How to win a USAID grant

The U.S. Agency for International Development logo outside a building in Indonesia. Photo by: USAID Indonesia

NAIROBI — The United States Agency for International Development awards more than $22 billion each year in contracts, cooperative agreements and grants. The agency puts out calls for organizations to receive some of this funding through a Request for Application — RFA — or a Request for Proposal — RFP. But if an organization that is interested in receiving funding waits until the RFA or RFP is released, it’s already too late. That’s what consultants Andreas Hipple and Shannon Meehan told NGO workers during Humentum Week in Nairobi, Kenya, at a workshop focused on strategies to win USAID proposals.

The most neglected — yet most essential — part of a successful proposal is the prepositioning of your organization in the lead up to the release of an RFA or RFP, they said. “You can’t just wake up one day and say: ‘They’ve published an RFA, let’s go for it.’ You are too late. You will not be organized and you will not have the information to respond adequately,” Meehan said at the week-long conference, which ended Friday.

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As part of this process, organizations should also analyze early on whether the USAID’s project funding is even a good fit for their organization, in terms of matching both the organization’s mission and USAID’s objectives. Receiving funding that is not well suited for an organization could cause it to deviate from its core strengths.

“Don’t chase money just to chase money,” said Meehan. “It’s not a good idea because then you are diluting your mission. You are weakening your raison d’être.”

Organizations should spend six to 12 months positioning themselves to apply before an RFA or RFP is released. Meehan and Hipple provided attendees with some practical tips on what to do both in the lead up to the call for proposals, as well as once the application pool has opened.

Here are some of the top tips:

  • Learn the psychology of USAID. This includes visiting key websites including the USAID mission sites, USAID business forecast reports, and Grants.gov to see active grants and solicitations. Hipple recommended to participants that if their organization doesn’t have anyone familiar with working with USAID, managers should look to either acquire the knowledge in-house or hire someone with that knowledge.

  • Because USAID is beholden to U.S. Congressional law, organizations should familiarize themselves with U.S. laws related to the country where they operate. Foreignassistance.gov, which is searchable by geography and theme, provides insight into funding that Congress has specifically allocated to countries.

  • The most helpful document for organizations looking to procure USAID funding is the Country Development Cooperation Strategy. This document is a three- to five-year plan that each USAID country mission develops with the U.S. Department of State. In this document, the U.S. government outlines its objectives and its strategic framework within the national development plan of that country, helping organizations to predict U.S. government funding there. USAID’s funding priorities primarily come from the CDCS.

  • Organizations should decide very early on whether they want to pursue an RFA or an RFP. An RFA leads to a grant or cooperative agreement, meaning that the U.S. government is investing in an already existing operation. Under an RFA, organizations can extend and continue their normal operations, remaining in control. An RFP leads to a contract with the U.S. government. With the U.S. government, the term “contract” means something specific. “The U.S. government owns the house and you are the plumber,” as Meehan put it. With an RFP, the client — the U.S. government — must be satisfied first, before the people the aid organization serves, leaving the U.S. government in control.

  • In the lead-up to the release of the RFA or RFP, there is room to influence the direction the U.S. government will take in terms of what it specifically will fund. After it is issued, the project’s perimeters are largely set in stone. Because of this, it is good to take advantage of opportunities to provide input. These can include requests for information, draft RFA or RFPs, and broad agency announcements. However, the announcements should be approached with caution, according to Meehan. During these exercises, USAID gathers stakeholders to discuss a particular priority, and then organizations work together to create concept papers. USAID could then take a finalized concept paper and hand it off to only one of the organizations to implement. While the intent of these sessions is to innovate around an issue, the final result can leave some feeling as though USAID stole their intellectual property, she said.

  • During the prepositioning stage organizations should assess their readiness to handle USAID funding. This includes analyzing whether they have the capacity to implement a project, including having the right financial systems that can adhere to USAID standards, the technical expertise in the area outlined by the project, and sufficient internal processes that won’t buckle under growth. Groups can use the Organizational Capacity Assessment tool from USAID to help with this process. Revisiting previous organizational audits can also be used to flag systemic problems.

  • Understanding the competition is also key. “If you are aware of what that competition looks like, it can and will likely shape how you approach a proposal,” said Hipple. Because organizations should establish their project teams during the pre-positioning phase, organizations can keep an eye on their competition by scoping out posted job ads to get a sense of what types of roles organizations are recruiting for and assess what that could mean about their intentions to apply for funding.

  • After the RFA or RFP is released, a “proposal kick-off meeting” should be held in those initial days, attended by the full proposal team, decision-makers, and both the prime- and sub-awardees. At this meeting, roles and responsibilities for the proposal writing process should be defined. USAID typically gives between 30 and 60 days to submit a proposal. A calendar should be created at that meeting that includes deadlines for the various steps of creating the proposal, such as submitting clarifying questions to the donor, technical write-up reviews, and reconciling budget to the budget narrative.

  • While writing the proposal, organizations should mirror USAID’s language. During the close read of the RFA or RFP, particularly in the technical section, organizations should be conscious of the language USAID uses to refer to a problem and the context around that problem. USAID may be sensitive around certain issues for political reasons and might refer to these issues in a different way than an organization might. “It’s better not to be stubborn. It’s better to mirror the language that USAID is using because ultimately the language that is going to prevail is their language,” said Hipple.

  • Make sure that the proposal clearly lays out the timeline, cost, and risks involved in implementing a program, and how the organization is planning to mitigate those potential hazards. “The donor loves to see that organizations are thinking about the sorts of things that could be a threat and managing those risks,” said Hipple.

  • While program teams’ tendency is to hand over the budget to the finance department, budget teams should include individuals from an organization’s program, finance, procurement, and human resources departments, Meehan said. All of these departments have individualized input to the budget-making process. “It’s a true group effort and it can’t be created in isolation,” she said. The process for writing the budget should begin once the RFA or RFP is released, rather than waiting. Also, don’t skimp on the budget narrative, which should flesh out the type of expense, the purpose of the expense, the justification for the expense, the basis of the estimate, and how the rate of the expense was calculated. The budget narrative is an opportunity to re-advocate for programmatic goals and objectives.

  • Don’t over-budget just to meet the threshold that USAID sets. If an organization over-budgets and can’t spend the money, it won’t reflect well on their burn rate and budget management. “You are actually hurting your organization by not budgeting accurately,” said Meehan.

  • If an organization doesn’t win the funding, it should ask USAID for feedback on why it failed. For RFPs, USAID always provides a debrief on why an organization didn’t get a contract, but for RFAs it doesn’t always. Organization should be proactive about asking the agency for feedback, which can be used to help inform their next proposal.

More information on Humentum courses can be found here.

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About the author

  • Headshot sarajerving

    Sara Jerving

    Sara Jerving is Devex's East Africa Correspondent based in Nairobi. She is a reporter and producer, whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Vice News, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Nation magazine, among others. Sara holds a master's degree in business and economic reporting from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she was a Lorana Sullivan fellow.