The National Endowment for the Arts (or “NEA”, for short) is the Federal funding agency for arts and culture organizations in the United States. They have several grant opportunities each year and most arts nonprofits usually want a piece of that pie.
Of course, whether or not you actually get a piece depends on several factors and to give you a better understanding of those and a better shot at an eventual award, I want to break down how to get started with NEA grants today.
First up, a disclaimer:
Some of you reading this are not ready for NEA grants. You probably aren’t ready for federal grants at all. In a minute I’ll go over how to know whether or not you’re ready and for those of you who conclude that you aren’t quite there yet, I recommend reading this article anyway and using the information as a way to prepare and inform yourself. When you are in a good place to apply for federal grants, the information you've absorbed here will keep you on the right path. (Or at least bookmark this article for later!)
What kinds of NEA grants are out there?
The NEA has several grant programs to which you can apply. Here’s the breakdown of their primary, annual grant opportunities:
- Challenge America Grants – These grants are for organizations new to NEA funding, many of which are also smaller organizations. The awards are capped at $10,000 or less, and prioritize projects that serve underserved populations. Like GAP, you must submit the grant in 2 parts (Part 1 is submitted via grants.gov and Part 2 is submitted via REACH). Because these grants are smaller and have a less complex application process, they are usually an org’s first NEA grant before they jump into the deep end with the NEA’s larger grant opportunities.
- Grants for Arts Projects (GAP) – This the NEA’s primary grant-making program and has the broadest eligibility criteria. GAP features a 2-part application process (part 1 is done on grants.gov and part 2 is done on through the NEA's own portal, 2 deadlines a year (one in winter and one in February), grants range from $10,000 – $100,000.
- Our Town Grants – This is the NEA’s project-based creative placemaking grants program. These grant awards can be for as much as $150,000 but require a match and also require your organization to partner with some sort of government entity (this could be your city, a school district, a local housing agency, etc.). Because they require a partnership, these tend to be fairly complex grants in more ways than one. Our Town grants also require you to submit Part 1 via grants.gov and Part 2 via REACH.
- Research Grants – Research grants actually splits into two sub-categories: Research Grants in the Arts (for studies investigating the value and impact of the arts with awards up to $100,000) and NEA Research Labs (for transdisciplinary research teams investigating the impact of the arts in both arts and non-arts arenas with awards up to $150,000). Research grants are arguably the most complex and demanding grants which the NEA offers. However, most typical arts and culture organizations are not conducting this type of work nor are they eligible for these grants so for most of you, this will not apply. If you do apply, you will do so in 2 parts just like the other grants listed above.
I encourage you to visit the links I’ve included for the grant opportunities above because there is a ton more to learn and evaluate about each of these opportunities. What I’ve given you is a (very) broad overview just so that you can understand the basic differences.
Is my organization ready to apply for a NEA grant?
If you’ve ever read any of my other articles you probably already know how much importance I place on being “grant ready”. For those of you who don’t know, I recommend reading up on grant readiness, particularly if you are a newer or smaller nonprofit. Here are some of my best resources on this topic to get you started:
Grant Writing 101: Your Complete Beginning to End Guide to the Grant Writing Process
The 3 Grant Readiness Issues Most Arts Nonprofit Overlook
The One Thing that can Sink Your Grant Writing Efforts
The Top 5 Things You Need to do to Win Grant Awards
Program Design Through the Grant Lens
The 6-part “Grant Masters” Series
Being grant ready means that you have a majority of the foundational elements in place that make your organization and its programming competitive for grants, desirable as a grantee and partner, and make your programs likely to be effective.
Ok, so I’m not ready to apply this year. What should I do instead?
Put all your energy into making sure you are truly grant ready across the board and refining whatever project or program you intend to eventually propose.
You can use my Grant Readiness Toolkit to help you get it done.
I’m going to apply. What now?
If your organization is grant-ready and you and your colleagues/leadership are supportive of the time and effort needed to write a federal grant, then the next step is to carve out some time in your calendar to work on this. Even the preparatory steps for applying can be time-consuming and confusing so you will want to have enough time and headspace to tackle it. I recommend starting on this part several months before the actual grant deadline.
Here’s the prep work you will need to complete:
Make sure you have a DUNS #
In order to apply for a federal grant of any kind, you will need to have a DUNS number. A DUNS number is a unique, 9-digit identifier assigned to your organization by Dun & Bradstreet. The DUNS number tracks a variety of factors influencing financial health and allows you to do business with government agencies (such as the NEA), organizations outside the U.S., and compiles financial information on businesses so that anyone wanting to work with them can make an informed decision.
The bottom line is that to apply for a federal grant you need a DUNS #. You can find out more about what a DUNS number is and apply for a DUNS number for your nonprofit organization here.
Create a Login.gov account
Many federal agencies use a login you set up at the login.gov website to allow you to use just one username and password to securely access multiple federal grant portals or websites. You will need this to create your SAM registration in the next step and you can also use it to access the grants.gov portal, too.
