Grant applications are initiated by a request for a proposal or RFP. Most newer nonprofits think that all RFP's are for grant money, i.e. non-repayable funds that they can use for one of their own programs or other mission-critical area.
That's generally true, if the RFP is issued by a foundation, corporation or other private funding source. While your application must conform to, and further the aims of, the general interests of the grantor you are free to design your own program and set your own goals and budgets.
When the funding source is a government agency, the picture is less clear.
Some government-related RFP's are simply notices of bid openings. The agency wants something, either a service or a product, and the RFP is calling for a bid. In those cases, the issuing agency has full control of the project. So many miles of paving fitting government specifications, so many offices to be cleaned, or so many reams of paper or desks to be furnished. While these might be listed on the state or federal agencies so-called "grant" website, they are not grants, they are contracts.
Then there is a sort of hybrid RFP. The issuing agency has a need to be met, such as after-school care, or improving English literacy in non-native speakers. The goal and desired outcomes are still set by the agency, but the applicant may have some discretion in how that goal is met. These funds are typically derived from what is known as pass-through money, i.e. it doesn't come directly from your local tax base, but comes from federal or state funding.
For instance, say a county child services agency wants to provide after-school care for 100 low-income children. The agency will define the quantity of slots you must supply, and probably a list of "must-have" qualifications, such as a specified square-footage allowance, a certain type or amount of supplemental nutrition, caregiver/child ratio, or the educational and professional qualifications of the personnel. The goal is to keep children safe and off the streets after school.
As the provider, you may be free to take one of your own programs and tailor it to meet the negotiable parts of the criteria. Let's say that your focus is teaching children about the arts. You can submit the mechanics of what the after-school curriculum will be, using your program as the service delivery model.
Community Development Block Grants, or CDBG's fit that model. These are the so-called pass-through grants.
Although the funding source is not local, it is meant to address the needs of your specific community. For instance, the government is currently big on obesity-prevention programs. The over-arching goal of the Federal government is to combat obesity, and the government issues general guidelines controlling the use of the money. They then parcel out funding to the state government, and that government passes it through to the communities.
The specifics are then designed and incorporated into a city or county-level RFP. The desired result is already defined, i.e. to reduce the number of obese people in the community.
Various types of nonprofit programs could potentially qualify under that model. That might include a nutrition education program, a structured sports or physical training program, or a food drive to provide healthy food to low-income participants.
As you can see, it pays to read the RFP carefully. If you can't meet the non-negotiable criteria, then spending the time to apply is not going to be productive. On the other hand, reading it too narrowly can result in not applying when one of your programs might be just the new and innovative approach the issuing agency wants to see.
One other thing...typically government programs tend to give far greater consideration to programs that are can be replicated and are expandable outside your local area.
Just reading and understanding government RFP's is a challenge, but the rewards can be pretty awesome. Most of these RFP's have a contact person's phone and/or email information, but it pays to read the whole thing carefully and compile a short list of questions that you can fax or email. Government employees generally have little patience with someone that obviously didn't get beyond the "potential funding available" line.
If you need help understanding an RFP or would like to respond to one, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and let's talk.