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

You’re sitting at your desk, minding your business. After a few days working on a particularly promising foundation proposal – it’s a perfect match to your organization – the boss pops in. For a moment, you think it’s just another typical, cheery “way to go” moment. It’s not.

Shopping Mall“Hey,” she says, “did you hear about <fill in the blank> agency? They just got a federal grant. I think it’s time we did that as well. We need to start writing federal grants.”

First, breathe. It’s OK to panic inside, at least a bit. But, as the old antiperspirant commercial states: never let ‘em see you sweat!

Second, the struggle is real. Federal (and state) grants are complex. You are right to be concerned – but being concerned is what keeps us from crossing the freeway on foot during rush hour without looking both ways. Being “concerned” is good.

And third, people much dumber than you (like me) have successfully written these complex proposals, submitted them, and won. The important thing to remember is - just like foundation grants, these more complex cousins are still just paperwork. You’ve got this!

As a guide, let’s consider a few basics that apply to many (perhaps most) state and federal grants. These basics include how and where to look for money, how to find samples to review before writing a proposal, and addressing specific challenges like time, content, competitiveness, and tons of tasks. In this first of three articles on federal funding, we will consider the money itself.

Think back to School House Rock. Remember Bill? You know, “I’m Just a Bill, I am only a Bill, and I’m sittin’ here on Capitol Hill”? Federal funds (and state flow-through dollars) come from the federal budget and the various “Bills” on Capitol Hill. The ideas for the next year’s budget are typically presented by the President during the State of the Union (January). A formal budget is sent to the House and Senate in late spring; some things stay, other things go, and new things are added. (Note: This is the process, but in recent years, the budgeting process has not been a smooth one. That is an article for another day.)

Eventually—and this is the part I care about—the money lands in a federal department, which shuffles funds to its agencies or operating divisions. But that is complicated. For our purposes, let’s pretend we are not looking for money; rather, we are looking for THE perfect mother-of-the-bride dress. So, we head to the mall, a daunting place with lots of people, noise, and shops.

There are big shops (the anchor stores) and little shops (the boutiques), and we are immediately able to cross most of the stores in the mall off our shopping list. For example, while I love-love-love Sears for its automotive and appliance sections, I’m pretty sure I will not find the perfect mother-of-the-bride dress there. I’m not even going in. Instead, I will focus on Belk, Dillard’s, and Macy’s. If I have tons of extra time, I might check out a boutique or two and hope for a HUGE sale (I typically cannot afford boutiques). But my guess is that Dillard’s will win for its selection and price.

How do I know? Because I know what they carry, and they have had other appropriate dresses in the past. I’m familiar with them. And that, fellow grant pros, is the whole point.

Now, transfer this thinking to federal money. Your “mall” is the U.S. government; and your “anchor stores” are the large agencies, like Health and Human Services, the Department of Transportation, Homeland Security, and many more. In fact, there are more than 25 large departments, and each has a range of agencies (like all department stores do, i.e., automotive, homewares, athletics, shoes, etc.). If you do the math, there are 200+ places to look for funding. But, once you find the right two or three stores/funders, you eliminate a lot of work. For example, if I’m looking for a health grant, I’ll check HHS. I might end up in the HRSA division (Health Resources & Services Administration) which has tons of programs for people who are geographically isolated and/or who are either economically or medically vulnerable. The Ryan White HIV/AIDS program is at HRSA. So are two separate opioid programs. If I want mentoring grants for school-age youth, my instincts say the Department of Education; but my brain also points to the Department of Juvenile Justice, an agency of the Department of Justice.

While the amount of money for grants may change as the political winds blow, the departments and agencies remain fairly unchanged over time. Names of programs may change, but if you check the CFDA number on a round of funding, you’re likely to see that it has existed for quite some time.

Once you find a comfortable place for shopping/looking, you’ll return to that spot for news. You can also go to Grants.Gov to find more information on available programs/grants or, in the case of HHS, look for programs that have been “forecasted” for release in future weeks. In a year or two, all funding forecasts will be moved to Grants.Gov (allegedly; we’ll see). As I write this, only HHS has its notices forecasted on that site. Other forecasts remain with specific departments or agencies. The Department of Education’s forecast is less helpful, but the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) forecast is amazing. NIFA is an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In every department and its agencies, you can (and should) sign up for electronic notices. These include emails and press releases. The latter may mean—as with the Department of Agriculture—that you will receive a lot of emails from Sonny Purdue, the Director. But you will also receive grant notices, and that’s worth a few non-funding emails in my book! Plus, you may find it interesting to see who is nominated annually for the Popcorn Board. (Yes, there is a Popcorn Board, and I want to be on it!)

Once you find the place where you find the money, you should also begin your search for a list of last year’s awarded organizations. Almost all federal departments and agencies post a list of those funded; a rare few post the funded grant proposals (e.g., Dept. of Ed’s EIR program). But why stop there? Once you have a list of the awarded proposals, you can and should take a deeper dive. Read all the abstracts to learn about the projects the department funded; and, critically, note the awardees near or most like you. 

In our next article, we’ll discuss a new strategy: Phone a Friend! Stay tuned!

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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