Grants Best Practices and Tips for Success
The goal of the Department of Water Resources (DWR) is to ensure that grant funding goes to those who need it most. In order to accomplish this, we must acknowledge the challenges in capacity or experience that some communities face when engaging in this process. This webpage is an attempt to reduce roadblocks in the grant application process by walking through each step of the process and identifying helpful tips and best practices, as well as providing other resources that may be beneficial.
These tips are for under-resourced communities who are unfamiliar with the DWR grants process or do not have the capacity to hire a consultant. However, these steps can be useful for anyone who is applying for or administrating a DWR grant.
The guidance here is not intended to tell any potential grantees what they should be writing in a grant application, nor will it guarantee awarded funding. Rather, this page provides an overview of a typical grant program, highlights some of the key areas where past applicants and grantees have struggled with the gives tips for how to avoid those challenges.
Guidelines give an overview of the funding available, what issue or goal the agency hopes to address with these funds, eligibility requirements for applicants and projects, and the selection process. PSP contains further instructions on how to apply for grant and also includes the scoring criteria.
Below is a flowchart of a typical DWR grant program cycle that can help you determine which step of the grant process you are in.
*Durations of the grant process vary from program to program. Please contact the grant program manager and read the Program Guidelines for more information on the schedule of a given grant.
Applying for and Managing Grants
In order to put together a grant application it is important to first identify the needs in your community and develop technically justified and economically feasible projects. Some grants can pay for this planning phase.
- Conduct a needs assessment and develop projects based on the results.
- Hold meetings to share ideas with community members and explore partnership opportunities with other agencies that can help strengthen your project.
- Collaborate with your community partners (e.g. IRWM regional group or Groundwater Sustainability Agency) to help develop multi-benefit projects. This is required for IRWM and Groundwater grant programs but can be beneficial when applying to any program.
Be sure to apply for the funding opportunities that fit your needs. This section will give you some guidance and tips on how to successfully find the right funding opportunity.
Once you have identified opportunities that speak to your needs, do not hesitate to contact grant program staff to confirm whether your project is eligible for a grant. Doing this during the scoping and/or application phase saves a tremendous amount of time and prevents issues in the long run. It is important to have a clear vision for your project scope and deliverables, while also ensuring the project fits the funding program.
California – grants.ca.gov
- Examples of searches in grants.ca.gov include eligible applicants per grant, grant amount, deadline, eligible project types, etc.
- Sign up for email notifications using the SUBSCRIBE button on the top right of the page in order to be notified when there is a new listing related to your topic of choice.
Federal – grants.gov
- This site for federal grant opportunities contains a list of active and forecasted solicitations, as well as helpful guides on applying for a federal grant. You can also subscribe to a digest of newly posted opportunities or a specific opportunity via the CONNECT tab.
California Financing Coordinating Committee (CFCC)
The California Financing Coordinating Committee (CFCC) combines the resources of four State and two Federal funding agencies to provide a one-stop shop for available grants, loans, and bond financing for infrastructure projects.
- View the slide presentations from past funding fairs
- Watch video recordings of past funding fairs
- Fill out a CFCC Common Funding Inquiry Form for assistance from the CFCC in finding a grant opportunity for your project
Subscribe to DWR listservs to get the latest information about upcoming grant opportunities. You can also subscribe to the listservs of other granting agencies (e.g., State Water Resources Control Board), especially those listed under grants.ca.gov and the California Financing Coordinating Committee.
Who is an eligible applicant?
Be sure to read the grant Program Guidelines carefully in order to determine whether your agency is eligible to apply. Here is a list of the typical agencies that DWR works with, but eligibility requirements may differ from program to program. In general, individuals do not qualify as applicants. Please contact the grant program manager if you have any questions.
- Local public agencies, including: cities, counties, special districts, joint powers authorities, political subdivisions of the state, public utilities, and mutual water companies
- Qualified non-profit organizations
- Tribal governments: Federally-recognized Tribes and Tribes listed on the Native American Heritage Commission's California Tribal Consultation List
- Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs)
- Universities (under some programs)
What is an eligible project?
By reading the descriptions of a grant program, you can get a sense of the type of issues the funding agency is trying to address, as well as the scope of funding available. However, to fully understand all eligibility requirements, you must read the Program Guidelines, described in the next section.
