So – You’ve Decided to Apply for Government Grants?

Apr 22, 2020
6.5 mins | 1319 words
By: Adam Dewar

Adam Dewar

“How do I access government funding?” It’s a question I hear often, and in light of the current economic recession induced by COVID-19, I’m almost sure it will come up even more. Today I’m sharing a few tips and tricks for the companies considering applying for government funding. The process can be a long and winding road, but here’s a conservative strategy to help you get started. 

I have spent over a decade providing strategic advice as it relates to government grants – large government grants. Like many, I started on the front lines working with a team at a small (and awesome!) not-for-profit, Global Vision and Junior Team Canada. I helped their dynamic Executive Director and President create the next great, international opportunity for young Canadians. Through this opportunity, I met a host of neighbours, cats, and of course, Type-A students from across Canada, who would, often, arrive at the front door ready to work. This opportunity is where I first learned what it took to write proposals, socialize them to stakeholders, and receive government funding. 

In my capacity at Invest Ottawa as a BRE Senior Sector Strategist, and subsequently Market Director – where top topics typically are talent and financing – securing government funding has been an ongoing conversation with many clients.  

Reflecting on some of these conversations, I must interrupt your reading with a word of warning: many people will promise they can secure you a grant with 100% certainty if you pay them to assist, that is. My advice: run, don’t walk. Nobody, not even the best strategists and government relations professionals, can guarantee success. A good, reliable professional won’t give you a guarantee – I know that’s not what you want to hear – but they will help you plot a course that will increase your chances of the outcome you want.  

Here is my list of 7 tips, tricks and tools to use when applying for government funding: 

  1. Start Early, Start Small – Many small grants exist, and they are relatively easy to access: Mitacs, OCE, Global Affairs – Can Export, and others. You might say, “But I need X million dollars” – great, you will get there. But applying for, receiving (usually quickly), and executing on projects under these smaller mechanisms does two things: it builds your track record and raises your profile. Both of which will help you to secure larger funding in the future.
  2. Be Known – Raising your profile is effective for securing any type of funding, government or otherwise. If you are a known entity, some of the risk is removed, this means that being out there is vital. Whether it’s through virtual engagements or, when possible and safein-person events, inviting sector specialists from government departments can have an impactThese potential funders/influencers analyze the industry, and they do want to know what is going onIt is important to build connections with them before you think about asking for funding. So, when you land an excellent new client, a pilot, some venture funding or, for our MNEs, launch a new centre of excellence, invite them. Share the great news and showcase what you are doing in their jurisdiction. Another tip: engage with Invest Ottawa, Kanata North BA, etc. If you apply – we often get a call as part of the due diligence.
  3. Big Money, Big Effort – Going after bigger government funding opportunities requires significant effort. To be successful, you must have a solid strategy, be willing to answer a lot of questions and put in a lot of work to go the distance. And still, it could still be 6-12 months until you hear back. This timeline also depends on a variety of factors, including how fast you answer questions, how your application aligns with government priorities, the results of due diligence, etc. You do not go down this road with 3 months of runway left. You go down the road the day after you raise. (See Point 4)
  4. Risk – Government is risk-averse. Know this. Going after funding when you are about to run out of money makes you a high risk. For this reason, you require a strategy – it is a reality that multi-nationals are almost always less risky for government. They typically have the capital to execute and the ability to hire the expertise they need. If you are a highgrowth startup you need to pursue funding when you are the lowest risk: at the same time that your term sheets are signed.
  5. Big Money – Alignment to Priorities – Every funding pool has priorities. These are generally not a mystery; they are on the websites of the various funding resources. The closer your alignment to the priorities, the easier time you will have in getting your funding application through government. If you apply – do not use the industry terms in your application – use the terms on the government website. For example, if the priority is Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML), and your area of expertise is Natural Language Processing (NLP), use AI and ML in your application – even though NLP is a type of AI/ML.
  6. Big MoneyBig Champions – Government Relations (GR) – The GR strategy here is key, particularly if you plan to go after bigger dollars. For any project north of $1 million, you will want to ensure you engage with the proper stakeholders; this is to say, make your MP (or MPP if it is provincial) aware of the opportunity that exists to create jobs in their riding. The impact should be framed in terms of jobs and investment. For really large projects, you should get your MP’s assistance in engaging a minister in the region. Special Note: If you pay someone to manage your GR strategy, they are likely deemed as being “paid to lobby” and will need to register with the Commissioner of Lobbying. Alternately, if your GR efforts represent a significant portion of an employee’s duties, they would be required to register. There are severe penalties for violating the lobbying act, including major fines and even jail time. Visit https://lobbycanada.gc.ca/ for more information.
  7. Compliance – Compliance is critical to long term success in government funding. This includes doing what you proposed, executing on your project, and submitting the reports on time. It can be somewhat difficult for corporate finance and human resource professionals to navigate as it varies from department to department and program to program. For large projects, hiring a dedicated resource to manage your project after you “win” it is advisable. Pro tip: hire a financial professional from the not-for-profit sector. Most not-for-profits access government funding and are intimately familiar with the stakeholder and funder reporting and relations work. 

Have I scared you off yet? Yes, applying for government grants is a lot of work, but it is also a great opportunity for a company to grow or to bring a new division of an existing company to Ottawa. At Invest Ottawa, we encourage our clients to go into the funding process with a full view of what the expectations of them and how much work it can be. We are always happy to have a discussion consult with Ottawa’s hightech clients and fast-growing scale-up firms to discuss their government funding strategy. In good times, and in challenging times, a strategy is key because governments change, priorities change, and the focus of the funding mechanisms also shifts. Therefore, a focused strategy is going to help you align your ask to those priorities, creating a path of least resistance. You know, less red tape!  

Note: At the time of writing, we are in the early stages of a global economic recession ignited by the spread of COVID-19. This reality has challenged governments and companies to adapt their way of doing business and, in some instances, might ease the path to accessing funding for companies aligned to government priorities.  


Adam Dewar is the Invest Ottawa Market Director, Americas. A member of the Global Expansion Team, Adam leads foreign direct investment (FDI) market engagement. He is a motivated and open professional working to help companies and individuals meet their business and career objectives. 

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