Unlocking Success: Insider Tips for Federal Grant Writing – Part 1

by Michelle Anderson

As someone who has worked in various roles within the victim services field since 2011, I can empathize with the daunting process of attempting to acquire federal funding. In the beginning of the process, it can be an intimidating and arduous experience. For those who have applied and have not been selected to receive the funding, some perhaps several times, it can be highly discouraging. However, for those who have successfully written an application and been selected to receive federal funding, you have certainly seen that the impact of federal funding support cannot be overstated.

My first federal grant submission was in the spring of 2014 while working at a state government agency and every step of the process from the initial letter of intent to the day of submission felt like a crash course in the mammoth undertaking of federal grant writing. I quickly learned the style of writing that worked well throughout graduate school was vastly different than the style of writing expected for a federal grant application. Adjectives, anecdotes, and client testimonies were just a few of the areas that did not bode well in a federal grant narrative. Evaluators don’t want it. They find it distracting, it presents as highly superfluous, and it takes up valuable space in your already limited word count. Space gets filled quickly when you’re required to include every relevant and compelling detail of your work.

During my tenure working at a large nonprofit organization that provided direct care to victims, I was able to see the importance of acquiring federal funding to support the crucial services being provided by nonprofits and the many obstacles that arise when trying to do so. Throughout the past 10 years, I have developed a high success-rate as a grant writer and editor, and here are some “guiding tips” to support you as we enter this year’s federal grant season:

  1. Solicitation Language: For federal grants, evaluators are looking for you to reflect the language from the solicitation within your application to ensure that you are remaining aligned with the best-practice language within the field that they are utilizing within their space. The solicitation should be used as an outline to provide a clear understanding of the ways in which they discuss the issues that they are hoping to impact with their funding support. It is critical to tailor the content and the language in your project plan to align with their funding priorities in a way that is still authentic in its representation of the work of your organization. The evaluators will be looking for those key words and phrases when scoring your application. The review process is rigorous and highly competitive, so it is important to ensure that you are highlighting the ways that you intend to maximize the funding with the highest impact outcomes for the specific population intended to be served with the funding. If you need further guidance or clarification on the requirements and/or the application process, consider reaching out to the technical support contact listed on the solicitation. This will also provide you with the opportunity to introduce your organization to the funding organization when they may not otherwise be familiar with your work.
  2. Webinars: Federal funders will also hold webinars for potential applicants where you can learn critical information about their funding priorities, goals, focus areas, populations intended to be served, partnerships that are most desired, etc. The federal application process is complex and can induce high anxiety for applicants trying to ensure that they are not missing any required documents or pertinent areas of focus to be addressed. The program officers at federal funding organizations aim to be as responsive as possible throughout the grant application process, but with hundreds, if not thousands of applications per funding stream, it is very difficult to get face time with them. Therefore, the webinars presented by the funding agency are a wealth of information. For example, in 2023 OVC hosted a webinar for their housing grant and there were some very helpful takeaways regarding their focus on labor trafficking, racial equity, and cultural competency. For example, in Spring 2023, OVC noted: “There is a lot of growing recognition that more needs to be done to address labor trafficking. We’ve seen this reflected in the 2018 reauthorization of the TVPA as well as the 2022 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report. The top recommendation was to increase efforts to comprehensively address labor trafficking in the United States. OVC is committed to expanding the services that are available to labor trafficking victims. OVC’s FY ‘23 anti-trafficking funding opportunities emphasize that applicants should be proposing meaningful responses to labor trafficking victims in their application.”
  3. Evidence-based and collaborative: Keep in mind that your application is more competitive if you are able to present the case of how your programming will meet the requirements of at least one, if not all, of the priority considerations noted in the solicitation. The varied ways in which you plan to meet those requirements should be presented comprehensively within your application’s grant narrative and concisely within your application’s project abstract. As a general rule, federal funders expect that their grantees will be regularly pursuing different avenues to remove barriers to services throughout several phases of their programming – from community level to residential level. The goal of federal funding that has been designated for direct care services is to support survivor safety and independence through trauma-informed, victim-centered, developmentally-appropriate, and culturally-competent care. Therefore, highlighting the ways in which your programming is using evidence-based practices and collaborative models of partnership at each step of the way to provide holistic support through a wrap-around system of care response will ensure that your application is rated high in comprehensiveness.
  4. Key questions: As you’re writing the narrative, ask yourself: How is your organization (and your collaborative partners) making an impact in vulnerable, underserved, high-risk communities? What are you plans for long term systemic change? What is the projected impact on the population being served by this funding, if awarded? What are the ways that you will be measuring “success of the project?” What are the steps being taken for sustainability?
  5. Mission: Pay particular attention to the “mission” of the funding organization as well as their “current funding priorities.” For example, it may look as follows:
    • Mission: “Support efforts that seek to build the capacity of organizations, their leaders, and the nonprofit sector as a whole while fostering coordination and collaboration across the sector.”
    •  Funding Priorities: “Education; Prevention; Cultural Competency; Health, Human Services.”
  6. Avoid emotionally-charged statements such as: “Victims are trapped in the poverty spiral and held hostage by their traffickers until saved by our organization and rescued from the recurring cycle of victimization.” This sentence feels unnecessarily hyperbolic for a federal level grant application. Do not waste valuable space in your abstract or your narrative telling them what they already know. Instead, I would re-work this sentence to be as concise and objectively stated as possible to allow more opportunity to build out the “activities and expected outcomes” sections. For example: “Survivors of labor and sex trafficking face a multitude of barriers: a lack of mentorship, seemingly insurmountable and often generational lives of poverty, limited access to educational and employment activities, and minimal, if any, experience with financial management. _____ organization intends to counteract the aforementioned obstacles to those we serve by empowering them to navigate their way through and ultimately beyond their circumstances. We accomplish this by funding solutions to address their tangible needs while simultaneously providing life skills development opportunities to foster a sense of confidence, independence, and proactive solutions created from clear plans of action. Our advocates utilize a victim-centered, trauma-informed, developmentally-appropriate, and culturally competent approach as they assess the obstacles that they’re presented with. Advocates will encourage a collaborative approach with survivors as they develop an individualized employment and economic empowerment plan for the next 12-18 months.”

As always, at Ascend Consulting, we are here to help with grant writing, grant review, and overall guidance as you navigate your way through the complexities of the federal funding process. Our grant writers and editors have an impressively high success rate at acquiring funding on behalf of our clients, and we are available to assist you at this particularly important time of year as we are preparing our strategies for the upcoming federal grant season.

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