Contrary to many people’s expectations there is no general application you can just fill out and then receive “free money.” Grants are very specifically defined awards that are given out by the government or private entities for very specific purposes. With the exception of the Pell Grant Program, very few government grants go directly to individuals. They typically go to the states other agencies.
From there they often go to nonprofit agencies which have the best handle on local needs and causes - and then they finally get to the individual or small business that needs help.
Grants are indeed free money because they never need to be repaid. But the process to win a grant is more involved than just applying. There are of course many other types of financial aid offered by the government and you can learn more about them in Federal Aid.
The process for applying for and winning a grant is slightly different for every type of organization that offers these financial awards. However, there are basic components that are pretty consistent across the board. The better you understand them and how best to proceed through each step, the better your chances to actually win a grant.
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The process for applying for and winning a grant is slightly different for every type of organization that offers these financial awards. However, there are basic components that are pretty consistent across the board. The better you understand them and how best to proceed through each step, the better your chances to actually win a grant. Keep in mind that while these steps are pretty common across all grant application procedures, each grantmaker has their own individual “personality” and preferences as to how they should be followed. It's always a good idea to go directly to the website of the grantmaker (like the National Cancer Institute or the Department of Food and Agriculture as just a couple of examples) to see what they have about their particulate cycle and what's important to them. Here are brief summaries of each step and some resources that can help you:
While you can use our guide to grants.gov to search all current government grants available, you can also go directly to the websites of government agencies of interest to you. The Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture does a particularly good job of helping you search for grants. You can filter your results by specific programs like Aquaculture, Weed Science, Environmental & Resource Economics Programs and more. They even provide a whole section on Grant Training to help you sort through all the steps required and better understand the Grants Process. They also provide specific tips about grant writing to help you improve your chance of success. Check it out for general training and information as well as to search for grants if their programs are related to your fields of interest and expertise.
Another great example is the National Institute of Health, one of the very largest grant makers out there. Their website provides an excellent summary of their required procedure for applying for and winning a grant. You can look at specific topics to see how to get started, then get more detail about each stage of the process. There is also a video that provides an overview as well as a pdf you can print out if you would rather read than watch a video.
Find grants which match your search criteria. Check carefully to be sure you meet the grant’s eligibility requirements! Great places to start include Types of Grants and Where To Find Them and our article titled simply Find Grants. You'll also find good information and tips in Grants Online.
EligibilityWhatever you do, don't be tempted to just apply for as many grants as you can. You mush carefully review the eligibility requirements and the specific vision and goals of the grantmaker. If the slightest thing makes your eligibility questionable – or if your plans and projects are not a clear and compelling match for the grant offering – your application will not even be read. And your time will be wasted.
How do you know if you are eligible? It's pretty straightforward: the description of a grant will always include the criteria for qualifying for the grant. For example, if you search for a grant as we describe in our review of grants.gov, you can filter your search results based on what type of person or organization you are. So all your results should be grants you are eligible for. For something like a Pell Grant for students, you can take a quick Pell Grant quiz to see if you may be able to qualify.
Write your Grant Proposal. Once you have carefully reviewed the grant package and gathered all your relevant data, you are ready to write your grant. You may choose to complete this step yourself, or consider hiring a professional. Learn more about each choice at Grant Writing and Writing a Good Grant Proposal.
Update May 2018
e sure to be VERY careful when you are working on the budget portion of your grant application. The most common mistakes that cost applicants funding have to do with the budget. You must not “pad” your budget — the judges can definitely tell. Also, they are trying to get the most they can get for their money. If you’re padding the budget your application almost certainly will get tossed out. Also, be sure that your description of your project and your plan match what the budget presents. Otherwise the application will look sloppy at best and misleading at worst.
Apply once you have done all your homework and gotten your complete Grant Proposal written, you are ready to submit your proposal or application. Be sure that you have followed all instructions and that you are submitting your proposal before the deadline. Remember, it doesn't matter if you think the grant maker is asking for the “right” information, or if you think a particular requirement is unnecessary. People and organizations giving grants do so for their own reasons, to meet their own goals. If yours are not consistent, don't waste time and energy filling out your application.
Wait out the official period during which Grant Proposals are reviewed and evaluated. Be sure any grant award notification comes according to the official process described in the Grant Application – be sure not to fall for any Free Money Phone Call Scams!
Win and accept or reject your Grant Award! If you did not win, or if you are pursuing other grants or wish to go for a follow-on grant after the time period of the initial grant, begin the process again.
For excellent advice and tips on the Grant Process and specifically on how to write a strong proposal, consider reading Winning Grants Step by Step by Mim Carlson, Tori O'Neal-McElrath, and the Alliance for Nonprofit Management. The book is very highly recommended by the Center for Nonprofit Management.
One benefit of the government grants website is that it includes a “Grants 101” training section that explains most of what you need to know to find, apply for and win a grant. One section of this tutorial is called the “Grant Lifecycle Timeline.” This is essentially a description of the Grants Process customized for government grants. For each Lifecycle Step you can see a description of both what the Grant-Maker does and what the Applicant does. Though it is specific to the government grants process it is nicely laid out and useful for understanding grants in general. You will notice that it is broken into three sections, for the Per-Award Phase, the Award Phase and the Post Award Phase. Though you may feel as if you have done a lot of work to get to the Award Phase, note that the title of the second part of that phase is “Beginning the Hard Work.” You’ve won the award and your work is just begun! See our review of the grants.gov website.
While the government's website does do a very thorough job of detailing all current government grants available, it can be frustrating to use if you are looking for a more personal or small organization grant. That doesn't mean you shouldn't review it, just have realistic expectations. And remember that there are many, many foundations which also give out millions annually in grants. You can learn a ton about them in our review of Write Foundation Grants Fast. There is a formula you can use and it can make all the difference in helping you win a grant. And it's an easy read, check it out.