Important Steps to Finding Government Grants for Nonprofits

The money is there if you know where to look

Nonprofit leaders often ask, “Where’s the money?” when the topic turns to government grants. They’ve heard about other organizations that received millions in grant dollars. Those dollars seemed to have fallen from the air with little work.

If only the answer were as simple as that. 

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Where Do You Start? With Prospecting

Internet search
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Compelling grant writing skills are essential to the process, but grant prospecting is a first and very important step before you begin writing. You must find the best fits for your funding needs.

Effective grant prospecting takes time. It involves the use of database tools, professional networks, and personal contacts to identify and cultivate the most appropriate potential funding partners. 

Competition for all grant funding has intensified significantly since the recession, but all nonprofits face much of the same challenges when they're seeking grants: lack of time, lack of staff, lack of money for database subscriptions, and lack of understanding of what makes the best fit for funding.

Why all the competition? Billions of dollars in grants are available every year. There are 26 federal grant-making agencies and more than 900 federal programs in the federal government alone. These include the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Housing/Urban Development, Justice, Labor, and Treasury. as well as the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities.

Funding is supposed to be allocated to these grant-making agencies by Congress by October 1, the start of each new federal fiscal year. You can get a preview of what funds might be available in the coming year by checking the proposed budgets from the President, Congress, and the Office of Management and Budget.

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Know Yourself

Volunteer serving food at community kitchen
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Identify what kind of funding you need and for whom or what. Make a list of the states, counties, and communities that you serve, then list the scope of your work. Who do you serve and why? What evidence do you have to support your project? How much funding do you need? How much funding have you already raised?

It's critical that you're honest about the scope of your organization’s work so you can capture the best matches for your needs. Use a grant prospecting questionnaire to gather your data and use an organization summary sheet to track your findings. Keep these documents available as you look for grants.

Also consider what types of support you need, such as equipment, capital, program development, evaluation, seed, or operating. From paying for staff and hosting conferences to purchasing land, there are many different ways that a grantmaker can provide support for your organization. Most funding comes through operating support, capital support, and program development.

Operating support or unrestricted funding is a grant for day-to-day operating costs or to further the general work of an organization. It's not dedicated to a particular purpose or project—this is known as restricted funding.

Capital support is most commonly given for specific capital campaigns that involve building construction or acquisition, land acquisition, renovations, remodeling, or the rehabilitating of property. Program development grants provide funding for a particular purpose or project and are also known as restricted funding.

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Find Your Keywords

Keywords for your government grants search.
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The next step in prospecting preparation is listing your organization’s funding priorities and identifying the keywords to use when you're searching for those priorities within databases. These are called the “Fields of Interest" in many search databases.

There are thousands of possibilities and combinations. Think up synonyms when you run out of words. Some funders list giving to the poor under “poverty", some under “impoverished", and still others under “needy". Try all the synonyms you can think of to make sure you’ve done a thorough search.

You might want to keep a notepad handy to keep track of your keyword combinations. What are 10 to 20 keywords you could use to describe your need?

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Identify Funding Opportunities at

Focused architect working at laptop in office
Hero Images/Getty Images is a free service that provides a searchable database of all federal funding opportunities. Click on “Find Grant Opportunities” on the left side of the page, then select "Basic Search" to search using a keyword or a combination of keywords to find the right federal grants for your work.

If you already know the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance (CFDA) number or the Funding Opportunity Number (FON), you can also search by those. The CFDA is a directory of recognized numbers assigned by the government to 2,200 federal programs, projects, cooperative agreements, funding opportunities, and other federal assistance programs. Every grant has an assigned CFDA.

An FON is a number that a federal agency assigns to its grant announcement. It's a number used only by

Search by agency when you know the name of the government department or bureau that has grants available, or you can match your keywords to the names of the federal agencies.

These methods will likely produce many results that you'll have to read thoroughly and assess to ensure that they're the right fit for your identified funding needs. As you find opportunities that match your needs, add details about the possibilities to your grant prospect worksheet. This will help you keep track of the best opportunities.

You might also want to join the mailing list to receive a daily or weekly digest of current federal funding opportunities.

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Local and State Sources

You might also consider finding government grants from your local municipality, county, or state. These entities have billions of dollars available as well, and they might provide the right opportunities for your needs.

Contact your local or state Department of Health, Jobs and Family Services, Human Services, Department of Development, Small Business Development, Department of Education, Department of Transportation, County Commissioners, or City Councils. Ask about grants they have available.

The Bottom Line

Take time to adequately prepare for your prospecting work. The more time you put into preparation, the better your results. You must understand how, why, and where your organization provides services to prepare properly. Then keep working at it! Effective grant prospecting takes planning, preparation, and time, but you'll find government funding for your innovative programs.