How to Apply for a Discretionary Federal Grant
Follow these tips to help your community access environmental justice grants and other infrastructure funding opportunities offered by the federal government.
You and your neighbors have been talking about turning the vacant, overgrown lot on the edge of town into a park for years. Or maybe you’re concerned about the high rates of asthma in your kids’ school—where diesel school buses are the norm. And perhaps you’re also witnessing a wave of climate gentrification in your city, which is resulting in a shortage of affordable housing.
Whether you are a member of an urban planning committee or a grassroots community-based organization, you can benefit from the billions of dollars the federal government is aiming to invest over the next four years in communities across the country, through initiatives like the new Environmental and Climate Justice (ECJ) program. That could mean anything from procuring new electric school buses for your district to a new neighborhood park. But navigating the bureaucracy and applying for funding from the federal government is often a difficult and onerous task. And beyond the challenges of accessing the funds, ensuring they are implemented in a manner consistent with community priorities can also be stressful and time-consuming. These tips will help guide you and your organization as you tackle the task of applying for discretionary funding, which federal agencies often award via a competitive merit-based process.
Don’t go it alone: Build a coalition for your cause
You have an idea or have been planning for a project for some time. Before you decide it’s time to seek funding, it’s important to ensure the project reflects the community’s priorities and receives community support. Reaffirm the project vision with community residents and coalition partners and cultivate relationships with regional and local organizations and city leaders who might either support, partner, or lead on an application. If your project is not well known, socialize it for more support and learn about other proposals. (Get more tips on how to find local allies here.)
Assess your needs and solidify your plan
Conduct an internal review about operations and administrative procedures that would need to be changed or added in order to comply with federal requirements. Prepare internal plans for operations and program administration in the event that you receive a federal award or need to show that you are ready to administer a federal grant. Ask yourself these questions:
- Do you need grant writing support? Do you need application support?
- Do you need a fiscal sponsor? Do you need money for matching requirements?
- Do you need backbone administrative support?
Based on the resource gaps you identify, your next step may be to reach out to another nonprofit in your region that could support your cause. (Larger nonprofits that already received federal funding can sometimes pass the funds to smaller organizations like yours.)
Shop for funding
Grants.gov is a one-stop shop for federal funding run by the government, searchable by both agency and topic. Federal agency websites, such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Transportation, also have their own funding notices. Another way to see what grants are accepting applications is by visiting the Notice of Funding Opportunities on the Federal Register. Additionally, the White House launched special websites that house information on funding opportunities created by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act/Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act.
Some state and local opportunities are often listed on government websites or newsletters. Local funding received through a block grant formula is usually received yearly and the local, regional, or state government should provide you with a transparent timeline of when those funds are received. Some national organizations list grant opportunities, funding allocation breakdowns and/or guides to navigating resources for the benefit of the community, such as the Brookings Institution’s Federal Infrastructure Hub, Emerald Cities Collaborative’s Justice40+ Community Benefit Playbook, and the Equitable & Just National Climate Platform’s Justice40 Funding Finder.
Check guidelines and requirements
Federal grant announcements are sometimes called a “request for proposals” or “solicitation for grant applications.” You can often find information on how to apply in those documents or at the relevant federal, state, or local agency website. Federal agencies often host informational sessions and webinars on how to apply for the grant and ensure eligibility. Also, some agencies offer technical assistance, or a local organization may be a government technical assistance provider. They can help you navigate the application process.
Understand the timeline: It’s critical that you keep timeline and release of funding top of mind to ensure you don’t miss your opportunity. One caveat to note: Timelines are not always transparent and might require some research.
Locally, Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) fund applications are often open between June and July and align with a city or county’s comprehensive planning process. Funding categories for CDBG are often listed on local government websites. Note, too, that if you’re seeking CDBG funding, you can put yourself in a better position to receive it if you have already played a part in influencing the comprehensive planning process, such as by showing up at local town hall meetings, which can then influence how this support will get distributed.
- Pay attention to these questions:
- What are the program parameters and applicant eligibility?
- Does my organization need preapproval in the Grants.gov system or other submitting system? Check and get approved.
- Does my organization need additional insurance coverage to carry out the work? (State and localities often require additional coverage that a federal agency might not ask for.)
- What are the grant management, reporting, and oversight requirements?
- What do I need to prepare for potential auditing during and after the grant is complete?
Create a project proposal and submit your application
Following the tips below will give you the best chance for success, in terms of rallying the community support you need and in making for a smooth application process. That said, it’s not the end of the road if you don’t receive funding the first time you apply. Reach out to federal, state, and local entities about your proposal and identify either how to improve your application in the next round or what strategic changes your organization might need to consider making before you reapply.
- If the project has multiple partners, define and clarify the roles of each entity.
- Create a project scope, timeline, and budget.
- If applying to a large funding source with multiple partners, ensure that money for community-based organizations that are focused on equity and justice are included in the budget.
- Ensure protections exist for anti-displacement or identify actions to mitigate any issues (e.g., funding for renter and tenant protection).
- If applying for a competitive grant, applicants are encouraged to include project items that increase competitiveness, such as job creation, good labor standards, apprenticeship programs, etc. Highlight the multiple benefits to the community.
Go to Grants.gov to submit. Be prepared to negotiate budget and scope from your original scope.
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