By: Anna Brunner
Purpose: The focus of this document is on how a farm incubator or similar group
can find and apply for grants as a source of funding.
Starting an organization from scratch or beginning a new project within an existing organization can require a lot of capital up front. There are a few options for most organizations: fundraising events, loans, and grants. Fundraising drives require community support, which can be difficult to harness, but also raise awareness within the community of your organization and it’s goals. Grants have the benefit of not requiring repayment at the end of a set period of time, unlike loans. However, grants may be harder to secure than loans for certain groups or ideas, and there tends to be a limit on how much money one organization can get from grants alone. Therefore if your organization has access to capital through the loan process, and has the ability to pay back loans over time, this avenue may be better than the potentially drawn out process of applying for a grant.
Why Do Grants Exist?
Understanding the purpose of grant programs can help frame how you and your organization think about grants as a source of funding. Most granting organizations provide funds because they want to promote innovation or support projects that are similar to ones that have worked in the past. Often grants provide funding to demonstration projects that others can learn from, and that also provide the opportunity to address any unanticipated problems with the project before it is promoted on a larger scale. The more people who can benefit from the project proposed, the better, since grants are trying to promote learning and innovation that has the greatest impact possible.
While understanding the motivation behind grantors can help you determine if seeking grant funding is right for your organization, it is also important to understand what types of projects grantors typically do not want to fund. Many grants will not provide you with funding if you are already receiving funding from another grant source. Grants will not solely fund everyday activities like purchasing or maintaining land or buildings, starting a new business, or paying salaried employees. Perhaps most obviously, grants will not fund political activities or illegal ventures.
If your organization decides to apply for grant funding, there are several tasks to accomplish before the actual grant application is even written.
1. Identify a problem fundamental to your organization’s mission, and come up with a broad idea of how to solve it.
Why? Grants are often focused on addressing a particular problem and require a detailed proposal for how organizations will use the grant money to solve this problem. Without an initial idea, it is impossible to narrow down the list of grants to find reasonable ones to apply for. However, it is not enough just to have an idea—the idea must mesh well with the organization’s mission and purpose. Because grants require a lot of details about how your organization will use grant money to address the problem, it will be much easier to supply that information if the problem is one your organization is in a unique position to solve. Having an idea outside of the mission of your organization will make your grant proposal harder to understand—why would an organization involved in beginning farming suddenly want to start up a soup kitchen? The two might be distantly related, but to make a clear, coherent argument you’d have to go to great lengths to explain the connection. Additionally, if your organization was to receive a grant for something outside of its mission, the resources of your organization would be split between two divergent ideas, making it harder to excel at either. Not only will you be more likely to receive funding if your proposal is easy to understand in the context of your organization, but the usefulness of the funding is likely to extend to all areas of the organization, maximizing the benefits of the grant.
2. Find people who will be involved in implementing the idea and ask them to write letters of support for the project.
Why? Grants not only want to fund ideas that fit into particular categories (see issue 1.), but they also want to make sure the ideas are reasonable and achievable. Writing the grant will require that you tell a narrative about why your idea is feasible. A stronger defense comes from the written support of people in the community who have experience working with your group or experience dealing with some of the challenges faced by your proposed idea, and who think your idea is achievable. Often, even if people are given plenty of time, they will not get around to writing the letter of support, or the letter will not contain critical pieces of information required by the grant. Therefore, it is a good idea to consider having the grant writer compose the support letters so that the letter is done on time and content is complete. Have the organization or individual put the letter onto their letterhead and sign it, and be sure to have them read through what they are signing. If individuals want to write their own letter of support, that is fine, just be sure to let them know if certain pieces of information need to be addressed. Clearly written letters of support are the best, so plan in advance to provide letter writers with enough time to compose a well written letter.
3. Know what agencies or organizations will be formally involved with your proposed idea and contact them regarding official letters of commitment or contractual language.
Why? Grants often require formal agreements between parties, especially if the arrangement is required before the idea could proceed. Having the voiced support of various groups or individuals who will work with your organization to make your idea a reality makes it clear how much support your idea has. Because letters of support or commitment can sometimes require the approval of a board of directors (e.g., when working with non-profits or governmental units) it is critical to plan out as early in the process as possible whom you need support letters from.
4. Once you have a sense of your idea, who supports it, and who would be directly involved, then it’s time to start looking for grants.
Why? Talking over your organization’s idea with the other people involved, or with those who have experience, will clarify the details of the proposal. Additionally, you will have a sense of the time needed to prepare the grant given individuals’ schedules. Armed with a sense of purpose and the time needed, it will be easier to find grants that will best line up with your organization’s needs.
How Do I Find Grants?
