Write to the RFP, not your just your program. And since we enjoy puns, right to the RFP. It sounds counterintuitive and at first glance not in the best interests of your clients, their needs, and your community. But it’s essential to getting funded with federal proposals.
When Stan was a wee lad just starting his grant writing career (actually he was thirty-two, but this sounds better for the story), he ran across a phenomenon that was surprising but soon became so common he didn’t think about it too much.
As a grant writer and especially when you are a program person writing the grant, you generally know your program, how good it is, what it can do, how well it serves your clients and communities, and how it needs more money. ESPECIALLY how it needs more money.
So you find a good Request for Proposals (RFP) that seems pretty well suited to support it. Not perfect, mind you, but good. What do you do? Ideally (and this is what we advocate) you ensure that your program fits the parameters of the RFP requirements as closely as possible by adjusting elements of your design to better fit the clear guidance in the RFP. Now keep in mind that this only works when fundamentally there is strong alignment between your program and the RFP. But many people resist this process and try to force RFP requirements to fit their program design instead.
Suppose you have a strong food bank and nutrition education program to serve low income families who are food insecure. You then find an RFP from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that seeks to build stronger connections between farmers and healthy foods in low income homes and communities where fresh produce is hard to find. Why, here it is!
Well, part of this is perfect. Your program operates in a food desert, as they say, and seeks to support low income Americans with fresher and better food options, a clear priority of the RFP. Your food pantry has great connections to donated produce from local supermarkets. So you don’t have to spend much of the money there. What you really need is funding to support your staff as well as rent for warehouses and money to keep your refrigerators running. So you write a proposal defining all these great elements of your really fantastic program that does a lot of good in the community.
Anyone see the problem here?
When the hardworking USDA reviewers peruse your proposal, they may very much like your program. They may admire it and wish they had more like in their own communities. But they will not score it high enough to be funded.
How can they? A critical part of the RFP (arguably the most critical part for the U.S. Department of Agriculture) is the support for the small farmers to get their produce to market- specifically the low income homes in your community.
So your proposal has handled the second part well- distributing fresh produce with a sophisticated infrastructure of partners and services to improve nutrition in high need areas. But it has ignored the vital first part- supporting the farmers to build up their markets to sell produce. Which, needless to say, is kind of important to the USDA. No funding for your great program.
What you’re doing here is trying to make the case to fund what your program is, rather than what the RFP explicitly says it wants.
Let’s delve into this a bit more – the process of focusing on your specific program instead of RFP requirements.
Many nonprofits and public agencies have a development department with professional grant writers on staff, while others rely on program staff to write grants. We have seen that program staff in particular are more likely to fall into this trap – and no wonder! If you spend your days operating a specific program model, you know better than anyone which components are best practices, what the challenges are, and what HAS to be part of the model for it to be successful. As the program manager, you are the expert. And as such, it makes sense that you want to share that expertise in your grant proposal.
Unfortunately grant writing doesn’t always make sense in terms of real world logic.
In grant writing, there is RFP Land – the focus of your grant – which can be very different from the real world in which you operate your program. In RFP Land, all that matters is the RFP criteria and how you can position your program to address it most competitively. This may not exactly align with the day to day operations of your program, but you just need it to meet the RFP parameters, even if those don’t cover all aspects of your program.
As a grant writer, your job is to focus intensely on what the RFP is looking to fund and the criteria used to judge a great (and fundable) proposal from one that is passed over for funding. And because deciphering and writing to the RFP is your main focus to be competitive, this may mean making sacrifices or changes to your program model.
This is not as simple as it sounds, but I promise it gets easier as you do it more and more.
Let’s say your agency facilitates a highly successful afterschool coding program for high school students. It operates one hour each day and is led by your agency’s qualified coding instructors. Results from the program have shown that students who participate are more engaged in their schoolwork and have higher scores in math compared to students who don’t participate.
An RFP for afterschool services is released (it might be this one!). It requires that programs operate for at least three hours per day and offer tutoring, physical activity, and enrichment – like coding. A grant writer might be tempted to think that if the proposal really emphasizes the great results of the coding program, it still has a shot at funding – after all, the coding program is shown to improve academic proficiency. This is one of the RFP’s three main goals, and it fits into the enrichment category. Perhaps if the case for the coding program is strong enough, the funder will be ok with overlooking the lack of tutoring and physical activity?
Let’s explore two reasons why not. The first is that when a funder (any funder, not just federal) releases an RFP, they have put thought into what they want to fund – if your agency doesn’t fundamentally match these requirements, they’re not going to be interested in your program. And second, in the case of federal (and state and local) RFPs, the language and services are mandated by regulations and legislation that authorized funding. Public agencies and reviewers are required to follow these guidelines. In fact, RFPs often refer specifically to federal guidance and duplicate this language directly in the RFP, while urging you to go read the relevant appropriations language. They’re not kidding about following it to the letter as much as you can.
So in our coding program example, you need to weigh costs and benefits of either expanding your afterschool coding program to include tutoring and physical activity (which makes for a substantially different program), or not pursuing that grant opportunity if you do not want to make those changes. Anything else is wasting your time and any other staff time involved in the writing of the proposal.
Now the point here is certainly not to say that you need to abandon your effective program design that serve clients in your community very well just to get more funding.
But it is to strongly urge you to wear a grant writer’s hat as intensively as the one worn by a program manager. Part of a successful grant proposal is taking a very hard look at whether what you are proposing meets the specific requirements of the RFP…enough to wrestle the maximum points possible from federal reviewers. In our experience, too many proposals leave critically needed points behind by not properly considering this.
These are relatively simple steps to take that can greatly improve your chances of being funded. And in future posts and in our upcoming grant writing course, we’ll go into considerably greater detail about exactly what we mean by writing to the RFP.
What has been your experience regarding the importance of writing to the RFP?