3 Steps to Finding Government Grants for Nonprofits

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Where Do You Start? With Prospecting

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I often hear nonprofit leaders ask, “Where’s the money?” when we start talking about government grants. They’ve often heard about another organization that got millions in grant dollars, dollars that seem to have fallen from the air with little work. If only the answer were as simple as the question.

While compelling grant writing skills are essential, grant prospecting is a first and important step to finding the “best fits” for your funding needs. Effective grant prospecting takes time, but following these steps can help you search for and win more money from government sources.

Grant prospecting is the act of using database tools, professional networks, and personal contacts to identify and cultivate the most appropriate potential funding partners.

Competition for all grant funding has intensified significantly since the recession began in 2009. But all nonprofits face challenges in seeking grants, namely a lack of time, lack of staff, lack of money for database subscriptions, and lack of understanding of what makes the best fit for funding.

Why all the competition? There are billions of dollars in grant dollars available every year. In the federal government alone there are 26 federal grant-making agencies and more than 900 federal programs. These include the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Housing/Urban Development, Justice, Labor, and Treasury as well as the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities.

Funding is supposed to be allocated to these grant-making agencies by the Congress before the start of the new federal fiscal year (October 1). To get a preview of what funds may be available in the coming year, refer to proposed budgets from the President, Congress, and OMB (Office of Management and Budget).

How can you take the plunge into grant prospecting for government grants? Let's review three tips to success:

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Step 1: Know Yourself

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The first thing you need to do is identify what kind of funding you need and for whom or what. Make a list of the states, counties, and communities that you serve. Then, list the scope of your work. Who do you serve? Why? What evidence do you have to support your project? How much funding do you need? How much funding have you already raised?

It is critical that you are honest in the scope of your organization’s work, so you capture the best matches for your needs. Use a grant prospecting questionnaire to gather your data, and use an organization summary sheet to track your findings. Keep these documents available as you look for grants.

Also, consider what type(s) of support you need (equipment, capital, program development, evaluation, seed, operating, etc.). There are many different ways for a grant maker to provide support for your organization from paying for staff and hosting conferences to purchasing land. However, most funding comes through operating support, capital support, and program development.

Operating support (unrestricted funding) is a grant to an organization for day-to-day operating costs or to further the general work of an organization, rather than for a particular purpose or project (also known as restricted funding). Capital support is most commonly given for specific capital campaigns that involve building construction or acquisition, land acquisition, renovations, remodeling, or the rehabilitating of property. Program development grants provide funding for a particular purpose or project (also known as restricted funding).

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Step 2: Find Your Keywords

Keywords for your government grants search.
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The second step in prospecting preparation is listing your organization’s funding priorities and the keywords to use when searching for those priorities within databases.

In many search databases, these are called the “Fields of Interest.” There are thousands of possibilities in the fields of interest and too many combinations possible to list them all here. Think synonyms when you run out of words; some funders list giving to the poor under “poverty,” some under “impoverished,” and others under “needy,” so you need to try all the synonyms you can think of to make sure you’ve done a thorough search.

The table above presents a few examples of possible keywords and the types of organizations or programs to which they are aligned.

Take time to prepare adequately for your prospecting work; the more time you put into preparation, the better your results. You must understand how, why, and where your organization provides services to prepare properly. You may want to keep a notepad handy to keep track of your keyword combinations.

What are 10-20 keywords you could use to describe your need?

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Step 3: Identify Funding Opportunities at Grants.gov

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Grants.gov is a free service that provides a searchable database of all federal funding opportunities. The first step is to go to Grants.gov and click on “Find Grant Opportunities” on the left side of the page.

To search Grants.gov using a keyword or a combination of keywords, select Basic Search. You can use your combinations of keywords here to find the right federal grants for your work. If you already know the CFDA (Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance) number or FON (Funding Opportunity Number), you can also search by those.

  • What is the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance? A CFDA is a directory of recognized numbers assigned by the government to 2,200 federal programs, projects, cooperative agreements, funding opportunities, and other federal assistance programs. Every grant has an assigned CFDA.
  • What is the Funding Opportunity Number? An FON is a number that a federal agency assigns to its grant announcement. It is a number used only by Grants.gov.

You can use Search by Category using your keywords list which allows you to whittle down your search under the major categories: AgricultureArtsBusiness and CommerceCommunity DevelopmentConsumer ProtectionDisaster Prevention and ReliefEducationEmployment, Labor and TrainingEnergyEnvironmentFood and NutritionHealthHousingHumanitiesIncome Security and Social ServicesInformation and StatisticsLaw, Justice and Legal ServicesNatural ResourcesRecovery ActRegional DevelopmentScience and Technology and other Research and DevelopmentTransportation.

Search by Agency when you know the name of the government department or bureau who has grants available or you can match your keywords to the names of the federal agencies.

These methods will likely produce many results that you will need to read thoroughly and assess to ensure they are the “right fits” for your identified funding needs. As you find opportunities that match your needs, add details about the possibilities to your Grant Prospect Worksheet. This will help you keep track of the best opportunities for your grant funding needs.

You may also want to join the Grants.gov mailing list to receive a daily or weekly digest of current federal funding opportunities.

Local and State Sources:

You may also be interested in finding government grants from your local municipality, county, or state. These entities have billions available as well, and they may have the right opportunities for your needs. Contact your local or state Department Health, Jobs and Family Services, Human Services, Department of Development, Small Business Development, Department of Education, Department of Transportation, County Commissioners, and City Councils and ask them about grants they have available.

Bottom line: keep working at it. Effective grant prospecting takes planning, preparation, and time. But you will find government funding for your innovative programs. Just keep at it!