Simply go to www.login.gov and follow the prompts to create an account. Make sure you choose the most secure authentication method possible that you can still reliably access. Authentication methods prevent someone from stealing or fraudulently using your login and also give you the means to recover your account if there is fraud or even if you just simply forget your password.
‘SAM’ stands for ‘System for Award Management’ and like a DUNS number, this is another requirement for applying for and receiving federal awards. If you haven’t yet registered at login.gov, go back and do that before you attempt this step. You’ll need your login for the SAM website. Once you’ve logged into SAM you will need to create an individual account. Here’s what that screen looks like:
Once you’ve created your individual account, you will need to register your entity (your organization).
Before you get started, the SAM website gives you one last overview of everything you need to have on hand before you register an entity. Here’s a screenshot of that so you can see for yourself and check one last time to make sure you’ve done all the foundational work before you register in SAM.
If you have all of that, then you are ready to register your organization inside of SAM. The SAM website will walk you through the process of registering. Just be sure to check ‘Yes’ on the question that asks if you either have applied or intend to apply for a federal grant award. If you check ‘no’, then the NEA (or any agency) will not be able to pay out your grant money after you are awarded.
Here are some other helpful things to note about SAM:
– Your SAM registration can expire/go inactive, which affects your ability to seek new federal funding.
– You will need to update your registration once a year to keep it active.
– There are tons of companies out there that will approach you to manage and update your SAM registration for you and will want to charge you a fee to do so. You don’t need this. Updating and managing your SAM registration is free and not all that hard to do. Don’t pay a middleman. It’s a ripoff.
- Create a Grants.gov Account
Ok, so you’ve signed up for a DUNS number, created a login.gov account, registered on SAM as an individual and then registered your organization as a new entity on SAM. Phew! That’s a lot.But you aren’t done. Now you need to create a grants.gov account. Grants.gov is the actual portal wherein you will search for grant opportunities and apply for them (or at least for part of them, in the case of NEA).I know, I know. This process is like a labyrinth! It can get confusing and overwhelming, but never fear. I will lead you through it and give you some tools to hopefully make it a bit easier at the end of this article.Back to grants.gov…If you don’t already have one, you will need to register for an account. On the grants.gov homepage you’ll see a link to register in the upper right-hand corner. Click that to get started:Again, you will be led through the process of actually registering. And once you’ve registered you should bookmark the grants.gov login page so you can find it easily.
The login screen is pictured below and you’ll see that you can use the login info you just created when you registered on grants.gov or you can use your login from login.gov to link your accounts and use that information going forward to securely login to grants.gov. Either method is fine.
I’m ready to write my grant!
If you’ve done all of your prep work of registering accounts, creating logins, and you’re ready to take the plunge and apply for an NEA grant, then there are a few things you need to do now:
- Decide which program or project you want to propose for NEA funding (see the basic outline of NEA grant opportunities earlier in this article and/or visit the NEA website to learn more).
- Decide which grant opportunity you will pursue, based on eligibility criteria, ability to execute and manage the grant successfully, and deadlines.
- Mark your calendar with the relevant deadlines and be sure to include other milestones in your calendar along the way to keep yourself and your team on track.
- For your reference, here’s a quick graphic with an outline of each grant’s deadlines (I did not insert specific dates because these change each year and you will want to check their website, but these will get you in the ballpark for planning purposes).
- Gather program/project information, budgets, memorandums of understanding, support materials, etc.
- Read every bit of provided information about the grant opportunity you plan to pursue. Then read it again. The NEA gives you very specific instructions on how to apply and even how to fill out individual grant fields or title file attachments. If you don’t follow their instructions you risk having your proposal declined out-of-hand.
Now you will want to start putting together your application drafts. I recommend doing this in a program that facilitates collaboration, sharing, and keeps you from losing or confusing versions. Personally, I like Google Docs for this.
But wait! How do you know what questions are in the proposal? How do you know what materials to gather? Well, there are two ways to go about this.
Watch this short how-to video below for an overview of where to find the application questions, materials, and how to actually apply for the grant inside of the grants.gov portal:
I’ve thrown a lot of information your way, but hopefully now you have a guide and a good understanding of now to get started with NEA grants. Below I will also link to some other good resources for learning the nitty gritty details of navigating grants.gov, managing federal awards, and more.
*On the NEA website make sure you look through the ‘Applicant Resources’ tab on each grant opportunity. They are full of resources, documents, videos, and tips to make sure you know exactly what you’re doing when applying for and managing NEA grants.
Grants.gov – Grants Learning Center
My Fed Trainer – Grants Management 101
My Fed Trainer – Nonprofit Federal Grant Management Trainings
Want a free tool?
If you want a free tool to help you keep all this information straight and work through the process, I’ve got one just for you. Sign up below to get your ‘NEA Grant Application Readiness Checklist'.