Program Eligibility Requirements
In general, most (but not all) projects need to address critical need, be consistent with Statewide Priorities, have a minimum expected useful life of at least 15 years (if an implementation project), and comply with environmental, regulatory and any other legal requirements. Many grants require compliance with other related state programs if the program is applicable to the agency applying for the grant. Below is a list of example programs with which compliance may be required:
Click on the links below to browse the eligibility requirements of each of the following programs
- Integrated Regional Water Management (IRWM)
- Sustainable Groundwater Management
- CA Statewide Groundwater Elevation Monitoring (CASGEM) Compliance
- Stormwater Resource Plans
- Surface Water Diversion Reporting Compliance
- Urban Water Management Compliance
- Agricultural Water Management and Measurement Compliance
- Costs for preparing and filing a grant application
- Operation and maintenance costs, including post-construction performance and monitoring required in the grant agreement
- Purchase of equipment that is not integral to the project (ex. laptop or printer that could be used both on the grant project and for other work)
- Establishing a reserve fund
- Purchase of water supplies
- Replacement of existing funding sources for ongoing programs
- Meals, food items, or refreshments
- Travel expenses (may or may not be eligible)
- Overhead and “indirect costs” (e.g. costs of running an office)
- Mitigation for environmental impacts not resulting from implementation of the project
Once needs have been identified and the grant opportunity that fits the project you are looking to implement is determined, read the available Guidelines and Proposal Solicitation Package (PSP) carefully. These documents may be released separately or together as a combined document, so make sure you have access to both.
What are Grant Program Guidelines?Grant Guidelines give an overview of the funding available, the target of the funding (what issue or goal does the agency hope to address with these funds), detailed eligibility requirements for applicants and projects, and the expected selection process. Applications are generally not submitted until the agency releases its Proposal Solicitation Package, which often happens at the same time as the release of grant program Guidelines. It is important to read the Guidelines first to understand all the requirements for the program before applying.
What is a Proposal Solicitation Package (PSP)?
The PSP is a call for proposals that reintroduces some of the requirements stated in the grant program Guidelines, often going into more detail on project eligibility and cost share requirements. Unlike the Guidelines, the PSP contains instructions on how to assemble and submit your grant application with the required documentation. The PSP also demonstrates how applications will be scored, which can help applicants understand the key elements of a strong proposal. There can be multiple PSPs for one grant program, as each grant program may have multiple rounds of funding or several program categories.
Some useful tips
Read each requirement and prompt in the Guidelines and PSP carefully.
Know that you will need to answer each application question completely, directly, and clearly.
Understand the program you are applying to; what is the host agency seeking to address, and how will your project address that issue?
Ask questions when you are unsure about something (especially if your project is in the conceptual stage). It may be particularly helpful to confirm your eligibility and capacity to administer the grant. Contact information can typically be found in the PSP or on the program website.
Reviewers use the scoring criteria, if applicable, provided in the PSP. If provided, you should use the same criteria to score your draft application yourself and refine it.
You can also attend the affiliated workshops or webinars hosted by the Program that lists the PSP.
Check the following Program websites and sign up for Program List Serves to stay up to date on current grant solicitations, PSPs, and affiliated workshops.
Does your organization have the capacity to apply for and manage a grant?
Once you have read through the available PSP, you must determine whether your organization or agency has the capacity to apply for and manage a DWR grant. Reviewing the Funding Agreement Template (usually included in the PSP) is highly recommended and helpful to determine if your organization has the capacity and willingness to manage the grant.
Some things to consider:
- Local cost share is the portion of project-related costs that must be covered by the applicant or sources other than the grant. Cost share may vary or be waived depending on applicant/community capacity; these requirements can be found in the Guidelines and PSP. Do you have funds to cover local cost share (if needed) and the support staff needed to administer the grant?
- Do you have staff members who will be able to focus on grant implementation?
- Do you have staff who can design and execute the project, as well as formulate a work plan and budget?
- Do you have funding to operate, maintain, and monitor the grant after the initial project is built?
- Can the project be completed within the limited time frame the grant money will be available? What are potential project hurdles and how might you overcome them?
- Do you have the cash reserves to front the first 6-9 months of work if advanced payment is not an option?
- Have you had a legal counsel review the contract to make sure you can meet all of the obligations and auditing requirements?
- Do you have funds to cover overage if costs end up being higher than first projected?
If you answered no to any of these questions, contact the program area manager to see if your specific grant program can refer you to technical assistance. The Sustainable Groundwater Management Grants Program is offering technical assistance for under-represented communities who need support getting involved in groundwater management. Another potential resource for technical assistance is US EPA’s Environmental Finance Center at Sacramento State University.
Tips for approaching the grant application:
Prepare yourself for the work
Start early to give yourself enough time to get the application done, and ideally extra time in case there is missing information; do not wait until just before the deadline.
Take the time to understand the templates provided by the grant host agency and how they work.
You will need to prepare a resolution designating an authorized representative to submit the application, and if awarded, execute the Funding Agreement and sign other documents associated with the award (e.g. invoices and reports). Be aware, depending on your governing body's public notice requirements and meeting schedule, this may take a significant amount of time
Get to know Adobe and Excel software in advance; the approval process can take much longer if you are not familiar with these programs.
