This is Part One in a short series on preparing to apply for federal grants. To learn more about the policies and procedures you should have in place before applying, see Part Two.
Applying for federal grant funding may seem like an intimidating prospect, especially if it is your first attempt, but there are steps your organization can take to prepare for a smooth application process and successful grant administration. Before applying for federal grant funding your organization should consider the following advice:
Step 1: Register with the proper entities
If your organization is interested in applying for awards, it must be a legal entity with an Employer Identification Number (EIN).
To apply for federal grants, an organization must have a Data Universal Numbering System (DUNS) number. A DUNS number is a unique nine-digit identification number. The registration process is a free online service and your organization must have one for each of its physical business locations.
Your organization must also register with the System for Award Management (SAM.gov), a searchable database of firms eligible to do business with the U.S. government. You must have an active registration in SAM to apply for a federal grant. Awardees are also required to search SAM.gov before selecting vendors, subcontractors, or sub-awardees.
Organizations are required to renew their online SAM registration annually. If your organization completes the renewal process online before its due date, the renewal process takes place instantly. However, as of June 2018, new entities and those with lapsed registration must submit a notarized letter appointing the organization’s authorized administrator. If you need to submit a notarized letter, your SAM registration could take up to five weeks. To ensure your organization’s eligibility for grant funding, give yourself plenty of time to register with SAM.gov and do not let your registration lapse.
Once you are registered in SAM.gov, your organization is required to assign two important roles to staff: 1) an e-biz point of contact who sets up rights and roles for other staff; and 2) the Authorized Organization Representative (AOR) who approves the submission of a grant application and the acceptance of a federal award. These roles can often be assigned to the same person, but it’s important to know who at your organization is assigned these roles.
The final step in the pre-application process is to register with Grants.gov. This website contains a searchable database of federal funding opportunities and is also a main portal for submitting federal funding grant applications. There are step-by-step instructions, including how-to user videos, for most of the tasks associated with using Grants.gov.
Clark Nuber Tip #1: The help desk (1-800-518-4726) is extremely helpful and willing to walk you through the complex process.
Step 2: Set-up a Grants.gov Workspace
Once you are registered, you must set up your Grants.gov Workspace, which is currently the required platform for submitting federal grants. This online platform allows an applicant to add concurrent users (both internal staff and/or external grant writers) to work on a single application together. While Grants.gov has thorough instructions available for the set-up and use of Workspace, it is not especially user-friendly or intuitive.
Clark Nuber Tip #2: Learn how to use Workspace well before the imminent pressure of a grant application deadline.
Step 3: Check your organization’s eligibility
Many federal funding opportunities look promising, but are you certain you are eligible to apply? Eligible federal grantee applicants may be a governmental, educational, public housing, not-for-profit, for-profit, small business, individual, or foreign entity. It is important to check the eligibility criteria for each specific funding opportunity of interest to verify your organization is eligible to apply.
Clark Nuber Tip #3: If you are not eligible to apply as the lead applicant, it may still be possible to pursue the funding opportunity if you work in partnership or collaboration with another entity who is eligible. This is also a great way to gain a track record managing federal grants, even if you are a sub-recipient or sub-awardee on another’s federal award.
Step 4: Identify whether the grant is a good fit for your organization
If you are eligible to apply, be sure to identify a process for assessing each potential grant for suitability and alignment with your organization’s mission and capacity. Not every grant for which you are eligible to apply is a good fit for your organization. Identify those within your organization who can evaluate the cost-benefits of a funding opportunity; this task may also be delegated to a grants committee.
Clark Nuber Tip #4: Larger organizations should create an orderly and well documented process for applying, preparing, reviewing grant applications, and accepting grant awards. This process will include all relevant policies and procedures and should include checklists and review/approve forms.
Step 5: Identify the individuals in charge of handling the grant application process
Identify those individual(s) in your organization (or outside grant consultants) involved in writing grant applications and ensure they speak with key stakeholders in human resources, finance, and information technology when they are developing budgets for projects and programs. Applying for funding is a team effort; no one person can do it alone. To develop a successful application, at least one member of the team working on your grant application should understand the Uniform Guidance and other points mentioned in this article.
Clark Nuber Tip #5: Always write the project budget before writing the grant narrative. Doing so will ensure the funding opportunity is right for your organization, assure adequate resources have been allocated, and support a consistent, narrative flow throughout all sections of the grant application.
Step 6: Create an internal review process
A grant should not be submitted before it has been evaluated by key stakeholders within the organization. The grant application should be completed and ready for internal review well in advance of the submission deadline. The application should be reviewed for realistic programming objectives, a compelling narrative, an accurate budget, and for its compliance with the Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA). The NOFA usually describes the evaluation criteria that the federal grant reviewers will apply to your application, so it’s important for your organization’s internal reviewers to use these criteria during their review process.
Clark Nuber Tip #6: The NOFA should be read more than once with a highlighter in hand during the grant preparation process because it is difficult to absorb the vast amount of information it contains.
Once the grant preparation process is complete and the application is ready for submission, the AOR must sign any additional documentation (e.g., certifications, assurances, etc.). Submission of the final application through Grants.gov’s Workspace constitutes automatic approval by your organization’s AOR, so be sure this individual has read and approved the grant’s submission prior to using Workspace.
Step 7: Develop a way to manage, organize, and store submitted applications
Approaches can be as simple as maintaining an Excel spreadsheet or the use of more sophisticated databases, such as the grants module in Raiser’s Edge.
Clark Nuber Tip #7: Declined applications can still be used to repurpose content in future grant applications, but always start fresh to ensure you have created a competitive grant application that complies with the current, not past, funding opportunity.
If your federal grant is awarded, be sure to review all grant agreements before signing. A grant award is a legal, binding contract. Your organization should thoroughly review all documents and the associated terms, rules, regulations, and reporting requirements associated with the expenditure of the grant.
Properly file away the grant award, approved application and budget, and all other documentation, both electronically and in hard copy. When the project starts, be sure to store all pre-approvals, award/budget modifications, major grantor communications, programmatic/financial reporting, etc. in this comprehensive file.
Clark Nuber Tip #8: A complete grant file will smooth future interactions, such as during a site-visit from a program officer or during a single audit.
Step 8: Communicate with those involved
Be sure to share the great news that your organization has won a federal award. As you set up the appropriate financial systems to track expenses, make sure to identify and regularly communicate with all individuals responsible for the grant project’s implementation, compliance, programmatic reporting, and financial reporting.
Clark Nuber Tip #9: A well-documented pre-award process will lay the foundation for strong project implementation during the post-award phase of the grant.
If you would like to learn more about applying for federal grants, please contact Clark Nuber. Check back next month for Part Two in the series, where we discuss the resources and procedures you should have in place before applying for a federal grant.
Jennifer Keller is a manager in Clark Nuber’s accounting and consulting services team.
Sara T. Behrman is a freelance writer and grants consultant living in Portland, Oregon.
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