April 17, 2020

Should You Really Apply for that Grant?

We’re expecting a series of federal and state Requests for Proposals (RFPs) to be released with the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) in the wake of COVID-19. To get prepared, we dusted off an oldie-but-goodie article Aly wrote a few years ago. Enjoy!

We get asked all the time to decipher Big Scary RFPs.

Many people approach these in a manner resembling the advice about how to eat an elephant (one bite at a time): starting at page one and reading to the end. While a fine approach for shorter guidelines, it’s more effective to think of your approach to large RFPs like a series of gates.

The lesson in processing content for large RFPs is to understand your goal. Your goal is not to read the RFP. If anything, you may want to avoid it. Think strategically—your real goal is to efficiently assess whether to apply.

At each gate, decide whether to move forward, determining whether the opportunity remains viable.

Gate 1: What are the timelines?

Is the deadline in the future, not the past? Did you miss a mandatory pre-proposal workshop? When are awards made? What is the project period? Get a general feel for timeframes.

Gate 2: Roughly, what is this opportunity?

Leave the RFP alone for a minute and check if an accompanying summary was issued. Find out what the awards will be like (size and number), judging if that fits your organization and programming and whether smaller awards are worth the work required.

Gate 3: Are you really eligible?

Determine whether you’re a suitable applicant. Locate the eligibility section and read it thoroughly. If you’re unsure, find answers before moving on. Look for geographic restrictions, IRS classifications, entity types, prior grantee status, licensing or other recognitions, and programming/constituent characteristics.

Things get ad hoc from here. If you’re still in the running, flip to the Table of Contents to see what makes the most sense to check next – thinking about where you are most likely to rule out the opportunity. A typical progression:

Gate 4: Can (and should) you meet project/performance requirements?

This information can be organized under various headers (Performance Components, Technical Requirements, Mandatory Specifications, etc.), but the idea is to find out what the minimal requirements are. Can you do what you must? And does that make sense for your organization?

Gate 5: Is the financial structure tenable?

Next, head to the budget section and check for deal-breakers. Look for allowable uses of funds—if your project is a building and construction isn’t allowed, the RFP doesn’t fit. Check for match requirements or contribution portion limitations. There may be requirements like a history of audited financials or minimum/maximum annual budgets. If the funds aren’t paid upfront, will reimbursement or phased funding work?

Gate 6: Can you successfully prepare the proposal?

Can you put together a complete and compliant application by the deadline? Look for a table (usually early in the RFP) or checklist (usually in the back) summarizing the proposal elements. In addition to feeling out workload, find problematic elements—anything you can’t fulfill or that will be difficult to successfully prepare.

Gate 7: Will your proposal be competitive?

Now you understand the top-level needs of the grantor and grant. Next look for review criteria. Will your organization, your work, and your proposal do reasonably well considering their scoring system?

Now What?

If you’ve passed the seven gates, that’s good news! The bad news: now you actually have to read the RFP – all of it.

How is this efficient? Because often, you will save time by ruling it out. By leaving behind the RFPs that you shouldn’t work on, you have more time to respond to those you should. And if it does fit, you’ll find critical information, get an idea of the general landscape for the opportunity, and prioritize difficult areas as you begin.


Contact: Aly Sanchez, Director of Strategy & Organizational Development, aly@thegrantplantnm.com

Aly Sanchez has 23 years of grant writing experience including planning, request preparation, and reporting assistance for complex private, state, and federal awards (e.g., CDC, CMS, DOL, OJJDP). She is Director of Strategy and Organizational Development for The Grant Plant, Inc. Based in Albuquerque, NM, TGP provides superior and affordable resource development services for organizations to enhance the quality of life in communities served. TGP has written proposals funding more than $150M since 2003, with an ROI of 6,500%.


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