If the application process is facilitated through a web application like GRanTs or any subsequent applications, make sure you get accustomed to the layout of the site and can identify all the sections from the PSP.
Set a schedule and stick to it.
Reach out to grant program staff early if you are having trouble with any of these.
Demonstrate an understanding for the project and why it fits the program
Present a clear idea of the project.
Show that the project can be implemented with the help of the grant (technical understanding, budgeting, scheduling, work plan).
Provide enough backup documentation (include all required attachments and any others that apply to your project).
Ensure your application is easy to read
Write out a clear and concise project summary.
Keep the proposal as streamlined as possible, and give a direct response to each question.
Be sure to follow the word count listed on the PSP. Any text that goes over the word limit may not be evaluated.
Review and submit correctly
- Complete a thorough review of the entire application before submitting to DWR.
- Have someone else proofread your application; an extra set of eyes may catch something that you missed or identify language that is difficult to understand.
- File correctly: instructions can be found in the PSP.
- Again, ask questions in advance if you have any concerns.
Mistakes to avoid:
- Do not forget to include an itemized cost estimate of your project, including grant administration costs.
- Complete every question. For yes or no questions, be sure to write yes or no along with your written explanation. In general, do not leave the reviewer guessing what your answer is.
- Reviewers are looking through your application for important project information and answers to program questions; the best responses are direct and to the point.
Breakdown of an application:
The contents of a grant application differ depending on the program, but here are some common sections used by DWR:
- This section is where you identify the name of your organization, point of contact, proposed project name, and a brief summary of the project and goals.
- Be sure to include the itemized budget (as per the program agreement template) for the project.
- This section asks for the coordinates of the project site and other relevant geographic context. Refer to the PSP for what information to include and how to find it.
- Some applications require the legislative districts (State Assembly, State Senate, and US Congressional) of your region or groundwater basin. That info can be found here: https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/
- Specific to PSP; in this section you will go into detail about the project itself. This might include funding needs, organizations involved, scope of work, start and end date, maps of the project, etc.
- The questions ensure the completeness of the proposal by confirming eligibility and identifying key characteristics of the project. Be sure to answer every question directly; again, if a question asks for a yes/no response, always indicate yes or no first, even if you plan to elaborate further. This will make scoring easier for program administrators.
Be sure to include necessary attachments as part of the application.
- Authorization and Eligibility Requirements
- Final Proposal Summary
- Work Plan
- Documentation (e.g. maps, metrics, calculations) indicating that the project benefits a Disadvantaged or Underrepresented Community, an Economically Distressed Area, or another target population (if applicable)
Executing the Agreement
Keep in mind that it can take up to a year after applying to a grant to be awarded funding, execute the agreement, and receive funding. There may be ongoing communication between the grantee and grant manager to collect details and ensure the grantee has all the proper documentation.
Tips for Success:
- Stay connected with your grant manager throughout the process. They are there to help.
- Create a detailed schedule so you know when things are due and give yourself enough time to complete each task.
- Organize your materials in a way so that future staff can pick up the rest of the project easily.
- Little things can change over time. Do not lose track of the original goal of the project.
- List deliverables shown on the report every quarter so that you are continually showing the grant agency what to expect.
- Some agencies, including DWR, require certain CEQA documentation to be reviewed before construction is allowed to commence.
- Pay close attention to what the deliverables are.
- Make sure the scope is not too detailed or worded in a way that does not fit well with the project to allow for flexibility.
- Review the environmental documental for the proposed project to ensure the information is applicable to the grant agreement.
- Start early; the agreement template is released at the start of the initial solicitation period so that you can review it and ask questions.
- Ensure there is consistency between the work plan, budget, and schedule.
- Always rely on what is said in the agreement.
- Keep your grant manager informed a couple of quarters ahead of time on what is coming up.
Managing the Grant
Types of Funding and Managing Funds
There are two main types of funding: reimbursement of spent funds and advanced funding. Reimbursement funding is when the grantee fronts the cost, and then at the end of the quarter, the grantee submits an invoice to DWR for reimbursement. It can take a minimum of 45 days after this until they receive their reimbursement check, and usually longer for a grantee to process and disperse it. Note that reimbursement funding is the normal/default procedure by which grants are paid; most programs and projects will be subject to reimbursement funding.
Advanced pay, is when a limited amount of the grant award may be dispersed up front to pay for expenses immediately. The process can take around 6 months from applying to receiving the funds, and requires extensive documentation and communication with the grant manager. The project must have a timeline to expend advanced funds. Quarterly Accountability Reports are required to show what the funds are being spent on, and to show the amount of advanced funds remaining that is kept in a non-interest bearing account. If any funds were spent on ineligible costs, that amount must be returned to the advanced funds bank account. DWR can ask for the money back at any time if the grantee does not follow the procedures laid out in the grant agreement. Please note that advance pay is limited to those programs with statutory authority to do so. Please review the applicable program Guidelines and PSP for whether or not, and under what circumstances, advance pay may be allowed.
