Considerations When Applying for Grant Funding

The beginning of the year brings an ongoing release of grant solicitations. With the many funding opportunities with specific focuses, it’s essential that your agency present a polished and focused grant application to give you the best chance at receiving funding. While grant writing can seem daunting, taking actionable steps and breaking down the process can help you write a solid grant application.

To help with the process, the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) National Training and Technical Assistance Center (NTTAC) interviewed grant strategy expert Joan Brody, who provided some considerations for applying for grant funding.

Before getting started, it’s helpful to define some key terms. Federal agencies may establish a grant program in order to address a specific need or challenge. A grant solicitation is a notice that invites entities to apply for funding to address the need or challenge of the grant program. The solicitation will outline the goals of the grant program, activities eligible (or ineligible) to be performed as part of the grant program, and application requirements. An application is your response to the solicitation. It should include how you will meet the goals of the grant program (i.e., what specific activities you will perform in your community), a proposed budget, and résumés of key staff. A grant is the award of funding to perform the grant activities you proposed in your application.

Preparing to Write the Grant Application

Start with a wish list.

The most difficult part of applying for a grant is identifying your needs and determining the policy and programming required to meet those needs. Creating a grant strategy can also feel overwhelming, so Brody recommends starting with a wish list. This can help you identify ways to grow and meet agency and community needs and can help you think about changes you’d like to make to achieve your mission. Consider the gaps you want to fill and the outcomes you’re trying to achieve. This can become the base of your grant application strategy.

After developing your wish list, share it with your chain of command and internal subject matter experts (SMEs) to encourage buy-in early in the process. Getting support from leadership and SMEs makes it more likely that your application will be successful, especially if they’ll play a role in writing the application and implementing the grant.

Find an appropriate grant solicitation. lists all available federal grant opportunities. There is a lot of helpful information there, but it can also become a lot to sift through, so if you have an idea of the agency that would supply the grant, you can also visit their funding page for more information. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and its corresponding agencies will list solicitations for grant programs on their websites. For example, the Bureau of Justice Assistance has a funding web page listing all of their current solicitations, and it is continually updated. Think broadly about potential funders as safety, justice, and victim services may be addressed by many federal offices. For example, the Department of Labor may have a grant program addressing reentry, or the Department of Education may have a grant program addressing school safety.

To anticipate the types of grant programs that DOJ may support, Brody recommends looking at DOJ’s Office of Justice Programs’ (OJP) program plan for fiscal year (FY) 2021. The U.S. Congress also receives a DOJ Program Summary every year that includes all grant programs that DOJ has funded and what they anticipate funding next year if the funding is approved. It also includes examples of what’s been funded in the past and grant award amounts. This can help you get a sense of DOJ’s priorities.

There are also many funding opportunities within state and local government as well as private foundations and corporations. Use a trusted search engine to look up your grant topic to see what funding you can find.

As you research grant solicitations, check to see if the agency hosts any funding webinars. These may be specific to the grant program you’re applying for, or they may be more general. For example, BJA has two general webinars on their website to help with the application process. These webinars include the recording, presentation, and transcript:

Research past grants.

If you see a solicitation from the previous year you’re interested in applying to that you think may be offered in FY 2021, acquaint yourself with the solicitation and the requirements, look at the budget, and note who won the award previously. Consider reaching out to a previous grantee to ask questions and ask to see their winning proposal. Brody notes that people are generally willing to help out when you approach them and explain what you’re looking for. This can also help you grow your network of grant writers, who are valuable assets to the grant writing process.

Document current or potential data.

You should include any data that could help demonstrate your funding needs. This could include data from your organization about services provided/demand for services, Census data about community demographics, crime data, or published research about the issue you are trying to address. But if you don’t have the data, Brody says to not let that stop you from applying. Build data collection into your proposed grant activities and budget. If you have data that’s hard to collect because it’s protected, explain this in your application and how the grant can help you overcome barriers to getting the data. Show how your data or future collection of data is important to your grant activities.  

Identify potential research partners.

Many grant requirements focus on data collection and subsequent analysis that help inform the outcomes of the grant, so Brody recommends finding a research partner. Securing a research partner that can serve the role of data scientist/analyst can help you collect and use data effectively, both during and after the grant. Research partners can come from a local college or university or a private research organization.

There are many ways to partner. For example, you could partner with a statistics professor and have their students work on a project related to your grant as part of a class assignment. You can also find and fund master’s and Ph.D. students who are studying topics relevant to your work. Professors themselves may even want to be involved. Your research partners can also be involved at a larger scale, possibly even managing the grant itself, allowing you to reap the benefits without having to manage the grant. Regardless of their level of involvement, talk to your potential research partners early to find out if they’ll be a good fit.

