Fund Times

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Government Cheese June 15, 2011

Filed under: capacity,strategic fundraising — fundtimes @ 6:28 pm

Now that change has come to the White House, there seems to be an abundance of government grant opportunities.  With the creation of President Obama’s Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation in 2009, the Federal Government is committed to increasing the impact that the social sector has on improving the quality of life for all Americans.  Good news for nonprofits, right?  Absolutely!  But, not necessarily all nonprofits.

<clears throat> Allow me to explain.

The government grants process is incredibly competitive, not to mention rigorous (which I just did).  In FY 2009, more than 300,000 applications were submitted to the Federal Government.  While this submission rate is likely based on the Recovery Act, the Federal Government still provides access to more than $500 billion annually.  But, as with all things groovy, it is important to assess whether or not your nonprofit is ready to apply and oversee a grant from the feds.  As the old saying goes, “To whom much is given, much is expected.”

Here are four tips to keep in mind when considering when to apply for a federal grant:

  • Partner Up.  When applying for government funding, many agencies want to know if you have existing partnerships with other local nonprofits.  These partnerships not only give your nonprofit “street cred”, but it shows the government agency that they are funding a larger system of change.  And simply listing your partners is not enough.  Government grantors often require you to provide signed letters of support from these organizations when submitting your application.
  • Check Your Capacity.  Do you find yourself submitting grant reports to foundations on time?  Is your staff already strained to deliver its existing services?  If the answer to either question is “yes”, then you should pump the brakes on applying for a government grant.  The application process tends to be a tedious one (often requiring lengthy page narratives and attachments) and the full participation of your staff will likely be needed. 
  • Can You Sustain This.  When I moonlighted as a grant reviewer, several applications asked the nonprofit to discuss their plan for ensuring the financial sustainability of the program once the government funding has expired.  Unfortunately, for many applicants, this plan was not entirely clear and resulted in a low-score on their grant submission.  The rule of thumb is that all nonprofits should have a long-term funding plan, regardless of the type of grant that is being applied for.  So if your nonprofit has yet to chart out a strategy to raise funds beyond the current fiscal year, you may want to wait to pursue government funding.   
  • Set Realistic Goals.  Funders are keen on requiring nonprofits to assess the impact of their work on improving community life.  The same requirements are true for government grantors.  Case in point: Race to the Top grantees.  According to a recent article in Education Week, the majority of states that received federal funding in 2010 to improve their public school systems are struggling to meet the expectations made in their original work plans.  Their progress in achieving goals is under significant scrutiny from the Federal Government, resulting in the hold-up of needed funds to continue the next phase of program implementation.  This situation highlights the need to provide realistic and attainable goals when applying for government funding.

What do you think?  Given these suggestions, is your nonprofit ready to pursue government funding?

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