full day. Reading federal guidelines is mind-numbing; it takes time. Find a quiet place, a tall tumbler of hot coffee/tea, your Post-It notes, and highlighters. Dive in.

Once I have defined those tasks, I share them with the team. And, yes. There is always a team. I never-ever, ever-never complete a federal grant without a team. There’s the boss/client, his or her right-hand person, a finance person, and at least one content expert. There could also be partners on the team. It is seldom that I have fewer than four other people working on my team. 

So, yes, make that another “task.” You must have a team to get the work done, particularly on a federal proposal. 

But, wait! Doesn’t having all those people involved slow things down? Definitely. Absolutely. Plan for it. 

#2. Limited Time. Typically, you get 60 days to write a federal proposal. A few programs give you 30 days; a few give you 90 days. Whatever the time frame, it’s not enough.

Since 2010 or so, I have tracked the amount of time it takes me to develop, write, and submit a federal proposal. From start to finish—including all conversations, drafts, reading, research, everything—the time for me has been 150-200 hours. (Note: I am slow, some say thorough. But the numbers are the numbers.) If I’m working with a grant-ready client that has some grant experience, the number of hours is less (85-115), but that’s still a lot of time.

Therefore, you need to decide many things early in the process. For example, if the grant is due on July 15, drafts should be ready for reading and editing … when? July 8 or earlier. That backs up everything. If you’re working with a large corporation, governmental organization, or a university that has a mandatory approval process, add another week (or more) for their review.

Remember through it all that you are the grant professional. No one wants to be you. So, kindly and with great compassion carry the whip and get it done. If you create a strong plan for getting it done, others will follow. They don’t want to figure out how to get the work done; they would much rather you tell them what you need and when you need it. 

#3. Content. We have all had this conversation. We ask our leadership team what they want to do with the grant we’re about to begin, and they same something like, “What do you mean, ‘What do I want to do?’ I want you to get us this grant!” 

As your mama told you, “Ask a stupid question, …”

Exactly! We must rethink our approach to getting the content for our projects. We must ask a different question or set of questions. And there are many ways of doing that. In fact, some agencies have already developed internal norms that support program development. When a potential grant is announced, the relevant subject matter experts are ready to dive in with research, timelines, and specifics for the budget. 

What do grant writers do? 12 steps to help you explain.

In my opinion, this type of organization is better prepared for the complicated federal process and is more likely to be successful.

But we all start somewhere, and the best place is with a conversation—NOT a “gee, let’s talk about the grant” conversation but a focused conversation on the individual ideas of the project. You might have several chats with colleagues, leaders, and partners before it’s over; some will be in small groups, some one-on-one. These can be formal or informal, face-to-face or by phone; most of mine are by phone. Here’s a possible outline of those discussions in a somewhat logical order:

  • Project overview. Discuss the overall project with leadership and one or two subject matter experts from your organization. This will help the you quickly glean the overall vision of the project and establish a process or protocol for developing and submitting the grant.
  • Project timeline. This is a critical piece. Most federal grants require an implementation timeline anyway, but it also makes a wonderful grant planning tool. In my early days as a grant pro, I left this as something I did by myself while developing the narrative; today, I use it as a powerful tool to pull information out of smart people. For example, I put two subject matter experts in a room (or on a conference call line), sit back, and let them have at it. They design the timeline as I ask questions and re-direct them as needed. In a one-hour timeline session I learn much about a) your team’s knowledge, b) your readiness for the project, and c) how many more conversations you will need.
  • Partners. Quick discussion to finalize potential partners. Partners have probably already popped up in your conversations; you may only need a few minutes to nail down who to invite to the party. Colleagues will help you decide the strongest partners for the project as well as what they might bring to the table.
  • Narrative criteria. Multiple conversations (short and long) will help you develop the text for the grant. For example, schedule a quick phone conversation with one or two subject matter experts (your colleagues) about the need this project will address. Ask them about available data sources. Later, you will ask those same colleagues about the remedies that address the need (activities/approaches/strategies) and the impact of those remedies (goals/objectives). 
  • Budget. Armed with the timeline and activities of the grant, sit down with your team to discuss the budget. Make assignments for some of the hard-to-cost items. Repeat this process as the budget continues to develop.
  • Other. Schedule a conversation or two late in the process just to make sure you have time set aside on the team’s calendars. 

Program Development Insights: Learning to juggle machetes and other necessary evils

A final note or two on developing content, that is, on dragging content out of your colleagues, partners, and bosses. Do not wait around for all parties to be available for any single discussion. Everyone is busy; work with groups of one, two, or three people as they can. Make yourself available for early morning and evening calls if that works better for your team. As the grant professional, you are responsible for creating a structure for success. 

That means you should accept being both a pest and an angel. For some, you will pester. For others, you will facilitate and support; that is, you will offer to help them provide whatever data they need to produce for the project. And always remember, no one wants to be you. No one wants to be the grant professional! So, go out there and dazzle them with your juggling skills—juggling the tasks, time, and content of major proposals.

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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