For those familiar with the process, developing an application for any type of financial support (grants, corporate sponsorship, contract, etc.) requires preparation, strategic thinking, technical writing, and research skills. For some, it might seem more like an art than a science, as there is confusion about the process. Since many nonprofits are entering this space due to increased opportunities for federal funding, they can be overwhelmed with the requirements needed to prepare a thorough application and often lack resources, systems, or knowledge about how to be most successful. How can anyone stay above the fray if there is already a sense of defeat at the onset? The clues are in the Request for Proposal (RFP) – let’s discuss!
What are funders looking for in the RFP?
The funder often includes detailed information about their priorities and needs directly in the RFP. Where can you find them?
Start at the beginning to see if they have highlighted strategic priority areas, agency priorities or goals, and objectives they want to achieve. These are usually found in the first few pages, so make sure you don’t miss some of this language.
There are often repetitions in the RFP with specific word choices and phrases. These are often aligned with the funder’s strategic priorities and should also align with the criteria for evaluating a successful proposal. Highlight these words and integrate them into your response so the funder will know you understand their needs and can form a collaborative partnership.
Review the criteria for an award. Are you addressing each of these components in your narrative (and attachment documentation)? This can cover various areas such as demographic needs, the strength of partnerships, past performance, proposed approach, plan, etc. Have others review the criteria to ensure you have met the mark.
I have sometimes seen applicants overlook key details about what is not allowed if the application is funded. Unfortunately, what happens is that some costs are disallowed or the applicant will have to revise the application before it is funded. These can include certain budgetary restrictions on allowable and disallowable costs, key personnel requirements, evidence-based practices that are incorporated into the framework, and other areas that impact the administration of the award.
Reading the RFP in detail is critical and should involve more than one individual. If more time is spent upfront, it can save time on the backend and increase the chances for successful submission. There can be lots of subtext in the RFP that refers back to agency priorities, so communicating with a peer organization that has successfully received funding from that agency can be a value add in the process. In some instances, it might make sense to partner with another organization on the application, especially those with a strong track record of receiving government funding and familiar with the expectations.
The most important part of the pre-award process is to ensure your organization has the capacity, resources, and infrastructure to manage an award if received. If your organization gets a government grant, there are particular Office of Management and Budget requirements (per 2 CFR 200 – Uniform Grant Guidance). On top of that, the state or funding agency might have additional requirements. This is another reason looking at the RFP is critical. The RFP often details the specific post-award requirements (meetings, reporting, training resources), and it is crucial to understand these expectations before entering into a legally binding agreement with the federal government. Suppose your organization is not yet capable of being a good steward of government funding. In that case, it’s best to avoid any risk and fallout should the programmatic and financial requirements be too burdensome.
This process is not easy, but with careful planning and review, you will at least be armed with the information needed to develop a robust application. You might not receive an award at first, but the more you apply to opportunities that make sense and can strengthen your organization, the better you will be in the long run.
If you’re ready to buy donor managament software for your nonprofit, but you’re not sure where to start, we put together a helpful playbook you can use.
Rachel Werner, Owner and CEO of RBW Strategy, a woman-owned consulting firm located in the Washington, DC Metro area. Rachel began her career as a New York City public-school teacher which parlayed into a two-decade career of work in the public sector. She has served as a grant writer for a community-based hospital, a nonprofit fundraiser for a human services organization, grants manager at an education management organization, and management consultant overseeing federal government contracts.
At RBW Strategy, leads a virtual team of consultants that provides grants, fundraising, project management and strategic planning support to nonprofit, public sector, and for-profit clients. Collectively, Rachel and her team members have 130 years of professional grants and fundraising experience— and have, combined, raised over $160 million and managed over $2 billion in federal grant awards.
She graduated from Vassar College with a Bachelor’s in Arts and received a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service. She has also obtained a Certificate in Grants Management (2012), is a certified Project Management Professional (since 2014) and is a Certified Grants Professional (since 2010), and Grant Professionals Association Approved Trainer. She is actively involved with Grant Professionals Association and National Grants Management Association, and regularly conducts in-person and online trainings at national, state and local conferences.