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Why Reading Grant Guidelines is not like Eating an Elephant

December 21, 2012

It’s 4:15 on a Friday afternoon and your email alert chimes. Sitting in your inbox is a seemingly innocent message from one of your co-workers. The subject line reads “Grant” and inside the message asks, “Did you see this? Should we apply?”

This could be a nice holiday stocking stuffer for your organization!

Attached is the opportunity announcement. You click on the PDF, curious to see what this is all about, but your enthusiasm drops like a rock as the page count keeps ticking up – speeding past 25, blowing by 50, and finally settling in the neighborhood of 85 pages.

Sigh…. It’s a GOVERNMENT grant program announcement.

At this point, many people simply close the Big Scary PDF. Maybe, they make a personal commitment to tackle it later. Heck, maybe they even do!

Here at The Grant Plant, these come across our desks daily—appearing in our inboxes, nestling snugly in client grant calendars, and popping up in RSS feeds. You may think we must be a special kind of crazy to wade through these behemoths.

In reality, a bit of strategy goes a long way. Having a systematic approach will save you hours of reading time and will help you “process” emails like the one described above quickly (thus leaving maximum proposal preparation time if you choose to move forward). While these guiding documents go by various names, we’ll go with the generic term Request for Proposal, or RFP.

The overarching lesson in processing content for these larger RFPs issued by local, state, and federal agencies is to understand your goal. Your goal is not to read the RFP. If anything, you may want to aim for avoiding reading RFPs. Does this sound a little nuts? Well, it isn’t when you begin thinking strategically – your real goal is to efficiently assess whether to apply.

Many people approach big RFPs in a manner resembling the advice about how one should eat an elephant (one bite at a time). In other words, starting at page one and reading through to the end. While a fine approach for shorter guidelines, it is far more effective to think of your approach to government RFPs like a series of gates or hurdles. You want to seek specific information and seek it in a specific sequence—which is rarely the same order that information is presented in an RFP. At each of these gates, you make a decision on whether to move forward, whether the opportunity remains viable. While working through the RFP, have a document ready to take notes.

Note: To respond to any government RFPs, you must have some things already in place. If you haven’t applied for Federal funds before, make sure to get your registrations, DUNS number, and Central Contractor registration in place. Know your organization’s grant proposal approval processes and timelines. Know any “deal breakers” your organization may have – like a determination to never apply for Federal grants that require cash match/cost-share, any requirements your group has about indirect costs, or limitations on your ability to complete complex reporting or grant funds management.

Gate 1: What are the timelines?

You may be too late before you even start! Is the deadline in the future, not the past? Look for the general submission deadline and any other key dates for needed actions like mandatory proposal workshop participation or letter of intent deadlines. Check for information on when award determinations are made, what the project performance period is, and other key timing details.

Gate 2: Roughly, what is this opportunity?

If you don’t have a general idea of what the grant program is about, your next task is to find out. An easy method is to leave the RFP alone for a minute and check if an accompanying summary was issued. Most agencies will provide an online or emailed summary of the grant with key details. For federal RFPs, check,

  1. Copy the CFDA Number from the RFP (usually it’s on the first page).
  2. Go to and click on “Find Grant Opportunities” on the left-side menu.
  3. Click on “Basic Search” in the center menu.
  4. Paste the RFP number in the search field “Search by CFDA Number.”

Read through the summary to see if the grant program generally matches your interests and programming. Find out what the awards will be like (size and number), judging if the award scale fits your organization and programming and whether smaller award sizes are worth the work of applying for and managing a government grant. If no summary/synopsis is handy, there is usually an overview at the beginning of the RFP.

Gate 3: Are you really eligible?

While there is likely to be eligibility information in the synopsis, the next step is to check whether you are a suitable applicant. In the RFP, locate the section on eligibility and read it thoroughly. Eligibility is not always clear; if you are unsure, make a note of any questions and try to ferret out answers before moving on to the next step. Depending on the eligibility questions, answers can often be found in other sections of the RFP (the “find” function in Word or Acrobat makes quick work of this), the RFP’s glossary, grant FAQ documents, searches on the issuing agency’s website, or by contacting the program officers. Key aspects of eligibility are geographic restrictions, IRS classifications of applicants, acceptable entity types, prior grantee status, licensing or other recognitions, and programming/constituent characteristics.

Things get a little ad hoc at this point, due to the variations in agencies, RFPs, and what you discovered in your initial summary investigation. If you’ve decided you are still in the running at this point, take a look at the RFP’s Table of Contents to see what sections make the most sense to check next – thinking strategically about where you are most likely to find information to rule out the opportunity. The sections below are a fairly typical progression.

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

This information can be organized under various headers (Performance Requirements, Scope of Work, Goals, Project Components, Technical Requirements, Mandatory Specifications, etc.), but the basic idea is to find out what the minimal requirements are for your proposed work. This could be the type of approach, volume of constituents involved, required partners/collaborations, etc. Can you do what you must do? And does what you must do, make sense for your organization? Government grants often have significant and regular reporting requirements that affect your consideration. Note any areas of concern.

Gate 5: Is the financial structure tenable?

Next, flip to the budget section and check for any deal-breakers. Look for allowable uses of funds—if your project is building a new homeless shelter and construction costs are not allowed, the RFP doesn’t fit. Check for cost-share requirements (e.g. 50%+ cash match in non-governmental funds) or contribution portion limitations (e.g. grant funds may not be more than 75% of total budget). There may be general financial requirements for the organizations like a history of audited financials or minimum/maximum annual budgets. What are the indirect cost rate restrictions? If the funds are not paid up-front, will the grant’s reimbursement or phased funding work for your organization?

Gate 6: Can you successfully prepare the proposal?

Can you put together a complete and compliant application in the timeframe required? To get a rough idea of the answer, look for a table (usually early in the RFP) or checklist (usually in the back of the RFP) summarizing the proposal elements. In addition to a general feel for the workload, look for any problematic elements like a required endorsement of your application or a proof of a licensure that your group lacks—any element that you know you can’t fulfill or that will be difficult to successfully prepare.

Gate 7: Will your proposal be competitive?

At this point, you are making a rough assessment. Going through the previous gates, you have gained an understanding of the top-level needs of the grantor and what the proposal will include. Next look for review or rating criteria. This is usually provided within government RFPs but is often towards the end of the document. From your basic understanding, do you think your organization, your work, and your proposal will do reasonably well in light of their judging system? If the ratings are heavily weighted towards research quality and protocols, for instance, and your organization doesn’t really do formal research, you will be an unlikely grantee (unless you can recruit outside help).

Now What?

If you’ve passed through the seven gates, that’s good news! Now for the bad news: since the RFP passed the critical screening gateways, you actually do have to read it… all of it…. How is this efficient? Because more often than not, you will not make it this far before ruling out an RFP. By quickly leaving behind the grant programs that you shouldn’t work on, you have more time to respond to proposals that fit well. The key word here is quickly, don’t get bogged down in the particulars when doing these screenings-there will be time to confirm and refine your assessments later. It should take you 15-30 minutes to go through this process (shorter if you rule out the opportunity).

By taking a strategic approach, you will rule out ill-fitting grants quickly and you will reach critical information while your brain is still fresh. You will quickly gain an idea of the general landscape (and landmines!) for the proposal. You will be better able to make a more refined assessment of the questions above and to prioritize difficult areas as you begin the application preparation process – especially since you’ve been taking notes along the way. You did take notes, right?

Contact: Aly Sanchez, Director of Projects,


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