Short Story

  • Sign up for alerts. Being on top of the timelines is very important!
  • Read everything. If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to apply.
  • Engage in webinars and ask questions. Learn more and build relationships.
  • Be careful! Federal grants are reliable until they aren’t.


By Dave Overfelt

Build Something Sustainable

Some of this will apply with grants in general but there are some differences when working with federal grants. It may seem like an insurmountable task, but if you can find a reliable stream of funding, you can launch, grow, and sustain specific programs over a long period of time.

General Guidelines for Federal Grants

These grants can feel challenging but the challenge is well worth the effort.

Be ready to read. If you and your staff don’t have time to read the announcements and other detailed information, you should not pursue federal grants! They will use some strange language but all the details are there and you will get used to it with practice. The nice thing is that any given stream of funding will generally have consistent language and format over time.

If you feel like you are missing something, don’t worry, you will have opportunities to ask questions. This is why you want to sign up for alerts as they will notify you of announcements, changes, meetings for discussion, and really anything relevant. When you get these opportunities, make sure to engage.

Even more importantly, always contact your local, regional, or federal office with really good specific questions. The grant will tell you who to contact, and how to contact that person. Consider those directions, not suggestions.

Before you contact, always watch any webinars, review and presentations, and read all the guidance. You will come up with questions while you do that. Write them down, prioritize, and come up with three good ones. You may not get to ask all three but you will almost certainly get the information you need. Grant administrators may not answer your questions, but they will tell you something useful and you will get your name in their mind. The more prepared you are, the happier they will be when they see your name.

Developing a knowledge focused relationship with the local, regional, and federal leaders of these grants will help you learn all the weird nooks and crannies of the grant. It will help you win and work a grant. They won’t look down on you for asking questions! That said, make sure to focus on programs, timelines, and general practical stuff when you talk to grant makers of any sort. That lets them know you aren’t trying to break the rules, you are just trying to learn how to do things the right way.

Follow Directions When Applying

This is the most important thing when applying for federal grants. There are detailed directions on what you need to do. While they have been trying to make it easier to apply, the rules can still be byzantine at times, particularly if the funding source has been around for a long time.

No matter how complicated, you still have to follow directions to win the grants. Follow them exactly and you will have better chances. Fill out the forms they provide in the way they ask them to be filled out. Ask questions if you don’t understand but make sure to review some past grant examples before asking.

The better your question, the better your answer. If you ask a question that is answered in the grant announcement or underlying rules, they will just point you to the rule.

Sometimes your question may not be answerable. It is not uncommon for laws, regulations, and rules to be somewhat contradictory. Sometimes those contradictions get resolved and sometimes they don’t. Just be prepared for seeing things like this and stay focused on completed the forms and answering the questions as well as you can.

If you fail to answer an important question and they ask for more information, address their request for clarification as thoroughly as possible. Clarifications mean they like your idea but they need to know more in order to give you the grant. Give them everything!

Partnerships are key

It doesn’t matter who you like or don’t like, if that organization or person does something in the same stream of work as you, it is better if you have partnerships. The more support the better. Every letter you can get helps demonstrate your ability to connect your activities to the desired target population.

Plan for Reporting Success

Reporting correctly and on time is key to long term success. Demonstrate a clear plan for how you will record data, what you will do to report that data, and how you will use it to improve overall program performance, then record the data consistently and report what you planned on reporting. These are just general good practices!

If you have problems along the way, communicate those problems!

Many federal grants are reliable for helping to launch something new and experimental, expand successful activities and programs, or sustain truly transformational work. At every stage, you need to be able to describe activities and successes in the specific ways you are asked to report them. As always, follow directions and ask lots of questions when you can.

You don’t need to be fancy when reporting time comes, you just need to demonstrate you did the things you said you were going to do. Then you can spice things up and use the outcomes to tell your story of success for building other funding streams. The feds LOVE stories of using grant dollars to build an independently sustainable program.


Some grants can last a long time and others show up and fade away fast. The Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood grant has built and sustained several organizations around the country. The funding stream currently supports 86 different organizations. If you can get in at the beginning of a grant like this, you can really make a major impact in your community.

Sometimes grants can start small and stay small or just disappear because the impacts weren’t large enough. Like politics, grants are predictable until they aren’t. You should generally have a contingency plan but if you are working on a single source of federal money you should definitely have a backup plan.

After You Win

The work is only just beginning. There is a lot of paperwork and reporting to keep up with and you should plan to stay in close communication with your grant administrators. If anything is moving more slowly than planned, make sure to keep everyone informed. The more you can build in communication as a part of your routine, the better off you will be.

Follow whatever plans you have made. If you change plans, you may need to revise your grant. As long as you stay within the parameters of the funding rules you will be okay. Changes are fine as long as you tell everyone.

Do you still have questions? Let me know in the comments below and I will respond and revise.

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