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Welcome back to lesson three. As you learned in the previous lesson, government agencies solicit proposals from applicants through a formal process known as the Request for Proposals (“RFP”), which is also the name commonly used to refer to the actual document that contains important details about the grant opportunity.

All levels of government (federal, state and local) typically use the RFP to solicit grant applications. While the format of the RFP can vary by issuer, the type of information contained in the document is fairly consistent. Consequently, once you understand the basics, you will likely be able to read any RFP, regardless of who the issuer is. The objective of this lesson is to help you understand how to read a federal government RFP, since it tends to be the most detailed.

RFPs typically contain a lot of information; some of it is straightforward, but some of it is not. It is critical that you read the RFP in its entirety because it contains extremely important instructions that, if overlooked, will almost certainly result in your proposal being deemed “unresponsive” and, therefore, immediately rejected. The image below is from the table of contents of an actual federal RFP and will give you an idea of the scope of information contained in the document.

Just as RFP formats can vary by type of issuer, they also can vary by agency; however, most federal government RFPs begin with an overview that provides various identifying information, including the name of the agency issuing the funding opportunity and the title of the opportunity. The overview is also where you will most likely find the “funding opportunity number” and the “CFDA number,” both of which are unique identifiers comprised of numbers and/or letters that can be used to locate the particular funding opportunity in the federal grants system. The due date by which all proposals must be received by the issuing agency can also be found in the overview, as can the due date for letters of intent, if required. (Letters of Intent are discussed in Lesson 9.)

The executive summary provides a synopsis of the information contained throughout the RFP. The information found here usually includes the objectives of the grant (the activities grant funds can be used to support) and who is eligible to apply for the grant (the types of applicants for example, nonprofits, for-profits, individuals, etc.). Typically, the executive summary also describes the beneficiaries the population the grant must serve (for example, children between the ages of 10 and 14, disabled veterans, etc.).

As you learned in Lesson 2, grant-makers typically fund specific activities that align with their mission. You also learned that the RFP process usually has both a beginning date and a deadline date and that unsolicited proposals (and those submitted after the deadline) do not receive consideration. The overview and the executive summary provide precisely the information you need to determine whether or not you are eligible to submit a proposal and are therefore the very first RFP sections you should read.

The executive summary is usually followed by information of a general nature that includes the congressional legislation that authorizes the issuing agency to make funds available for the specified grant opportunity.

The ensuing sections of the RFP provide extremely important information, including detailed descriptions of the grant’s purpose and the activities that grantees are encouraged and/or required to conduct. Terminology used throughout the RFP also is provided. It is critical that you review these definitions because the grant-making agency might use certain words or phrases in ways that differ from their usage in everyday language, or might apply them in an especially specific manner. “Poverty” is one such example. While used rather vaguely in everyday language, government usually defines poverty based on very specific maximum income limits, adjusted for family size, that are established by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. As an applicant for a grant whose stated beneficiaries are individuals or families living in poverty, you would need to know what those income limits are and ensure that you do not propose to use grant funds to assist anyone whose income exceeds those limits.

Other information commonly contained in the RFP includes minimum and/or maximum grant amounts, if applicable; the estimated total funding the agency expects will be available for the grant and the expected number of grants to be awarded; as well as whether or not the grant has a match requirement.

As the image below demonstrates, the RFP also will contain detailed instructions on the way you will be required to format the proposal narrative, including the order in which the content must be presented, along with page limits, and minimum line spacing and font sizes, if applicable.

The RFP also will describe, in detail, the content that must be included in the proposal narrative. For example, the following images establish that, in addition to a Table of Contents, this proposal narrative must include a section entitled “Project Summary/Abstract” that should provide “a brief description of the proposed grant project, including the needs to be addressed, the proposed services, and the population group/s to be served.” The proposal narrative also must include sections entitled “Objectives and Need for Assistance” and “Approach.” To be considered “responsive,” your proposal narrative not only must contain all of the sections described in the RFP, but also all of the content requested in each section.

As you learned in Lesson 1, most government grants are awarded on a competitive basis, meaning your proposal will be evaluated against all of the other proposals submitted. The RFP also describes the evaluation process, including the maximum point values assigned to each section of the proposal narrative. The following image provides an example of the evaluation criteria and corresponding point values for two sections of our sample RFP.

The remainder of the RFP provides other information that will help you prepare and submit your proposal. For example, in addition to the narrative, you most likely will be required to submit several “Standard Forms.” As you learned in Lesson 1, these templated forms are used for a variety of purposes, including attesting that you or your organization are in compliance with various Acts and other federal regulations.

Some government agencies provide pre-formatted grant applications that you can download and complete, rather than require that you create a proposal narrative like the one used in our examples above. If a template is available for a particular funding opportunity, this information will be provided in the RFP. If there is no template, you will be expected to develop a proposal narrative, as in our examples. If you’re unsure, the RFP will contain contact information for the agency personnel to whom you can direct questions.

As you probably have deduced by now, the RFP is extremely important to the grant application process. The first few times you apply for a grant, you should allow yourself additional time to read it. You also may want to print the RFP and use a highlighter pen to underscore information of particular significance to you.

Preparing a government grant proposal may seem daunting. While the process should definitely be approached with deliberation, don’t be discouraged at the scope of information presented in the RFP or feel intimidated by the level of detail you must provide in the proposal narrative. Once you’ve written your first proposal, you’ll likely discover that the process is not only methodical, but also do-able.

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For this assignment, you will do the following exercise:

  1. Access the RFP for the grant you identified in Lesson 2; then download and review the RFP.


Read over the following questions and provide the best answer possible.

  1. What is the purpose of the RFP?
    1. It tells applicants how to format the proposal
    2. It provides all of the details applicants need to know in order to prepare the proposal
    3. It tells applicants where to submit the proposal
    4. All of the above
  2. The executive summary provides a synopsis of the RFP.
    1. True
    2. False
  3. Applicants should always read the RFP in its entirety.
    1. True
    2. False


Lesson 4 >

Want to Go to College?
$3 Billion in Pell Grants are Unclaimed Every Year by Eligible Students

Grant Funding and Assistance
Billions of dollars are now easily available to many Americans