The Grant Process: What to Expect When Seeking Funding

At OpenGrants, we’re working to bring joy and simplicity to grant funding. We’re making strong progress, but have a lot of work ahead of us. While we work toward streamlining and simplifying this process, we want to provide education about how grant funding currently operates. Typically, a new grant applicant is forced to figure out these steps on their own through trial and error. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and can be seen as generalized by those with experience. Nevertheless, it’s helpful for those who are completely new to funding to understand the steps to winning funding.

1. Decide if grants are right for you

How much funding do you need, and what type of relationship are you looking for? Organizations typically gravitate toward grants because they’re non-dilutive and don’t need to be paid back. These terms are obviously attractive compared to something like venture capital, but grants are not free money. Always keep in mind the goals of the funder—what are the outcomes they’re trying to create with the grant, and can you achieve them? Do you just need some quick cash, or are you building for the long-term and want a strategic partner that can support your journey, even beyond the initial grant? As a general rule, the latter is the better mindset to have when considering grants. If you just need quick operating capital, you’re probably better off looking for debt or revenue factoring. Finally, the most important thing to consider is the type of work you do. Grants are typically reserved for fixing aspects of society that are struggling, or advancing humanity forward. Funding commonly goes to work like reducing homelessness, accelerating adoption of electric vehicles, developing new technologies, creating less wasteful products, etc. There’s nothing wrong with, say, a regular dating app, but it probably isn’t going to be a good fit for grant funding.

2. Do your research

After you’ve decided that grants are a good fit for you, it’s time to do your research. You can do this yourself using the free OpenGrants search engine, or hire an expert from the OpenGrants marketplace to build a list for you. The most effective strategy is not to find your one perfect grant, but cast a wide net. Identify every grant and funder that’s at least tangentially related to your work, but don’t try to find the perfect fit. In many cases, you might be surprised by how your work creates desired outcomes for a grant funder you wouldn’t typically think of. An example might be the Department of Defense funding cleantech, or the Department of Agriculture funding rural entrepreneurship to drive economic development. Think of this first research step like brainstorming—there are no bad ideas, and creative thinking goes far.

3. Narrow down your options

Now that you have a broad list of opportunities, it’s time to get critical. Once again, this can be done by yourself, or in partnership with a grant expert. Most grant applications take a significant amount of time and effort. This can be offset by hiring a grant writer, but even with professional help, you’ll have to invest time, effort and money into the process. That’s why this step is critical. Narrow down your options to the few grants that you think you have the best chance at winning. Hiring someone with experience in your industry can be very helpful here because they’ll have a good understanding of the programs you’re looking at, the review board’s tendencies, and common pitfalls. Ideally, this is when you develop a longer-term funding strategy. Identify multiple grants that are a good fit over a longer timeline. The most successful organizations are able to keep winning grants over time. Even if they lose some along the way, they’re not discouraged because they’re working on a larger funding strategy and are always preparing for the next opportunity.

4. Make a go/no go decision

Sometimes, the most value an expert can bring is telling you when not to apply for something. Spending a few hundred dollars on an expert who can tell you to avoid spending the next three months preparing an application you probably won’t win is a great ROI. We understand that the reality of this scenario is quite frustrating. Grant applications should be simple and data-driven, and decisions should be based on merit, not relationships. It’s a systemic challenge that we’re actively working to solve at OpenGrants, but at the time of writing in early 2022, it’s still a common reality of the grant funding system, and must be considered for success. Before you being any application, decide if you should apply at all. However, you should also note that part of this consideration includes the fact that many applications, if not won the first time, can be edited and re-submitted for the next deadline. A failed application is often the first step toward a successful one.

5. Build a relationship with funders

Once you’ve decided which grant(s) to apply to, it’s time to check the deadlines and get started on your application. However, we always recommend establishing a relationship with real humans at the funding organization—whether that’s a private foundation or a federal agency. Humans make these decisions, and relationships are key. Never submit a “cold” grant application. In some cases, a grant writer can help with this as well. Many of the best grant writers are so effective because they’re involved in the community, and have existing relationships with these organizations. It’s worth asking if your grant writer—if you hired one—can make any introductions for you. Keep in mind that these relationships should never be “salesy” or coercive in any way. Ask real questions like “what types of qualifications do you look for?” and “what are your long-term goals with this program?” By offering genuine interest and focusing on their goals, not yours, you’ll start to create a path to successful funding and a mutually beneficial relationship.

6. Write your application

This is where most grant newbies start, but by now you can see that much of the legwork has already been done. The application is still a significant amount of work, but exactly how much depends on the grant program you’re applying for. Most applications have very specific instructions, so make sure to follow them to a T. You don’t want your application thrown out because your pages had incorrect margins (it happens more than you’d think). Of course, this is where hiring a grant writer can really be beneficial. A grant writer with experience in the program will know what works and what doesn’t, and all of the common errors to avoid. However, many grant seekers make the mistake of hiring a grant writer and expecting to avoid any further effort. We wouldn’t recommend this mindset with any outsourced help, and especially not with grant writers. Why? Because even the best grant writer doesn’t know your organization and your work like you do. They may be the expert on the application, but you’re the expert on your work. The best applications come from partnerships between an applicant and a writer, so while you can obviously expect to spend less time than you would doing it yourself, you should still plan on spending time and energy to make your application great.

7. Submit your application

Be sure to keep track of application deadlines, pre-deadlines (yes those are real, depending on the program), and deadline change. Sign up to receive notifications from the funder if they offer it, and bookmark the application webpage in your browser so you can refresh it and see if anything has changed. This is another aspect of grant funding—especially for federal grants—that’s an annoying challenge for applicants, and it’s something OpenGrants is actively working to improve through modern tracking tools and notifications, but it’s best to be overly cautious here to make sure you don’t miss your deadline. Submit your application exactly as it’s requested, and try to get it in early in case the funder’s application website crashes.

8. Manage your grant

The time to award notification—and to actually receiving funding—varies greatly among grant programs. For a federal innovation grant, you can expect to wait between 3 and 6 months to receive funds. However, once you do receive them, you have the incredible advantage of not having given up any equity, and not having to pay anything back. Now it’s time to put those funds to work on the intended impact. You will, however, have to manage your grant. Each program is different, but almost all grants will come with an expectation of budgeting and impact reporting. You’ll need to provide analysis of how you’re using funds, and the outcomes you’re generating. Bringing on grant-specific accountant and tax help can be very useful here. This is another type of expert that can be found in the OpenGrants Marketplace.

Remember, grants are an ideal form of capital for the right organizations. They’re not for everyone, but for those that are a match, it doesn’t get much better. The tradeoff is the up-front effort and headache. Also, the opportunity provided by grants often don’t end with the first funding. Winning a grant can help you advance your work, prove to others that your work is serious and impactful, and even lead to additional grants or larger contracts. Don’t think of a grant as a transaction, think of it as a meaningful step in the bigger journey that is growing your work and organization.

Ready to get started searching for grants for free, or hiring an expert to help? Sign up for OpenGrants here. It only takes a minute or two to get started, and the core OpenGrants search engine will always be free.