As your human services agency navigates the complex technology buying process, you may find yourself wondering what external funding streams are available, outside of your agency’s budget, and how to access them to support or enhance your upcoming project. Local, state, and national grant opportunities are a resource you can strategically leverage to support innovation, modernization, and workforce initiatives.
So, you're looking for grant funding but not sure how to go about it? Here is a breakdown to help with your search.
If you’re just getting started with grants, you’ll want to get a few foundational items in place to help guide the process and determine where to focus your efforts.
Identify the problem.
Somewhere within your organization, there is a problem you are trying to solve. Identify that problem. Get specific. Is it a gap in service or a limit to your resources? A desire to expand services, serve more clients, increase outputs, improve program outcomes, strengthen your infrastructure, or inform decision-making?
It's important that you define your organization's need, and that you have internal consensus on this issue. Otherwise, you risk wasting time and resources chasing opportunities that don’t match your true needs.
Depending on your agency's size and mission, the process of identifying the problem can be simple and straightforward, or it might involve a deep dive into complex system components. Our technology toolkit for human services has a whole section on defining the problem, including a problem prioritization matrix for self-evaluation.
Another way to analyze your problem is to invite local academic institutions to study your organization. A third way is to hire professional consultants to do a deep dive. Regardless of how you arrive at your problem, the hard work will pay off and you will be well-positioned to move forward.
Design your solution.
As author Stephen Covey says, begin with the end in mind. This is your chance to be your own architect, be the engineer, design your solution. Conceptualize, and then work towards more detail. What does the project look like? What will it take to make it happen? Think about time, think about resources (staff, funds, equipment), think about strategic partnerships in your field and in your community. These partnerships could include:
- Peer organizations seeking the same outcomes (e.g., multiple school districts combining efforts to pursue a common goal or multiple counties partnering to share resources instead of competing against each other for funding).
- Engaging an industry leader to write a letter of support for your project.
- Collaboration between an agency and the provider of the solution that you’re planning to implement.
Lastly, think in terms of results. What results are you seeking? How will you know when you've solved your problem? How will you measure success? Our buyer’s guide has another resource for evaluating goals and success measures that can help here too.
Form a team.
Remember you don't have to do this alone (and you shouldn't). Involve colleagues at different levels, from leadership to frontline staff, in the process of defining the problem and the solution. It's important to have clarity on the issue and consensus on the desired solution before moving forward.
Ideally, you should document your conversations, noting your decision points, and the preferred pathway to success. This will eliminate confusion, stress, and ambiguity down the road as you write a proposal and work towards implementation.
Once you’ve got your plan in place, it can be overwhelming knowing how or where to begin your search. These are some general pointers to help guide you in the right direction:
Use your industry.
The first step is to consult the industry, think tanks and advocates for your cause. Is this about social services? Data-driven decision-making? Early childhood education? Substance abuse prevention?
- Search for local, state, or national organizations that align with your field of focus.
- Think and search both broadly (e.g., child welfare) and narrowly (e.g., staff retention/recruitment in child welfare).
- Look for current, common threads and topics across the field. Can your problem/solution align with these conversations and build on their momentum? Make notes citing current articles and experts in the field to use down the road when you're applying for funding.
- Take notice of recent grant awards or upcoming funding opportunities.
Next, switch gears and search for funding and resources based solely on your location.
- Check local universities to see if they have any initiatives that you might collaborate on as partners. Search their website and reach out to the listed contact person to introduce yourself and discuss your priorities. (See our recent blog on the benefits of human services agencies partnering with academic institutions for more ideas on how this could benefit the work you do.)
- Search for foundations and other charitable organizations in your geographic area, including city, county, region, districts, and state searches. Some foundations focus on impacting geographic communities and clearly define their physical boundaries, rather than focusing on a specific industry. On their websites, pay attention to mission, goals, announcements, and funding opportunities based on the geographic area or population you are targeting.
- Think about local businesses and companies that are headquartered in your county or state. Check to see if they have a foundation, community impact or charitable giving program.
