Beyond the Instructions: Preparing a Federal Grant Application

Federal grant announcements include instructions, and plenty of them, for completing an application. Grant writers know the importance of following the instructions, but it is through preparing federal grant applications that applicants find ways to improve them.

This article identifies five practices an organization can use to improve a federal grant application. The practices are based upon common struggles observed in the planning processes of applicants, especially first-time applicants, and the omission of important information in the application narrative—information the grant announcement fails to address. In other words, the practices go beyond the instructions for completing an application packet to include the organizational process for completing it.

#1. In order to prepare a successful federal grant application, applicants must first develop a federal grant project. An organization may assume that because it is operating a project similar to one called for in the grant announcement, it can write about the current project in the application. The assumption is only partially true; the existing project can serve as the foundation for the grant project, but it is essential to develop a new project for the federal grant.

Putting a new spin on an existing project can be challenging, so consider these tips:

  • Give the existing project (Project A) a different name (Project B) to differentiate them. Project B is the new or federal grant project. Begin using the name, Project B, early on during the planning and writing process when referring to the federal grant project so others involved in preparing the grant application are clear about it. Keep in mind that when the project is approved for funding, the grantee must be able to track federal grant funds in its accounts. Thus, for accounting purposes, the grantee will have to separate Project A from Project B. Treating them as separate projects while developing the application also paves the way for managing the federal grant.
  • Forget the past (Project A) and focus on the future (Project B.) It is acceptable to describe all or some components of Project A as the basis or springboard for Project B. But the methodology should move away from what the organization has done (past tense) or is doing (present tense) to what the organization will do (future tense) in Project B.
  • Coordinate materials in the appendix to align them with the proposed project, Project B. Project A job descriptions, organizational charts, job responsibilities, and the like should be adapted and titled as Project B.
  • Distinguish the resources necessary to operate Project B from Project A. Perhaps Project A employs a part-time (.5FTE) counselor, and the counselor’s time will be increased to 1.0FTE by including the position in Project B, the federal grant program. The counselor would be represented in the budget of Project B as a parttime (.5FTE) position. As Project B gets underway, the counselor will have to track and report his time specific to Project B since it is part of the federal grant.

#2. Get the individuals serving on the planning and writing team on the same page as soon as possible. It is likely that some of the individuals involved in planning the federal grant project will also be involved in writing parts of the application, but that is not always the case. The sections of a grant narrative build upon one another, and they will not align unless everyone has the same understanding of the project.

Consider this tip for the planning process: Involve the lead grant writer in all planning meetings. The writer is present to help plan, but more importantly at this stage, to listen and write a recap(s) of the meetings. Ask the writer to prepare (a) a written description of the project; (b) an organizational chart depicting key personnel and departments/offices in the (new) federal grant project; and (c) a flow chart depicting key operational components of the project. The materials will provide the grant writers with a roadmap for developing the application. The charts, in particular, are effective tools for clarifying the federal grant project.

#3. Incorporate Selection Criteria into the application narrative. The grant announcement gives detailed instructions for writing the narrative section of the application. Later in the announcement, it also informs applicants about the criteria, labeled as Selection or Review Criteria, reviewers will use to score each section of the narrative. It is common to find points within the Selection Criteria that the instructions do not mention. In such cases, reviewers are to evaluate information the narrative has not instructed applicants to address. The omission of this information could result in an applicant losing valuable points in the scoring process.

Consider this tip for including all information within the narrative: Prepare a writing outline for the narrative based upon instructions in the grant announcement. Then read the Selection Criteria carefully and identify all new points the narrative instructions did not address. Return to the outline and insert the new points within the appropriate sections of the narrative.

#4. Set the application apart from the competition. Since it is impossible to know all the organizations that may be applying for the grant, address competition in a general fashion. The grant announcement identifies who is eligible to apply — nonprofits, institutions of higher education, state agencies, etc. — and from this, applicants can determine the type of organizations representing their competition. The announcement will also specify whether the grant is restricted to a specific geographic area or is national in scope. In addition, it shares the purpose of the federal grant program that, in essence, becomes the goal of all the proposed projects. The applicants will differ, however, in how they choose to approach the goal.

Consider using the following tips to set the application apart from all others:

  • Since the federal agency tells applicants what to do, focus on how the organization will do it. Collect information about best practices and build evidence-based projects. Explain how the organization will apply or adapt practices to meet the needs of its own target population.
  • Be thorough in collecting information that enables the applicant to make local, state, regional, and national comparisons. Use the data to address the problem and need for the project by looking for ways the service area, target population, and applicant organization may differ from others.
  • Federal agencies like projects that can be replicated by others. Use the fore mentioned information to identify how other organizations could replicate or build upon the proposed model or its components.

#5. Address gift significance. Government agencies are like other funding sources and like to know how their grant is going to make a difference.

Consider this writing tip: It is customary to describe the problem and build a case for the project based upon needs of the target population and community or service area. Take it a step further in the application by describing why the applicant cannot conduct the project or why the project will not be successful without the federal grant. Demonstrate how the grant will enable the applicant to solve the identified problem.

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