If your experience has been anything like mine, you learned how to fundraise mainly by doing it. For example, you may have learned the hard way that it takes more than responding to a request for proposals from governmental entities to secure funding. Usually, there are program officers to meet, technical assistance sessions to attend, and questions to submit in writing, with funding opportunities based in legislation crafted by elected officials that underwent a political process. That’s a lot of people to build relationships with.
Building relationships with government funders is very different than building relationships with individuals, foundations, and corporations in that when building government relationships you have two distinct groups you need to reach: the legislators who makes the laws that provide and allocate the funding and the government employees who enforce the rules of the legislation.
Before Funding is Available
Elected officials’ primary objective is getting enough votes to stay in office. Their priorities are reflected in the legislation they support. The allocation of government funding is dictated by legislation. Before funding even becomes available, your nonprofit, as a 501c3, may not be able to lobby for specific legislation, but you can advocate for your cause and educate your legislators about community issues. If you want to get the attention of an elected official, talk about what’s important to the community, and what issues are important to specific community voting blocks.
Do you know what issues are important to your community? Have you asked them? Do you sit on community boards? Do you survey your clients, staff, volunteers, or donors? What are their concerns? Knowing these answers will help you identify voter issues of interest to elected officials. And that’s where you start your conversation with legislators. Legislators are in office because of one thing: people’s votes put them there.
Elected officials also need exposure. Do you offer any fundraising or networking events where they can speak to potential voters? What about your communication channels with clients, staff, volunteers, donors, and partner agencies—can you leverage them? Do you leverage existing advocacy and communication activities as part of your government fundraising strategy? If not, if you are considering pursuing governmental funding, you should.
Identifying Government Funding Opportunities
Government funders are easy to identify in the sense that there is usually plenty of public information available about them. The information, however, is not always easy to find and can be very time consuming to look for. You might have a lot of information to dig through.
For federal grants, usually grant competitions are announced through a notice of funding availability, or NOFA. You can find NOFAs in the Federal Register, which you can receive daily through a listserv, through the grants.gov website, or through an individual federal agency’s website. Most states have similar mechanisms customized to the laws of that state.
Sometimes NOFAs come in parts and with some period of time between the parts. Both NOFA sections will apply to your application. Your budget and contract guidelines might be found in separate Office of Management and Budget Circulars. You should be familiar with all applicable regulations and publications before you start writing your applications to make sure your programs’ methodology and budget address all the required guidelines.
Sometimes governmental funding is announced through requests for proposals, or RFP’s. State, county, and municipal funding is usually less onerous to apply for than federal funding. However, a large percentage of state and local governmental funding is passed through to them from the federal government. In those cases, federal requirements apply to even local government allocations.
Get a copy of these laws and study them. Understand the purpose of the legislation. Understand who makes the funding decisions and what the process will be. Know all the rules and how they are interpreted before you put 100 or more hours in writing an application that doesn’t meet all the funding requirements.
Approaching Government Employees
After funds have become available is when you talk to government employees. They will always help you as part of their job is to give everyone equal opportunity. Although they will not be able to influence the decision-making process, they can guide you through the rules and regulations governing that process and help you navigate the complexities of a government funding application.
Government employees aren’t in the game to get votes. They’re in the game to carry out the purpose of the funding according to the stated rules and regulations. It’s up to the government staffers to implement the program as mandated by law. If you want to get along with a government employee, know all the rules and regulations and follow them. It will make the government employee’s life easier.
But knowing all the rules and regulations associated with any particular government funding allocation is easier said than done. First and foremost, you need to know the legislative provisions that determined the funding. And you need to know the legislation that law was built on. And the one before that. Sometimes, you need to go back to legislation that is decades old. It takes a lot of time and effort.
Then you need to know the regulations surrounding the financial and program operations of the funding. The government has financial and programmatic restrictions that must be followed. And your agency will, sooner or later, be audited. If you don’t pass the audit, you may have return money that was already spent that you don’t have. Or you may be sanctioned and subject to harsher reporting requirements. Not to mention the PR nightmares that can ensue.
So, always approach government employees with an aim toward knowing and following the rules.
Wrapping It Up
If you choose to pursue government funding, start before the legislation is drafted. Educate your legislative representatives about your cause constantly. Make them aware your nonprofit exists, the good you do in the community, and the voters that support your cause. Regularly review governmental publications and subscribe to various listserves to know when government funding opportunities are available. Research and read through the legislation authorizing the funding allocation, including any previous legislation relevant to the current opportunity.
Government contracts can provide much-needed funding to address important issues. However, getting it can be tricky. Know the ins and outs of what is takes to land a contract before spending hours responding to an onerous request for proposals. And establish relationships you need to be successful.
Of course, you will want to supplement government funding with other types of funding. Learn more about also garnering individual, foundation, and business donations in my new book The ROI Mindset: How to Raise More Money with the Budget You Have. Check it out today!