Building a Watertight Grant Funding Pipeline
Grant funding is a critical tool for accelerating early research and development and commercialization for climate startups. But successfully applying for grants - which are generally non-repayable and non-dilutive - is an intensely time-consuming and competitive process, and you’ll need to lay the groundwork far in advance if you hope to stand a chance of winning.
Sedale Turbovsky is the CEO and co-founder of grants search engine OpenGrants. We spoke with him to hear why building relationships with grantors is a game-changer, the value of an expert grant writer, and how to be strategic about the applications you invest time on.
Don’t roll the dice - stack the odds in your favor
With strict application deadlines, grants are time-bound in a way that other funding opportunities aren’t. But if you haphazardly apply for every potential opportunity that you come across, your chances of winning will be slim. Long before you set pen to paper, you need to start putting the pieces in place that will make your success practically an inevitability.
Creating this grant application pipeline means researching a list of potential opportunities, mapping the timelines, and prioritizing certain opportunities over others. But most importantly, it means knowing who to talk to and establishing a relationship with them. When applying for grants, you won’t be judged wholly on your merits - it can make all the difference if the agency is already aware of your work.
Talk to the person, not the institution
The first step to building this relationship is showing up - for example, if you have a government grant in mind, you should go to public meetings and submit RFIs, which are often precursors to the actual grants. These connections will dramatically improve your chances of winning grants, and could even result in you receiving funding that isn’t otherwise advertised, without having to go through competitive solicitation processes.
When you’re talking to someone from a grant program, remember that all that matters to them is the impact you’ll make with it - unlike VCs or angel investors, they have no personal attachment to the money itself. Check in with them on a regular basis, keeping them updated on your business’s progress - this will keep you top of mind and build their confidence that you’ll put the funding to good use.
Cultivating these relationships will be a lot easier if you use a CRM, such as Airtable, Attio, or Asana (which includes a grant tracking template). As well as monitoring the outreach you do, you should keep detailed notes about news and updates on the organization’s work. You’re not approaching an institution, but the people who work at the institution, so refer to these notes to help you understand what’s important to them and build a rapport.
Hire an expert - or become one yourself
If you don’t hire an experienced professional to help you with developing a grant pipeline and the grant application process itself, you’re probably going to lose out to the people who do. But there will be a significant cost incurred - the minimum you should expect to spend on a consultant who understands the grant ecosystem and will apply to some opportunities for you is around $25k. While that may sound like a lot, the value they provide is immense, and working closely with them will enable you to better understand how the program works - which is a worthwhile investment, especially if you’re planning to apply to that agency often.
If that price tag is out of your reach, you do have some other options when it comes to getting outside help:
1. Harness free government resources. If you’re applying for an SBIR grant, a subset of writers are paid by the government to complete the application for you - check out the marketplace on OpenGrants. The SBA and SBDCs can also connect you with this type of assistance.
2. Establish a performance-based agreement with a grant writer, wherein they’ll only get paid if you’re successful - but note that finding someone who will agree to this deal is rare.
3. Offer the grant writer equity in your company in place of payment.
4. Train yourself up. There are plenty of programs online that can help you develop your own capacity to write a grant application, such as Learngrantwriting.org. But while they’ll give you a broad grounding in writing applications, for more specific training and insights, your best bet is to find yourself a mentor.
Know when to let go
Because grant applications are extremely demanding and time consuming, you’re simply not going to be able to apply to everything. That means you need to employ a methodology for triaging potential opportunities - so you can understand where you have the highest chance of winning and apply accordingly.
Because of their vast experience, consultants will be able to tell you right out of the gate whether your project is eligible for funding, what grants you have a strong chance of winning, and what applications would be a waste of time. Without a consultant, you’ll have to put in the work to figure this out on your own by reading through everything the agency has previously funded to figure out if your company is a good fit. You can also speak to people at the agencies to see if your project is something they’d be interested in - navigating these conversations might be tricky, but can glean very valuable insights that you need to collect in order to make the right calls.
Sedale Turbovsky is a serial entrepreneur with a passion for building solutions in the public sector. He is the CEO and co-founder of OpenGrants, his fourth venture-backed startup and second in the public sector, which aims to transform the grant funding landscape by making it more accessible, equitable, and transparent. Sedale firmly believes that technology can be used as a powerful tool to democratize access to resources and opportunities, and is passionate about improving government and the citizen experience.
Prior to embarking on his entrepreneurial journey, Sedale worked as a issues management consultant supporting firms working with government and in heavily regulated environments. He has a long history of leading successful teams, raising capital, and building startups. Sedale possesses a number of valuable superpowers which include networking, capital raising, no-code development, and early stage ideation.