Granting Yourself a Successful Award Season

Granting Yourself A Successful Award Season Requires An Early Start

By Hilary Reeves

The National Credit Union Administration recently announced the awarding of $871,597 to 126 low-income credit unions from the Community Development Revolving Loan Fund. According to the NCUA, 231 credit unions submitted grant applications this summer, requesting more than $2.7 million and making this year’s grant round one of the more competitive in recent history. With the Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) Fund kicking off its annual grant round in December, Fall is the perfect time for credit unions to reflect on their grant application strategies. With an increasing number of credit unions struggling to provide the best possible products and services to their members while also reaching out to the unbanked and underserved in their respective communities, grant funding has become a higher-stakes game. I set out to gather information on how to orchestrate a successful grant application and, while not shocking, the following tips will help refresh (or reboot) your approach to this year’s opportunities.

Tip #1: Partner up

While I normally avoid plugging specific organizations, I feel compelled to share that I am a consultant with the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions, an association dedicated to, among MANY other things, assisting credit unions with the planning and execution of CDFI grant applications. I spent the better part of February proofreading dozens of narratives and can say with confidence that my fellow consultants are among the best grant-writers in the business, with decades of experience navigating fund dynamics. So it’s no surprise that I believe most credit unions need a partner to help facilitate the application process. Let’s face it: credit union leaders are stretched thin and don’t have time to physically write a 30-page grant narrative, crunch the numbers, and stay on top of deadlines. Partnering with a organization experienced in award requests, especially for those applications that require a substantial amount of time and effort, is your credit union’s best chance of success.

Tip #2: Have a (strategic) plan

Strategic planning is the foundation of any successful grant-writing strategy. A strategic plan confidently guides a credit union into the future, identifying priorities and goals, and helping make the most of every dollar received. Many grant applications require leaders to identify the needs within their community and show, specifically, how funding received would be used to meet those needs and through which formal partnerships. Without a strategic plan, showing impact and following through can be difficult.

“The most important element is having an award-worthy strategy,” said Scott Butterfield, a senior consultant for the Federation. “Having a high-quality grant-writer is very important (and we have the best), but the credit for successful awards is really due to the quality of the strategy and effectiveness of impact. Credit unions who are not adequately prepared should consider waiting a little longer before pursuing the grant, giving their team more time to develop their strategy and get partnerships in place.”

Mel West, also a consultant with the Federation, agrees:

“While the credit union can’t rely on the grants for their operational success, it is important to build the grants into their overall planning process,” West explained. “It’s almost like running two separate plans. Questions (credit unions) should ask themselves:  ‘What are we doing now, and what can we do without the grant to show that we are already committed to this initiative and carrying it out?’ and ‘How will the grant allow us to expand upon our commitment and strategy?’ I can’t over-emphasize that (credit unions) must be able to show sustained performance over a period of time and be committed to doing the work prior to the grant.”

Tip #3: The time to begin preparing is now

Busy-work can bury you, especially in the heat of a grant round. CDFI applications alone require CDFI certification, registration, a credit union’s DUNs number, EIN, years of financial statements, demographic and marketing research, the resumes of its leadership, and organizational charts, just to name a few requirements off the top of my head. If you wait until the award announcement, it might be too late to gather all the documents your grant-writing team needs to take your application from concept to polished reality.

“I think the most important thing to do is start early,” West said. “It’s not good enough to wait until the notice comes out to…begin to collect the documents required for the application.”

Though agencies will modify the requirements and scope from year to year, the core of a grant application doesn’t change dramatically. Past applications are often available online, showing what will likely be required once the round is announced. Bottom line: getting a head start on the busy-work means more time developing your strategy and narrative.

“It’s easier to turn the ship if it is already moving than turning from a stop, especially under a timeline,” West concluded.

If you’re interested in strategic planning or applying for CDFI funding during the upcoming round, NOW is the time to act!  Need help getting started?  Contact the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions ( for more information.

About the Author:Hilary Reeves

Hilary Reeves spent 10 years as a journalist before leaving the newsroom to become a freelance writer and editor. She currently works as a consultant for CU Breakthrough, a service of the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions. Reeves lives in Seattle with her husband and two young daughters.

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