Fine-tuning your strategy for finding grants
If you don’t have a systematic approach to finding grant solicitations for your climate business, you won’t find the opportunities that give you the highest chance of securing funding nor the ones that are the most well-aligned with your funding priorities. You may apply for the wrong grant, or chase funding that’s misaligned with your corporate roadmap, or abandon your search before you ever find a suitable opportunity. Instead, you need to be proactive about seeking funding and develop a standardized process for sourcing opportunities. Having a clear strategy will make this time-consuming task far less frustrating, and maximize your chances of finding the right solicitations.
Laura Ward is the Director of Funding Research at Climate Finance Solutions. We sat down with her to discuss why it can be so difficult for founders to find public grant opportunities, and how to change your approach to uncover the right solicitations for your startup.
This is the second in a series of pieces we're publishing together with Climate Finance Solutions to provide tactical guidance to climate entrepreneurs around winning and managing grants.
Why entrepreneurs typically struggle with the search for grants
Unfortunately, there’s no single directory that covers every grant program out there, so you’ll need to comb through multiple databases just to see everything that’s available. On top of that, many grant programs can only be found on the websites of the grant agencies themselves, and not on any aggregator sites.
During your search, you’ll often find thousands of solicitations with similar titles and you’ll have to decipher whether they’re referring to the same or different programs. You’ll also need to figure out whether the postings contain accurate and up-to-date information; the site may say that the deadline has passed, but it’s actually a recurring program and has reopened or will soon.
Meanwhile, it can be difficult to assess the relevance of funding opportunities. The grant solicitations themselves can be disorganized and full of jargon, making it difficult to determine whether they’re worth investing your time. Once you’re set on a suitable grant, if you haven’t taken a strategic approach with good planning, you might be racing against the clock to meet a fast-approaching deadline, sacrificing proposal quality.
A better approach to finding grant solicitations
1. Get to know the landscape first
Before you start looking for grants, get clear on what your funding priorities are and what you hope to achieve with the grant money, whether that’s R&D, demonstration, commercialization, deployment, or something else. Grant funding often comes with a lag time between the time you apply and when you get the funding, so think ahead: it won’t go towards what you’re doing today, but what you’re planning to do in 12 months. Then, spend some time learning about the grant ecosystem, as well as what solicitations - often referred to as “Request For Proposals (RFPs)” or “Funding Opportunity Announcements (FOAs)” - are, how they tend to be structured, and the meaning of terms that often crop up.
2. Explore the databases
Think of how to translate your funding priorities into search parameters and keywords, and build a list of the websites and aggregators you’ll use to search these keywords. For example, almost all US federal grants are listed on Grants.gov, while OpenGrants.io is a comprehensive database covering a wide variety of sources in the US. There are also agency-specific databases, like the California Energy Commission and NYSERDA, which will show you what solicitations they have on offer, and what they’ve awarded previously.
None of these sites are perfect, and many of the government ones are not well-organized or user-friendly. Take the time to play around with them and learn how to use them effectively. Some sites, like Grants.gov, provide tips explaining how to improve your search.
3. Do your search in stages
Once you’ve laid the groundwork, you can start performing a comprehensive phased search. Make a spreadsheet to track your results and start by compiling the grants that match the search parameters and keywords you set. Follow the trail back to the actual FOA or RFP, or at least the program page, to find the most up-to-date information. If the deadline has passed, take note of when it may reopen.
Then, come back and examine the grants you’ve identified more closely to check your eligibility. Even if you are not eligible directly, consider whether you might benefit from partnering with another entity that could serve as the lead applicant. When you’re sure you’re eligible, start ranking your shortlist of opportunities based on how well-aligned the opportunity is with your funding priorities and how competitive you think your company is.
4. Reach out to the funders
Review the data you’ve developed and look for trends; which funders appear over and over again? Try to schedule a meeting with the funders of these grants to discuss your plans to apply. They might be able to save you time by letting you know they’re looking for something else, or that you might be a better fit for another program. Program Managers and Program Officers are generally publicly listed (either as points of contact on the individual solicitation or online), although you may need to try a couple of them in order to get a prompt response.
5. Schedule time to search
When you’re conducting your research, you’re only getting a snapshot of what’s on offer at this point in time. The funding landscape is dynamic - so make sure you make time periodically, ideally quarterly, to update your list of potential opportunities.
Other ways of sourcing grant funding
1. Private sources of funding
You can find philanthropic grant opportunities on databases like Inside Philanthropy. Alternatively, you can try to secure private funding in the same way you would equity funding––by spending time networking and building relationships. The philanthropic funding ecosystem is highly relationship-based.
2. Subscribe to newsletters
Sign up to the newsletters of the funders that keep coming up in your search to stay on top of any new funding on offer. You might want to create an alias email for this that is different from your primary email, as the number of emails can be overwhelming if you are subscribed to multiple listservs.
3. Apply as a sub-grantee
Consider harnessing your network to find opportunities to be a sub-recipient of a grant rather than a lead applicant. This can be less time- and resource-consuming and make you eligible for a wider range of opportunities. You can also look at previous awardees and reach out to potential partners who you think stand a good chance of winning. You can even be a sub-grantee on multiple grants from the same program, and win many times over. Stay tuned for our upcoming piece with Sedale Turbovsky from OpenGrants on building strong partnerships for grants.
4. Don’t do it alone
If searching for grant applications becomes too much of a distraction, or you can’t devote enough time to the task, consider hiring out the process to a consultant or firm like Climate Finance Solutions that specialize in identifying grants and pursuing grant funding. These companies have a high success rate and extensive expertise and will save you the long and hard task of doing it on your own––often saving you funding in the end. If you do decide to keep it within your company, consider creating a small subcommittee with whom you can talk things through. These conversations with your team can go a long way toward clarifying your funding priorities, overcoming capacity issues, and assessing opportunities.
Dr. Laura Ward is a cross-disciplinary researcher, connector, and facilitator in the climate tech space. With a research background spanning from social science to ecological conservation, she most enjoys working towards cross-sector solutions that prioritize climate and human health and well-being. Laura specializes in facilitating multidisciplinary collaboration from project ideation and design to implementation, often serving as a liaison between science divisions and business teams. She holds a PhD in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management from UC Berkeley and currently serves as the Director of Funding Research at Climate Finance Solutions.