A recent USA Today poll showed that public opinion of the US Congress is the lowest it has ever been, with a mere 12 percent of Americans approving. And while on a personal level you may not be thrilled with your political leaders, politicians—local, state, and national—can be instrumental in supporting your grant seeking efforts.
When it comes to local, state, and federal government grants, politicians are removed from the decision-making process, of course. Even so, they can connect you with key decision makers, help you get past ‘no unsolicited proposals’ roadblocks, advise you of upcoming funding opportunities, and facilitate the grant seeking process in other ways.
Advising you about upcoming funding opportunities
In general, most government funding opportunities only have one funding cycle per calendar year. In most cases, the time from which the funding announcement is issued until the proposal due date is usually not more than six weeks. This leaves little time to pull together a strong funding proposal that includes all of the required elements for success. Unfortunately, many grant programs do not follow the same cycle from year to year or even worse, only accept new applications every two or three years. Both of these situations make grant planning a difficult challenge at best.
Here is where having a relationship with politicians can come in handy in helping you plan for upcoming federal grant opportunities. Because they are usually the ones determining whether or not to fund grant programs, politicians are usually willing to advise their constituents about upcoming grant opportunities. Make an appointment with your federal congressperson, senator, or other key staff person to discuss your organization’s funding needs. Then, ask him or her to let you know in advance when those programs of interest to you will be released. You will most likely have to prod them for updates once in a while. But overall, most are willing to help and pass along information about upcoming opportunities.
For assistance with federal grants, here are some specific strategies you can use to keep in touch with your congressperson and leverage that relationship to gain insight into upcoming funding and grant opportunities.
Members of congress from all fifty states maintain an office in Washington, D.C., as well as a local office in the district where their constituents live. Both of these offices are staffed with people who can assist you in learning about upcoming grant and funding opportunities. The first step is to find the right person with whom to speak so you do not waste time and effort. Most congressional offices have one person who, in addition to other duties, is designated as the grants liaison charged with assisting constituents with federal grants.
After you determine who the grants liaison is, it may be a good idea to arrange a brief in-person meeting to discuss your organization’s work in the community and its funding needs. Ask that person to please keep you informed about upcoming grants or funding opportunities and to advise you on any relevant updates that might impact your fund raising efforts.
Additionally, apprise the liaison any time you apply for federal funding; and, at the very least, send an abstract and budget overview when doing so. Ask the liaison to assist your organization’s application in any way possible.
Some of the twenty-six federal agencies that offer grants, such as the Department of Health and Human Services, maintain an office through which members of congress or their representatives can gain valuable insight into upcoming funding opportunities as well as information about the funding and grants process. The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Legislation (ASL) coordinates congressional requests across the department. The department’s ASL Congressional Liaison Office (CLO) responds to congressional inquiries about grant awards; notifies congressional offices of grant awards made by the department; and facilitates technical assistance regarding grants to members of congress and their staff. Check the websitehttps://www.hhs.gov/about/agencies/asl/about-asl/grants/index.html for more information.
Providing project support
Now we will explore some of the other ways in which politicians can support your grant seeking efforts.
Having served as a professional reviewer for dozens of state and federal agencies, I can tell you that an off-the-shelf letter of support from your congressperson, senator, or other political leader will do nothing to sway the odds in your favor. Among reviewers, it is common knowledge that politicians will happily support nearly any project that benefits their district or constituency. Therefore, their ‘support’ of a project is essentially meaningless in terms of strengthening your proposal.
On the other hand, if you can secure a letter from a politician committing to supporting your project by providing resources, then by all means include it in the appendices and refer to it in your narrative.
Examples of tangible resources from a supportive politician
Here are some examples of tangible resources that a politician might commit to support your project:
- Serving as a member of an advisory council. The advisory council should meet at least four times a year in order to be considered a valid entity.
- Promoting your organization or program to the broader community (e.g., creating community awareness)
- Identifying and engaging additional community resources.
- Providing funding, space, supplies, volunteers, or personnel.
- Addressing policy changes that support your cause.
Politicians often have connections to foundation trustees
Politicians can also be very useful in helping you to obtain foundation funding. This is particularly true when seeking monies from foundations that do not accept unsolicited proposals, or with large national foundations that are inundated with unsolicited proposals every day.
Here is an example. Several years ago, I was working at an arts organization in South Florida. The group was seeking funding for its school-based programming that uses the arts to help students to better grasp core academic content. One of our targeted funders was a large, well-known national foundation that receives thousands of unsolicited requests each year.
From previous experience and success with the foundation, I knew that without some assistance, the chances of the proposal getting a serious review were infinitely slim at best. My plan was to circulate a list of foundation trustees among the arts organization’s board to see if anyone had a connection that could be used to make sure the proposal got a serious review. None of the board members had any connections to the trustees, but one did recall seeing a local politician engaged in conversation with the president of the foundation at a recent fund raising event.
With this in mind, I contacted the politician and asked for his help in connecting with the foundation. After a brief conversation, he agreed to send a letter to the foundation president, asking him to review our funding proposal when we submitted it. The politician gave me a few bullet points and I wrote the letter for his signature. After some basic formalities, the letter simply said, “I know of your interest in after-school programming for students in underserved communities. There is a local group doing some innovative work in this area and I think you might be interested in taking a look at what they do. They would like to send a funding proposal to the foundation. Would you be so kind as to take a look?”
It was a very straightforward one-page letter with a simple request—review the proposal. Two days after the letter was delivered, the arts organization received a phone call from a foundation program officer asking them to send a proposal to her attention. Within sixty days, the organization was awarded a grant in the amount of $140,000.
The grant was awarded on the merit of the program, not because of the relationship with the politician. But without the relationship between the two and the personal appeal to consider the proposal, the funding request would have most likely not made it to the review process anytime soon.
The competition for a shrinking pool of funding dollars becomes ever fiercer. And with, on average, just 3 to 5 percent of all submitted government grant proposals receiving funding, you need every tool at your disposal to increase your odds of success. Maintaining a close relationship with politicians just might give you the edge you need to boost your grants revenue.