Once you begin managing the grant, reports (i.e., quarterly reports) must be made about the progress of the project. Give yourself at least two weeks to put together these reports. Reference the grant agreement itself and always have your deliverables listed in the project report. Include enough detail so that it covers the relevant information specified in the grant agreement. Grant managers can be flexible if time extensions are needed, but you must make sure to communicate that with them.
Invoicing (IRWM Examples)
Invoices are required on a consistent schedule (e.g., quarterly) and should include an Invoice Packet, Progress Report, and Deliverables. The Invoice Packet should include the DWR Invoice Form, Backup Documentation Summary, and Table Backup Documentation. The Invoice Form must be populated according to the budget in the grant agreement, or the latest approved budget amendment (if any). Make sure you have backup documentation (e.g., receipts and hour logs) to support the invoice. Invoice periods should refer to the period of work which the invoice covers.
Nothing contained within the invoice should be outside of the agreement scope, budget, and schedule. Expenses that are outside the scope of the funding agreement cannot be paid for with grant funds. Typically, a 45-day timeline for reimbursement begins once the invoice package is deemed complete by the Grant Manager.
Potential reasons for default of advanced payment (AP):
- Failure to expend the AP funds within the agreed upon deadline
- Failure by Grantee to submit complete and accurate quarterly Accountability Reports by the required due dates
- Failure to deposit funds in a non-interest-bearing account
- Use of AP funds for ineligible expenses and/or activities not consistent with the grant agreement
- Inappropriate use of AP funds, as deemed by DWR
- Failure to comply with any other term of the executed grant agreement
Best Practices and Tips for Success
- Communication with grant managers is the key to successful grant implementation. Commit to regularly scheduled calls if needed.
- Regular communication with all those requesting and receiving payment as part of the grant project is very important.
- Provide an updated budget as early as possible if you anticipate any changes from the original agreement.
- Be prompt and communicative of your needs to DWR.
- It is in both DWR's and your best interest to take the most conservative approach to discerning eligible/ineligible costs during the invoice reviews. If ineligible costs are paid out, you may be required to pay them back to the state years later if audited.
- Hold meetings before the first progress report is due to walk through the process with all key participants and allow them to ask questions.
- Review section related to Audits periodically.
When the grant application has been successfully completed and submitted, there are some final steps grantees will need to take to secure funding for their project and ensure that it goes smoothly.
Best Practices and Tips for Success
- The review process may take some time. Factor that in if you already have a project start date.
- Maintain records for grant reporting and auditing purposes (e.g., labor hours and rates, timesheets, etc.).
- If there are unforeseen circumstances impacting your project, make sure to document and report it
- Keep good backup documentation on hand for expenditures
- Talk to DWR about this process during the kickoff meeting
Post-Performance Reporting – Implementation Projects
For IRWM and some implementation projects, a post-performance reporting process typically begins one year after the project has been in operation and is required for 3 years after the grant is closed out. The post-performance reports should tell DWR how the project is going and if there have been any successes or challenges. It should also backup the claims made in the application. This report insures and verifies that taxpayer money is being used appropriately and effectively. Post-performance reporting is not always required, so be sure to read the Program Guidelines of your grant carefully and contact the grant program manager if you have any questions.
A grant is subject to an audit for 3 years after the final payment has been disbursed to the grantee. Audits are primarily to check billing and invoices, but any aspect of the grant could be audited. Some common auditable findings are:
- Unsupported expenditures (e.g., insufficient progress reports/invoices, invoices not aligned with scope of work, budget, or schedule)
- Unsupported Local Cost Share (lack of backup documentation)
- Local Cost Share requirement not met
- Inadequate fiscal controls in grantee's accounting department/procedures
- Noncompliance with Grant Agreement (e.g., not maintaining eligibility, failure to comply with competitive bidding and procurement requirements)
- Inconsistencies in submitting deliverables (e.g., deliverables not submitted per the schedule and/or completed at the time of invoicing)
- Discrepancies between invoice dates and actual work completion dates
- Discrepancies between employees' billing rates and what has been provided to the grant manager
- Lack of details on subcontractor invoices (e.g., no breakdown of charges, work completed)
- Lack of internal control measures (e.g., preparation and review of invoices/reports)
- Post-performance reports not prepared/submitted
- Lack of maintaining an auditable project file
This list is not exhaustive, but with a clear work plan and budget, along with accurate, timely recordkeeping and reporting, an audit should find a grantee in compliance.