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The Federal Grant Application Process: Not Such a Nail-Biter After All

February 1, 2011

The New Year is opening up with a bang—at least for me. I’m in the throes of a fairly complex federal grant application. Even though I’ve done this for a number of years now, the simple words “federal grant” make my palms sweat. From the time I complete the initial registration process with Grants.gov until this nail-biting message appears during submission: “Processing: Do not close this window until you receive a confirmation,” I often feel like I have a dark and stormy federal Grants.gov cloud hanging over my head. I figure that if I still feel like that, eight years into this adventure that we call grant writing, other grant writers might benefit from a de-mystification of the federal grants registration and application process. Like they say, knowing is half the battle (I believe this is attributed to G.I. Joe).

So, if you’re facing the prospect of looking for federal funding (or avoiding it out of sheer anxiety), keep reading. That alone will put you well on your way to being ready to apply for a federal grant!

All federal grant opportunities can be found at the federal government’s site www.Grants.gov. Grants.gov is meant to be a portal to the federal grants world—and it has been successful to a large extent.  Even if you don’t have a grant opportunity identified, you should get registered with Grants.gov. This will put you at least a week or so ahead of the typical process, plus give you that peace of mind I mentioned earlier. I’m outlining the process here, but also see their “Get Registered” link – it has a great checklist. If your organization is registered and you don’t have the passwords, you need to send a notarized letter to Grants.gov. As you go, keep track of everything in an Excel spreadsheet (user names, passwords, identification numbers, and processes) so it is handy for later reference, when needed.

You need three things to register on Grants.gov:

1. Employee Identification Number (EIN);

2. Duns and Bradstreet Number (DUNS Number); and

3. Register with the Central Contractor Registry (CCR).

First off, you need an employer identification number (EIN). Your organization should already have one, and you can find it on your 501c(3) letter. If you don’t have a number, you will need to work with the IRS.

With your EIN in hand, you will need to obtain a Duns and Bradstreet Number (DUNS number). To see if your organization already has a number, or to apply, visit www.dnb.com. You can also contact them at 1-800-234-3867.

Next, your organization needs to be part of the Central Contractor Registry (CCR). All Federal vendors, suppliers, contractors, and grant recipients are required to register in this database. You can complete this step at www.ccr.gov.  At this point you will also designate your E-business point of contact. This person should be someone who is a primary point of contact in your organization and understands the programs of your organization. It is probably YOU if you are the one reading this article. This person will authorize others in your organization (or, as in the case of The Grant Plant, outside contacts who are consultants) to submit grant applications via Grants.gov. These individuals are called Authorized Organization Representatives (AORs).

Next, ask the individual who will be submitting the application (the AOR) to get on Grants.gov and complete an organizational profile. That person will need to input your organization’s DUNS to link to your organization. The E-business point of contact (YOU) then needs to approve each AOR.

Still with me? That is it in terms of registering for grants. Not too bad, although it can seem a bit intimidating if it’s all new to you. A word to the wise: save your spreadsheet of numbers, passwords, usernames, and processes. Not only that, back it up! It is also beneficial to save all this information at an institutional level. That way, if there are personnel changes, the information can all be accessed.

Now, what to apply for? You can conduct searches on Grants.gov for grant opportunities, but I don’t recommend that unless you have an idea of what you are searching for. A better option is to get on the website of the federal agency (or agencies) that administers programming and funding of interest to your organization. Grant programs are often detailed there, in much more depth and in a more user-friendly format.

I do recommend you sign up for the Grants.gov daily digest and monitor Requests for Proposals (RFPs) for those that may be of interest to your organization. You can do this by selecting “Find Grant Opportunities” on the left side of the Grants.gov homepage, and selecting “Subscriptions.”

Once you have a program in mind and the RFP has been released, you can find it on Grants.gov by searching for the funding agency name, keyword search, or Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance (CFDA) number. This will pull up the synopsis for the opportunity, generally including such information as eligibility, amount available, deadline, etc. Once you find the opportunity you are interested in, you’ll want to download two things from Grants.gov: 1) the funding announcement (also known as a Request for Proposals, Notice of Funding Availability, or Request for Application), and 2) the actual application package, which is an interactive PDF document. The PDF document is what you actually submit for review.

To obtain these, click on “Full Announcement” in gray at the center of the page and on “Application” in gray at the top right of the page. I’m being pointed here because the page is not as intuitive as one might think. You can then download the documents and save them to your computer.

To complete your application, you will, essentially, fill out a PDF document and attach the required documents (such as the abstract, program narrative, budget, etc.) into the PDF itself. Each required component is listed in a box on the left-hand side of the page – you have to move it to the right to open and complete it. Be sure to consult the instructions section in the RFP to see how to complete each section of the application. Completing federal applications can look a lot like trying to file your own taxes, which is to say, intimidating. Take it slow, field-by-field, consult the instructions, and give yourself plenty of time.

You’ll want to save the PDF document as you work on it. When you are finished working on the application, you click a button on the top of the document that says “Check Package for Errors.” Once verification is complete, you then submit the application by clicking “Save and Submit” within the PDF.

This is when you get to the sweaty palm stage of “Processing: Do not close this window until you receive a confirmation.” This message appears while your computer and Grants.gov are in cyber-space negotiations for submitting/accepting the application package. This can take minutes, sometimes hours. For safety, I close other windows and disable auto-updates (such as email) until the submission is complete.

I highly recommend submitting at least two days prior to the deadline, but in all honesty, we have been known to submit less than an hour before the deadline for a myriad of reasons. I’ve heard of hours-long processing windows. If you cut it too close and your application hangs out in cyber never-never land that long, you risk not being accepted by the (very) firm deadline. We have, perhaps, been lucky in not having that problem, or in accessing competent Grants.gov tech support personnel in a moment of crisis (make a note of the phone number: 1-800-518-4726!).

Now, just when you thought you had submitted and it was time to break out the champagne (the cheap stuff—save the good stuff for when the notice of award comes in!), be aware of kinks in the process. One potential kink is a double submission process. For example, the first step being on Grants.gov with a second deadline following on the agency website (notably the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Electronic Handbooks System [EHB system]). Talk about getting sweaty palms. I am in the midst of an EHB submission now and am honestly not finding it nearly as user-friendly as Grants.gov is. And that is saying a lot as I’m not a big fan of the Grants.gov system, given its propensity to cause me to break out in a nervous sweat.

Another potential kink is not having completed all the required forms when you go to submit. I’ve seen some funding opportunities that provide the program-specific forms only on the federal agency’s website and not within the application document. So cross-check the RFP and—perhaps my best tip, saved for last—ASK the federal program officer listed in the application for any clarification you need. They are generally pretty accessible and you can get your question answered rather than guessing about the process. For some reason I was hesitant to do this early on in my grant writing career and struggled through issues myself, but I have found it to save a lot of time and heartache… just be sure the answer jives with the RFP. And ask more questions if you need to.

I hope this article helps you ease your foot into the tepid waters of the federal grants process, if you have been staying dock-side due to inertia caused by the fear of the unknown. The initial registration process, at least, is easy and there is no reason not to go in at least that far. Then, if you find your organization is interested in applying for a grant opportunity, you can jump into the deep end, or give us a call at The Grant Plant and we’ll help you out.

Contact: Erin Hielkema, Vice-President at erin@thegrantplantNM.com.

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