In a recent post, we covered how to prepare for funding opportunities released by foundations. Preparing for foundation grants and government grants requires similar steps, but there are a few key differences.
Key Differences between Foundation Opportunities & Government Opportunities
Foundation grants often have known release dates and established program areas, which mean there are few surprises: You can find out when the foundation accepts proposals, and you can usually learn about the program areas and past grantees on the foundation's website. You may even be able to access the grant application well in advance of the time applications are due if the foundation uses a standard application format.
Government grant opportunities are different. For many government funding opportunities, the sponsoring agency doesn't have direct control over all the variables such as how much money a grant will award or when the opportunity announcement will be published.
An agency may want to release a grant opportunity to provide educational instruction or housing support for a segment of the population. However, until the country's annual budgeting cycle is complete, the agency won't know how much money it has to work with, which trickles down to the agency not knowing how much money it can allocate to a particular grant program.
Additionally, what a government agency wants to fund is subject to political pressure. An agency may see the need to fund elder care, but the political interests of the moment may favor well-baby care; in response to the political climate, the agency may be required (or feel pressure) to follow the interests of the day. Also unlike foundations, which are essentially autonomous and can make their own decisions about what to fund, government agencies have to align grants programs with the government's priorities. For international funding, this can play out in the form of some countries and regions receiving more funding than others because of national interests.
What does all of this mean for you, the potential grantee? It means you need to stay abreast of what is happening with your country's budget and political climate if you are interested in receiving government funding. You can do this by following the news, by establishing and maintaining relationships with staff at government agencies, and by paying close attention to government funding trends. If you are interested in receiving grants from foreign governments, it means you'll need to do the same level of research and monitoring of the foreign government's political climate and funding trends.
Preparing for a Funding Opportunity before It Is Released
Federal funding opportunities can have long incubation periods. In other words, for funding opportunities that are complex and have a high-dollar value, most likely it will take the government agency several months (and possibly a year or more) to pull together the information it needs to craft the opportunity. The agency may need to research the issue first and fund the research as a separate opportunity. The agency may also hold forums to gather information from experts in the area of interest. Often, federal funding opportunities build off of one another, so another clue that a new opportunity may be coming is if an existing grant is close to ending.
To prepare for funding opportunities before they come out, some of the things you can do include:
Tracking the opportunities that are in their last year to year-and-a-half of funding and learning about the current grant holder and how they are performing (if the grantee is performing well, they'll have a good chance of winning any follow-on opportunities).
Following the budget trends at the appropriate government level (national, state, agency) to see what kinds of things are being funded and what is the most common funding mechanism (e.g., 5-year grants? 3-year contracts?).
Monitoring the publications and news releases from the government agency that you think might release funding opportunities of interest to your organization. What is the agency focusing on? What topics, trends, issues, do they seem to be focusing on in their publications, conference presentations, Twitter feeds, etc.? By following the agency online, you might be able to pick up ideas of what might be emphasized in a new funding opportunity.
Keeping track of the agency's key staff, especially staff in senior-level positions who may be involved in setting the agency's funding agenda. For example, if an agency starts hiring people with a particular type of training or subject-matter expertise, that could be a sign that the agency is gearing up to move in a new direction or changing its approach in grant administration. For example, if an agency begins to require that its staff people receive formal project management training, it could be a sign that grants released in the future may weight applicants' project management abilities more heavily.
Pass Up Opportunities if You Can't Produce a Competitive Application
Responding to a government grant opportunity takes a lot of work. It also takes an experienced team of people, both on the technical (programmatic) side and the financial side. If you do not have an experienced team, including people (staff or consultants) who are familiar with the government funding mechanism in question, it's unlikely that you'll be able to pull together a competitive application.
When this is the case--when you see a gap between what the application requires and the resources you have on hand--be willing to walk away from an opportunity.
That said, you don't need to walk away entirely.
A compromise is to see if you can partner a more experienced organization. The experienced organization can take the lead (serve as the "prime" or the primary applicant), and your organization can be a "sub" or subgrantee or subawardee. Serving as a sub is in many ways an ideal scenario for a less-experienced organization. First, you'll learn about the federal funding process by working with a more experienced organization. Second, as a sub, you can work on a project without having to worry about its administrative aspects. Finally, by having a role on a federal project, you'll gain a foothold that will help position you to access other federal funding opportunities.
If you're uncertain whether you can prepare a competitive application, you're better off preserving your financial and human resources for an opportunity that gives you a better chance of success. While you wait for that opportunity, serving as a sub gives you experience that you can leverage for the next application.