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So, how much grant money should I ask for? Who’s the competition?

Clients often ask how much money they should request. Our standard answer: ask for the maximum because zeroes are cheap.

As with many aspects of grant writing, there is no right answer. But, all other things being equal, you might as well ask for the maximum amount available, since you do the same amount of work in preparing the proposal regardless of the dollar amount requested, and there doesn’t seem to be any relationship between the size of a grant request and the probability of being funded.

Let’s say you’re applying to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s (OJJDP) Mentoring Initiative for Foster Care Youth program. The maximum you can seek is $500,000. In the vast majority of cases, you’re better off applying for $500,000, instead of, say, $50,000, because you’re unlikely to be harmed by asking for the max. If OJJDP likes your organization and application but thinks you’re requesting for too much, they might knock your award down some, but they’re unlikely to reject you outright.

Once again: zeros are cheap, and it takes just as much effort to write a proposal for $50,000 as it does for $500,000.

The big exception to this is the “silly” factor. Does your organization have an annual budget of $200,000? If so, proposing a $5 million/year budget is going to make the reviewer roll her eyes and perhaps share your folly with her colleagues. You don’t want to elicit the laughter, as Dr. Evil does in Austin Powers when he asks for too little (or much) money:

In the “1969” section of the video, he asks for $100 billion dollars, and everyone thinks it’s hilarious because of how absurd the request is. You don’t want to create the same effect in grant reviewers.

Foundations are trickier than most government grants because foundations usually don’t have maximum caps on requests. But you can almost always find their range of awards, and if the Peoria Foundation usually makes awards between $10,000 and $75,000, you probably don’t want to ask for $300,000. If you conduct detailed research on each foundation, you’ll find a list of their recent awards (this is what we do as part of our foundation work). You might ask the Peoria Foundation for $50,000 toward a project, but don’t seek an order-of-magnitude difference from their usual neighborhood of funding. And if you’re seeking foundation funding, make sure you read Isaac’s post, “PSST! Listen, Do You Want to Know a Secret? ? Do you Promise Not to Tell? Here’s How to Write Foundation Proposals.”

Sometimes federal agencies specify a minimum grant request. For example, the Neighborhood Stabilization Program 2 under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, 2009 (warning: .pdf link) had almost $2 billion available, with a minimum request of $5 million. So to apply for NSP 2 funds, the applicant had to be reasonably large to be believable in spending $5 million. By the way, NSP 2 was intended to address the ongoing foreclosure crisis and the applications were due July 17, as discussed in this post. Apparently, HUD doesn’t know about the foreclosure crisis, since the award announcement has still not been made. But, as Isaac observed of the original version of the program, NSP 1, which was an entitlement rather than a competitive program: HUD’s track record at quickly responding to this crisis isn’t exactly stellar.

Clients will also ask if they should apply to programs with very large amounts of money or very small amounts available. There’s (usually) no particular advantage in going one way or another. Large amounts often mean that many more agencies will apply, increasing the competitiveness. But unless you have some kind of inside knowledge about who the competition will be, it doesn’t make much sense to assume that a big pot of money will necessarily be more viable. It can be, but won’t always be. The Basic Center Program, which is brought to you by the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), has $13,377,274 available this year. Aside from this being a strange number—what’s wrong with rounding to $13,377,000? Am I really going to miss the extra $274?—it has 91 awards. Organizations that apply for the Basic Center Program are probably doing so just to find some federal money, and if a few thousand organizations apply, it might become very competitive.

Finally, it can also be worth applying for competitions that have relatively small amounts available. For example, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) often runs highly specific competitions with relatively small amounts of money and numbers of grants, such as the currently open Offender Reentry Program (ORP). This year, there is $13 million available and 33 awards. So, why would an organization bother applying for a ORP grant? First, they might actually be interested in serving former prisoners. But, additionally, they probably know that if they get a SAMHSA grant, their organization’s credibility with other funders goes through the roof. Over the years, we have successfully written funded SAMHSA proposals in which only 10 or 12 awards were made and watched as our clients use the SAMSHA grant to leverage other substance abuse treatment grants and contracts.

Thus, it often pays to apply for fairly obscure grants with small amounts money on the line. But when you do, remember that zeroes are still cheap.

EDIT: You should also read Isaac’s post, “When It Comes To Applying for Grants, Size Doesn’t Matter (Usually).” Sometimes funder representatives will be obnoxious and refuse to tell—as we discuss in “How Much Money You Should Ask For—and National Mentoring Programs, with Improving Literacy Through School Libraries Program as a Bonus.”