Keep in mind that a lot of research organizations, especially universities and colleges, have their own indirect cost rate. Be sure to ask research organizations for the full cost of their services to include staff salaries, fringe benefits, and indirect costs. If you aren’t able to accommodate the costs of a local college or university, you can try working with a nonprofit or private research organization who may have lower rates. Sometimes agencies are able to work with professors as a consultant who is paid outside of the university. They still have the university’s association and permission to support your project but will not have administrative overhead. Try to find something that will work. There are a lot of incentives for a university or college to be involved, including being active in the community, increasing stature, receiving publication opportunities, and more.

Craft clear goals and objectives for the application.

Goals are your overarching desires and objectives are how you want to measure them. For example, you could have a goal of making your community safe. When creating the objective you’ll have to ask questions like how do you measure safety? By tracking community engagement? Crime statistics? Positive activities and programs in the community that prevent crime? It’s important to have clear goals and objectives that are specific to your community and are measurable.

Set your budget.

After identifying your goals and focus for your grant activities, you’ll have to craft a budget. In addition to calculating the costs of materials and labor, Brody notes to be sure to include time for people who can help with its administration if you receive the award. This can include directly funding someone to lead a project, such as a project director, who can help implement the grant activities, accept the grant award letter, review and understand special conditions, get sign off from proper leaders in the organization, and ensure progress reports, financial reports, performance metrics, etc. are properly reported. This person is responsible for keeping the grant on track by ensuring you meet your goals and complete important reporting.

Another way to incorporate administration costs is through an indirect cost rate. Grant solicitation requirements will generally include information about applying either an approved indirect cost rate (negotiated with a federal agency) or a de minimis rate, per federal grant regulations.

Check solicitations for funding match requirements. A match requirement means that the grant recipient has to contribute either cash or in-kind supplies and services to account for a designated portion of the budget. Solicitations will generally have information about the amount of match required, examples of match contributions, and eligibility for waiving match requirements.

Compiling the Application

Follow instructions.

When first receiving the grant solicitation, Brody recommends reading through the document and highlighting anything that needs to be included in the application. It’s important that your grant application addresses all of the required information that is typically listed throughout the solicitation.

Also be sure to complete all required system registrations prior to submitting the application. For federal grants, applicants will use the system to submit an SF-424 and an SF-LLL. They will use the JustGrants system to submit the full application including attachments. These submission instructions will be included in the solicitation.

It is a best practice to submit your application before the deadline. If you discover an error after submitting your application, submit a request to correct the error immediately because it could take some time to get fixed. Be sure to get a case/ticket number from the help desk for any issues you have so the logs show that you contacted DOJ before the grant solicitation deadline.

Finally, review the solicitation for any terms and conditions that will apply if awarded a grant. The solicitation will include information on progress reporting, budget management requirements, and other important issues. Consider whether your organization has the capacity to meet these administrative grant management requirements, and if you don’t, include people and resources into the grant budget to ensure you have the capacity to meet requirements.

Make your application easy to review.

Note that your application will be reviewed by a series of peer reviewers that may include practitioners, researchers, and DOJ staff, and you want to make it as easy as possible for them to check that you’ve met the criteria. They will often review with a checklist to make sure you’ve included all of the required components. Organize your application in the order identified in the solicitation and use headings. Brody also recommends including an introduction or an abstract, even if the solicitation doesn’t require it, to give reviewers an idea of exactly what grant activities you’re proposing so they keep that in mind as they read through your application. If your application includes several documents (e.g., a narrative describing your proposed grant activities, a budget, and staff résumés), be sure that each document is clearly titled so reviewers can easily identify the files they need to review. Be sure to adhere to any page limitations identified in the solicitation—additional information and extra pages may not be reviewed.

Although applying for and managing federal grants might seem daunting, grants present an opportunity for your organization to think creatively about meeting the needs of your community and achieving your agency’s mission.  Following a clear and strategic plan can help you focus your efforts, identify partners for your programs, and create a competitive grant application.

Joan Brody is a skilled grant writer and fundraiser who has worked in the criminal justice system for more than 30 years and has worked with several agencies through BJA NTTAC. Prior to consulting, she worked in city and state government as a key member of William J. Bratton’s senior policy staff and served on transition teams in the Boston, Massachusetts, Los Angeles, California, and New York City, New York police departments.

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Points of view or opinions on BJA NTTAC’s TTA Today blog are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice, BJA, or BJA NTTAC.