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12 Action Steps Federal and State Agencies Can Take to Diversify Their Pool of Grant Applicants

April 5, 2024


Small organizations, CBOs, and organizations led by people of color are shut out from grant funding opportunities.

Devon Miner Director
Practices & Centers

Every year, state and federal agencies across the United States are responsible for administering competitive grant funds to eligible and qualified local, regional, and state organizations. These funds are usually appropriated through federal and state legislation and signed with consideration to community needs, regional conditions, and governing priorities, to name a few factors.

When focusing on workforce development, a majority of funds are governed and administered through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), a federally funded program responsible for strengthening and improving the nation’s public workforce system and helping get U.S. workers, including youth and those with significant barriers to employment, into high-quality jobs and careers and helping employers hire and retain skilled workers.

WIOA Title I permits every state, at the discretion of its governor, to use up to 15% of state formula funds for state-specific projects, often referred to as the Governor’s Reserve. In select states, the Governor’s Reserve and other state funds are often disbursed in the form of competitive grants and designed to support existing delivery models, encourage cross-sector collaboration, and build capacity among workforce development stakeholders, including community-based organizations (CBOs).

Community-based organizations play a critical role within the workforce development ecosystem in preparing and connecting talent to quality jobs.

Over the years, workforce development agencies have made a lot of equity-centered and population-specific investments through federal and state dollars, but the impact of these programs has been limited because they aren’t reaching a fully diverse set of organizations that are representative of the communities they serve. While some CBOs have been awarded grant funds over the years, there is opportunity to further the diversity of state and federal grant applicant pools and improve the accessibility for CBOs, small organizations with 10 or fewer full-time employees, and organizations led by people of color.

CBOs Are the Lifeline to the Workforce Development Ecosystem

In a proprietary survey administered by JFF, findings suggest CBOs, small organizations, and organizations led by people of color are often systemically shut out from funding opportunities that can be instrumental to sustaining, and even propelling, their existing service delivery model.

The survey found these organizations:

  • Often lack the staff capacity to complete and submit a competitive grant application
  • Must navigate too many required exhibits in the application, ultimately discouraging application submission
  • Learn about grant opportunities at the last minute through word of mouth or from a peer organization rather than directly from the administering body
  • Require more time to complete grant application, at least 30 days, with some needing as long as two months

Like educational institutions such as community colleges and government agencies such as local workforce boards and regional workforce departments, CBOs play a critical role within the workforce development ecosystem in preparing and connecting talent to quality jobs. However, distinct from other workforce development stakeholders, CBOs have a keen understanding of the local and regional realities unique to populations that are often underserved across public systems, including workforce development.

CBOs are well-positioned to address some of the shortcomings of traditional workforce development stakeholders, particularly when it comes to closing racial and gender workforce gaps and outcomes.

A heightened awareness of local and regional values, conditions and culture, and the existing power dynamics of communities enables CBOs to design and facilitate training programs and deliver customized support services that reflect community needs. This is why funding CBOs is important. When public systems fail to do so, they tilt the trajectory toward a quality job, and ultimately quality of life, in a direction that becomes more elusive to attain for individuals who are already facing barriers to education and employment.

CBOs are well-positioned to address some of the shortcomings of traditional workforce development stakeholders, particularly when it comes to closing racial and gender workforce gaps and outcomes. Below, we offer strategies that federal and state agencies can adopt and deploy to make CBOs more competitive for grants.

12 Strategies to Enhance Equity When Administering Grants and Solicitations

Based on survey findings, the following are key strategies and recommendations for state and federal agencies that are looking to diversify their applicant pool and help level the playing field for CBOs, small organizations, and organizations led by people of color:

  1. Facilitate internal cross-unit collaboration within federal and state agencies to streamline the grant process, align on timelines, and incorporate subject matter expertise in the populations being served when designing grant programs.
  2. Widen outreach to CBOs and organizations led by people of color by partnering with local stakeholders and on regional efforts to diversify and expand the list of organizations that receive correspondence from federal and state agencies via email listserv.
  3. Forecast upcoming grant opportunities via a shared calendar and post updates on agency websites, email newsletters, and supplemental platforms (e.g., LinkedIn, X, Facebook) to give organizations ample preparation time to apply for a grant.
  4. Centralize key information such as eligibility requirements, award amount, and scoring criteria via a frequently updated and known web page.
  5. Simplify and streamline the application process by using plain and shared language and eliminating required exhibits not relevant to the grant opportunity. Consider developing a glossary of shared language.
  6. Improve informational webinar accessibility by previewing the agenda in advance, offering sessions at different points throughout the day (morning, afternoon, and evening), recording them, and sharing recordings via email and a shared website.
  7. Offer more time and opportunities for Q&As and create avenues for more individualized/customized time between prospective applicants and agency staff (e.g., office hours).
  8. Lengthen timelines to lighten the load and encourage greater participation among small organizations and organizations led by people of color.
  9. Develop a shared approach and principles to more equitably review and score applications by offering and requiring training multiple times throughout the year (consider quarterly).
  10. Focus scoring on feasibility of project designs and viability of proposed strategies rather than on how well the proposal is written.
  11. Adopt an advance pay model, if legislatively allowed, to encourage more participation among organizations that are not financially able to withstand a grant reimbursement model.
  12. Explore alternatives and consider eliminating cost-per-participant requirements to allow workforce organizations to inform the funding amount needed to provide high-touch, high-quality services to the target populations in their regional context.

Core to implementing these equitable strategies with fidelity is collective buy-in and collaboration from agency staff, a grants and solicitation process that meaningfully engages local and regional experts, and an intentional internal agency shift from a compliance culture to one that is more customer service oriented. State and federal agencies are welcome to partner with JFF in advancing equitable strategies to facilitate greater accessibility, feasibility, and diversity among grant applicants.

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