Use social media and marketing tools.
There’s a lot of great information available through social media and marketing channels. You just need to know where to look!
- When you find government and/or private organizations that are leaders in this field, follow them on social media (LinkedIn is strongly recommended), or whichever platform you are most likely to check regularly. This is an easy way to stay current on announcements and industry conversations.
- Go to agency websites and subscribe to their newsletters, announcements, and alerts. This will keep you in the know and will guide you in the future. If they offer separate mailing lists, subscriptions, or alert systems for funding announcements, sign up for those too.
This is the clearinghouse for funding from the federal government. Go to Grants.gov and register with your agency credentials to create an official account for your agency. You can use this account to search for funding notices from federal agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Keep in mind this will be the account that is used for all grant applications, so be strategic about who should hold the agency account. The site also includes a free Grant Learning Center which is a great resource on topics like grant eligibility, terminology, systems, and more.
Candid.org is a powerful resource for accessing foundation funding and grant opportunities available through philanthropy, with helpful resources such as:
- Daily email alerts on new funding opportunities, be sure to subscribe.
- A foundation directory and other tools to tailor your search for funding. (Tip: This is a paid subscription service, but you can use it for free at certain public libraries. The Candid website will help you search for the closest library with free access, by zip code).
- Free online trainings, including introductions to finding grants and proposal writing.
You’ve found a grant that fits your needs, and now it’s time to apply. What next?
Write a strong proposal.
Good news, grant-writing is not new, and there are many resources available to step you through the process. Here is some general advice to keep in mind as you’re getting started:
- Read the grant carefully to understand what the grantee is looking for and what guidelines you need to follow.
- Create a checklist of requirements to make sure you don’t overlook anything.
- If you’re applying for a grant that focuses on technology, make sure to connect the problem you’re trying to solve to a wider community need, ideally one that aligns with the grantee’s priorities or areas of focus.
- Write a concise, human services-specific proposal, but one that can be understood and digested by a non-human services reader. Lean into your strengths and your story.
- Be sure to have a well-developed plan for evaluating ROI.
- This may seem like a no-brainer, but make sure to have at least two people review the proposal for typos or errors before you submit.
Consult expert resources.
Below are several additional resources that outline steps in writing strong grant proposals. Each site provides a step-by-step guide with instructions on developing your proposal. If your grant involves a technology component, you can also check out our buyer’s guide for additional advice.
- How to Write an Effective Grant Proposal l A Nonprofit's Guide (Donorbox)
- Planning and Writing a Grant Proposal: The Basics (The Writing Center at University of Wisconsin-Madison)
- How to Write a Good Grant Proposal: The Ultimate Guide (Instrumental)
- How to Write a Grant Proposal: A Step-by-Step Guide (PandaDoc)
- Technology Toolkit: An Essential Buyer’s Guide for Human Services (Northwoods)
Who can help?
In addition to using these guides, you may decide that you need specific grant-writing help, tailored to your project. If that’s the case, here are some avenues to pursue to find more personalized assistance:
- Check your local university for grant-writing courses that may need a class project; also check the local university for leaders in your field to see if they want to participate or lend a hand.
- Check local philanthropic or government organizations for grant-writing workshops, webinars, or trainings offered (see free Candid trainings above!).
- Explore hiring a grant writer online through Fiverr, Upwork, or GrantWriterTeam.
- Reach out or connect with me on LinkedIn and I’m happy to help! It’s my job here at Northwoods to be a resource to your agency as you navigate the buying process, so I can provide more advice on how to evaluate a grant opportunity or help write your proposal.
Don't give up. Keep searching!
Once you've put in the work on a strong proposal, you should feel confident that you can do it again. Proposals can be recycled or tweaked to fit new opportunities. Use the steps above to continue searching and staying abreast of opportunities in your field and in your region. Good luck!
Amy Drapcho is Northwoods' fiscal advocate. She leverages nearly two decades of prior agency finance and administrative experience to help states and counties navigate funding complexities related to technology.