Over the past 13 years, as the Director of Grants at Winning Strategies Washington (WSW), I have worked with a variety of clients, ranging from small nonprofits to mid-sized hospitals to large institutions of higher education. While these clients differ in size and focus, they all have one thing in common: they needed assistance in identifying, tracking and securing federal funding through the competitive grant process. 

From my experience, the below five obstacles are those most commonly faced by organizations when seeking federal grants, along with some tips to overcome them.


#1: Identifying grants that match an organization’s needs and priorities. 

There are over 2,000 federal grant programs that award funding to a variety of entities each year. Nearly every federal department and agency administers competitive grant programs in support of their missions. Due to the number of programs, many organizations do not know how to identify a viable federal grant opportunity. An organization has to examine multiple department and agency websites or use the cumbersome grants.gov search function to find potential programs that align with their needs and initiatives.

#2: Tracking funding opportunities once a potential grant program has been identified.

Once the identification process is complete, organizations have to track the next open competition round, which depending on the program could be biannually, annually, every other year, or even every five years.  Additionally, programs change over time and new programs are announced on a regular basis depending on the focus of the Administration and Congress as well as funding provided in the annual appropriations bills.  To really engage on this front proactively, organizations must track the opportunity before the funding announcement is released in the Federal Register, from its inception in legislation, and throughout the annual budget and appropriations process.


#3: Understanding federal funding opportunity announcements, and application and program requirements.

Federal funding announcements can be lengthy, repetitive, and confusing to organizations not familiar with them. It may seem obvious, but it is of paramount importance to closely read the full funding announcement to ensure the proposed project meets all the program requirements, and to follow all of the specific guidance and instructions.Organizations should pay particular attention to the words, phrases and tone that the federal department or agency includes, and use similar language in writing its narrative.Additionally, it is important to determine upfront all application requirements to ensure all necessary information is attainable and included in the grant application.

#4: Applying passively rather than actively.

To be a proactive participant and more competitive in the federal grant process, it is important to actively engage decision makers, officials and program managers at the federal departments and agencies that administer grant programs. It is important to make connections and build relationships with these officials as early in the process as possible.If an organization engages early enough in the process, it can even help shape a program.Additionally, meetings and calls with federal departments and agencies can occur once a funding opportunity has been identified to seek technical guidance and direction on the program’s goals, and how they coincide with an organization’s proposed project. By working with these officials, organizations can gain firsthand insights regarding the priorities of various federal programs and receive advice and feedback on effective approaches when developing, preparing and writing the proposal.Sometimes, program managers will even review drafts of proposals prior to submission and provide feedback.Additionally, scheduling a meeting or a call after a proposal has not been successful allows organizations the opportunity to discuss the reviewers’ comments and changes that need to be made to improve the application for the next round of funding.

#5: Allowing enough time to develop, prepare and complete all components of a competitive grant application and submitting on time.

Many organizations do not plan their time accordingly to ensure applications are submitted on time with complete and compelling information. As noted, it is important to at the beginning fully review and understand the funding opportunity announcement and put together a list of all the application requirements. It is also imperative to put together a timeline at the beginning of the process to develop, write, prepare and complete each piece of the application to allow for input and adjustments from both the leadership at the organization and the grant development team in order to guarantee there are no last-minute issues.Most federal grant applications are submitted electronically, which makes it easy to wait until the last minute to submit, however, all federal programs have strict deadlines and if these are missed because of technical difficulties or absent requirements, there is no way to submit or resubmit the application. Timelines and submitting early are two ways to easily avoid these pitfalls.

About the Author

Laura Lay
Principal & Director of Grants
Winning Strategies Washington

 Laura Lay manages WSW’s grants practice, and has helped numerous clients secure multiple millions of dollars in funding through the competitive grant process. Her expertise includes the federal budget and appropriations process, as well as private grants. Clients depend on Laura’s close attention to detail and extensive federal grants experience to ensure they are in the best possible position for success.

Laura specializes in guiding clients through the ever-changing landscape of seeking federal funds through competitive grants; identifying and tracking federal and private funding opportunities; developing, preparing, writing, and editing federal and private competitive grants; connecting clients to federal departments and agencies as well as private funders; and managing the overall grants process for clients. She assists clients through every phase of seeking funding, from identifying the opportunity to submitting the proposal and beyond.

One of the things that distinguishes Laura in her field is her ongoing relationships with program managers at a number of federal departments and agencies, including the U.S. Department of Education and Institute of Education Sciences; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, including the Health Resources and Services Administration, Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation, National Institutes of Health, and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration; as well as the National Science Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, and National Endowment for the Arts.

Laura is an active member of the Grants Professionals Association and Secretary of the National Capital Area Chapter, and completed training from the Grants Training Center: Professional Grant Development and National Institutes of Health Grant Training.


About Winning Strategies Washington

For over a dozen years, WSW has been providing an array of grant services to our clients. In that time, we have secured multiple millions of dollars from numerous federal departments and agencies as well as private foundations covering a broad range of areas and needs, from health care to education to transportation.

We assist our clients and increase their capacity to identify, apply and secure competitive funding. What sets our grants services apart is our team's expertise in the federal budget and appropriations process and how we use that experience to predict, shape, and protect existing funding sources, as well as advance new ones. We pride ourselves on our ability to assist our clients in navigating through the many layers of federal funding sources to effectively search for and secure any and all available federal funding.

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