Navigating the Federal Grant Maze

By: Mark Athitakis

Tips from the American Association of University Women on how to manage what's required to receive a government grant.

Since it was founded in 1881, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) has gathered a rich archive of materials, dating back to correspondence from Marie Curie on her work with radium. Its problem was figuring out how to organize its material and how to fund that organizing. To that end, AAUW recently received a $6,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to help with that work.

Many associations are daunted at the prospect of navigating all the paperwork involved in corralling even a small government grant. But the work is manageable and worth the effort, say Director of Development Laura Stepp and Director of Research Catherine Hill. Here are a few of their tips.

1. Register online even if you're not ready to apply. Information on applying for all federal grants is available at, which allows you to register your association even if you're not applying for a specific grant. The site cautions that the registration process can take weeks, and "they mean it," says Stepp. The process has two benefits, says Hill: It puts your association in the database for any available grants and lets you assign responsibilities for each aspect of the application.

2. Start with members. Improving AAUW's archives was a member-driven effort, beginning with a task force that met to study the association's holdings and decide what to do, says Hill. Ultimately it concluded it needed funds for an archival expert and that a federal grant could assist.

3. Recognize what volunteers can't help with. While volunteers can handle parts of the grant application that involve background information about the organization and the nature of the grant request, finalizing and submitting the paperwork has to be handled by staff. "That's something your volunteers really cannot do, because there's so much specific business information that's required," says Stepp.

4. Know the steps, and be patient. "There are periods where you have to submit a particular piece of documentation online, then wait a few days for it to be approved, then get permission to move on to the next step," says Stepp. "It can add up to being several weeks to go through the application process."

5. Pick up the phone. "Unless you work for the government, the instructions are not very intuitive, and we'd get tripped up by acronyms," says Stepp. "But they have phone numbers for people to call, and they were always incredibly helpful."

6. Split up the work. Hill and Stepp worked together on finalizing the application, both to lighten the load and to double check their efforts. "If I was just working on it alone, I might've gotten more frustrated with it, because it's a different way of doing things," says Hill. "It's nice having another pair of eyes to say, 'You don't have to answer that question.'"

Mark Athitakis is senior editor of Associations Now. Email: [email protected]

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis is a contributing editor to Associations Now.