David H. Sorkin and Gary Bernstein share seven strategies in the pursuit of government grants.
Background on Government Funding
Nonprofit leaders have a love/hate relationship with government funding. You love the revenue stream that government contracts and grants can provide. But you hate the complex application process, the burdensome reporting requirements, and the sometimes-insufficient payments that come along with getting a government grant.
Also worth noting, your agency may need to weather long-lags in payments so sufficient cash reserves are critical.
Government funding is available at the local, state and federal levels each with their own specific rules and regulations that can be cumbersome and require thorough review and understanding.
Despite all these hurdles, nonprofits keep coming back for more, and for good reason. Of the more than 300,000 human service organizations in America, closely two thirds of them won government contracts last year, according to LinkedIn Learning.
However, tapping into government funding can be time consuming and exasperating. It’s important to conduct a cost benefit analysis up front to determine if you even want to go this route. Recently, Claire Hoffman, the chief development officer at the JCC of Mid-Westchester, spoke about the need “to diversify your nonprofit agencies revenue streams and specifically those related to the development/fundraising continuum.”
Reviewing Agency Mission
While many areas of government funding may fit perfectly into your existing programmatic continuum and capital needs, a determination needs to be made relative to the ‘appropriateness’ of perusing government funding in areas that may not initially present themselves within the traditional mission of your agency.
Program/project grants are the most common type of grant. Program/project grants specify funding may only be used to support the program or project referenced in your proposal and are used for the implementation of services for a predetermined period.
With that in mind, here are some common uses for nonprofit grants you can look for:
- Seed Funding
- Capacity Building
Government grant funding opportunities certainly exist in many areas including services that currently intersect with the more traditional agency mission. This includes early childhood education, services for older adults and people with disabilities, the visual and performing arts as well as security and capital repairs and replacement.
There are also many more funding opportunities that may be of consideration including social services, food insecurity, case management, support services for youth in crisis and workforce development, to name a few.
In addition, capital grants funding can be a valuable source of support for organizations that lack the resources to fund capital projects on their own. However, the application process can be competitive, and organizations must demonstrate a clear need for the funding and a strong plan for how it will be used.
Including and Educating your Agency Board and Elected Officials
This is a very important and significant step. It’s vital for the board to be aware, knowledgeable, and supportive of enhancing this area of operation. This includes the selection of any new service areas as well as the financial and staffing impact.
In all likelihood, your board members may have connections and influence with elected officials that have knowledge of grant opportunities. It’s extremely important to develop relationships with your elected officials as well as their staff. You need to develop relationships with them by scheduling introductory meetings, participating at events and recognizing them at agency functions. Your agency can also serve as a ‘town hall’ for community events and forums.
At the Jewish Community Alliance of Northeastern Pennsylvania, U.S. senator Bob Casey, and various members of congress including Matt Cartwright and Dan Meuser, as well as state representatives Aaron Kaufer and Mike Cabell are frequent visitors and advocates of the JCC’s efforts.
Please be aware that your agency should not participate in activities that present as supporting the election of a particular candidate.
Determining Local/Regional Needs
The ability to understand and evaluate local and regional needs requires knowledge and understanding of your community. Staff and board members should be engaged in this process.
What, if any, services or service cohorts are not served or underserved in your community? Are there situations or circumstances that require new services? For example, following a weather related or other type of emergency, an agency that’s closing, newly expressed needs by your constituency, growing numbers of teens with truancy issues, etc.? Are there any sister agencies in your community that cannot meet consumer needs?
Evaluating Staffing Capacity
It’s particularly important nonprofit leadership understand the pursuit of proposal development, program/service implementation, evaluation, recordkeeping and accounting components of government grants are time consuming and demanding.
Recommended staff support includes the following:
- Development director
- Grant writer(s)
- Program/service implementation team
- Accounting/finance director
- Public relations/marketing
It’s not unusual — especially in the early stages of development — that some of these staff responsibilities are outsourced. In addition, there are often individual consultants in one’s community that are knowledgeable about the ebbs and flows of funding and have long-term relationships with your elected officials.
Developing Relationships with Local Agencies and Professional Organizations
As noted above, discovery requires being alert to and knowledgeable about local needs. It’s incumbent the CEO and chief development officer participate in local educational and networking opportunities where community needs are discussed.
What are Community Project Funding Grants?
For the first time in over 10 years, congress has brought back something called community project funding grants, formerly known as earmarks. What is a community project funding grant and how do they affect you?
Community project funding grants provide a one-time grant funding, allocation of resources for local community projects. Congress revived the practice of earmarking federal funding to support local community projects in federal fiscal year 2022.
An earmark is funding for special projects that members of congress jockey for to help their state or district. When congress appropriates money in a bill, they normally only provide limited guidelines for where and on what the money should be spent. The president decides on the specifics. In an earmark, however, congress specifically directs the money to be spent in a certain place on a certain project.
In 2011, congress banned earmarks to reign in government spending and save taxpayer money. Citing failed projects like an Alaska “Bridge to Nowhere,” many members of congress believed lawmakers were abusing the earmark system to try and funnel unneeded money to their districts.
Why, then, would congress want to bring them back?
Community project funding grants can be a powerful bargaining tool to foster compromise and bipartisanship in congress. Members may be convinced to sign onto a piece of legislation if it includes a project that could help their district, such as building new infrastructure or revitalizing parks. With congress more divided than ever, leaders hope bringing back these grants can be used as a bargaining chip to foster positive collaboration and discussion among members of different parties.
Whether or not these community project funding grants help bring congress into a new era of bipartisanship is yet to be seen, but hopefully members can stop building bridges to nowhere and start building a bridge towards a booming economy and a bright future.
In conclusion, here are seven strategies in the pursuit of government grants:
- Research. Conduct thorough research to identify government grant opportunities.
- Build Relationships. Establish relationships with government officials and grant program managers.
- Develop a Strong Proposal. Develop a clear and compelling proposal that outlines your organization’s goals, objectives and how the grant will be used to achieve them.
- Demonstrate Impact. Clearly demonstrate the impact of your organization’s work and how the grant will help you achieve your goals.
- Collaborate. Consider collaborating with other organizations to increase your chances of success.
- Follow-up. After submitting your grant application, follow up with the grant program manager to ensure that your application was received and to ask any questions you may have. Be sure to also thank them for their time and consideration.
- Be Persistent. Pursuing government grants can be a competitive and lengthy process, so be persistent.
About the Authors
Gary Bernstein currently serves as CEO of the Jewish Community Alliance of Northeastern Pennsylvania and an Advisory Board Member of Community Rec Magazine. Gary Bernstein has proudly authored the textbook, “The Fundamentals of Sports Marketing” with Sagamore Publishing and “Nonprofit Sport and Recreation Programs: Principles and Practices of Leadership and Management” by Sentia Publishers. For more information, call 757.667.0293 or email email@example.com.
David Sorkin currently is the CEO and president of DH Sorkin Consultation Group, LLC a company that provides any array consulting and coaching services to non-profit agencies. He has worked in the nonprofit sector for close to 50 years including stints at the Shriners Hospital of Philadelphia and Jewish Community Centers where he served for 30-plus years in the CEO position. Sorkin lectures on topics including board governance, networking and government relations and emergency management planning. For more information visit dhsorkinconsultationgroup.com.