Looking for grants that will fit your idea can be frustrating—there are thousands of grant opportunities out there and locating the right one can be challenging. There are only a few general places that supply grants: the federal government, the state government, the local government, and private groups. Private grants, in general, focus on disadvantaged groups or specific interest groups, and for this reason tend not to be the most supportive of agriculture or farmers. Increasingly, support for local farming as well as environmental awareness in farming are issues that interest private grantors. If your organization deals directly with a specific group that you think may be of interest to a private philanthropist, do not hesitate to explore this option. Local options, at the state level or from private organizations, are harder to provide general access information on, so more localized searches will be necessary to determine the available opportunities. Government grants at various levels will provide the broadest and most reliable source of grant funding for farming organizations. For each grant you consider, be sure to look at the projects that have been awarded funding in the past. This quick review will give you a better understanding of the types of projects that are typically funded by the grant. Consider, also, contacting the individual in charge of the grant to ask if your idea and organization seem suited for the grant as proposed. Their contact information should be supplied with the grant, and it is their job to answer questions like these, so do not hesitate to call.
The federal government grants of most interest to organizations that support beginning farmers or agriculture in general will likely come out of the Department of Agriculture, although certain agencies may occasionally also have grants of interest to your organization. Perhaps the best resource for untangling the web of government grants is the search function on grants.gov. Additionally, grants.gov will let you sign up for email alerts when new grants are issued, or filter your alerts by using an RSS feed of grant updates from specific sections of the government. The task of reading through all the various grants issued to find the ones that might fit your idea will likely be time consuming, but it will give you a sense of the kind of ideas that are supported through grants and perhaps a sense of ways to present your idea in the grant proposal. [Source 1] [Source 2] [Source 3]
State and local governments have similar websites that collect available grants or send email alerts to interested users. Michigan uses EgrAMS Portal, which stands for Electronic Grants Administration and Management System, where you can search for available grants using keywords or the granting agency as a filter. Additionally, you may sign up for automatic grant availability email alerts from the site. Another Michigan-based site that catalogs grants and educational materials for those interested in writing grants comes out of the Michigan State University Library system, which gives a lot of good background information on grants and grant resources available for farming. [Source 4] [Source 5]
Once You Have Found a Grant
After you have located a grant that seems to align well with your idea and needs, then you can finally begin the process of completing the grant application. This portion of finding a grant requires a different skill set than sifting through possible grants to find the right one—filling out the grant requires attention to detail and a sense of narrative. Because writing grants, especially in a short time frame, can be a full time job, you may want to consider hiring a grant writer. At the very least, consider having a grant writer or an outside party review the finished grant application if you do choose to write it yourself.
If you compile the grant application yourself, there are several things to keep in mind. First, you will likely need to register your organization with the government so that you can be assigned a number under which the grant is filed. For the federal government registration information can be found here. This step is important to complete first because it can take up to four months to process if done incorrectly.
Secondly, carefully read through the grant. There will be a lot of jargon and sections with overlapping information, since essentially the grant lists out, in great detail, the rules that must be followed when writing the grant. Make a list of questions you have as you go through the grant. Some of them may be answered in other parts of the grant, and some may need to be answered by the person overseeing the grant. In most cases, there will be an official in charge of grant-related questions that you can contact as the need arises. Try to understand the grant on your own, first, but know that you can and should call the grant oversight official with major questions or clarifications.
Third, begin to draft sections of the grant, starting with areas you feel you know best. Grant instructions use a lot of clunky jargon, but your submission should aim to do the opposite: try to tell a clear story of your organization’s purpose, how the problem you are trying to solve with this grant money aligns with your purpose, and what changes the grant money will allow you to make. Using numbers to show where your organization was three years ago, where you are this year, and where you hope to be in three years provides quantitative information to back up your narrative. Besides crafting a clear narrative, whose details are carried into all the appropriate sections of the grant, it is critical to follow the basic rules. Rules such as the maximum page count, the title of the document, or the margin size are easy to follow and yet often disregarded. Grants are removed from consideration if they do not follow these simple rules, so be sure to follow them. After each section that is completed, have a co-worker or someone outside the planning process review your work. They will often be able to spot typos or logical inconsistency faster than, you, the author.
Finally, be sure to leave enough time to upload all the necessary parts of the grant to the department site. Recently, most grants have required a digital upload of all files, although some may require a hard copy, and if this is so, leave enough time to mail the files. Grants must be received in full by the deadline or they are not considered for funding. Once again, reading the instructions, following the rules, and paying attention to details will help overcome many of the basic challenges to receiving grant funding.
1) USDA Grant Loans Accessed 2/13/12
2) USDA Find Grant Opportunities Accessed 2/14/12
3) USDA Email Subscription Accessed 2/14/12
4) EgrAMS Portal for Electronic Grants Administration Accessed 2/20/12
5) MSU Library System Farm Grant Accessed on 12/03/11