How do we get money from the government for our important projects? Speaking as both a grant reviewer and as someone who has written many a grant application, I can tell you the government likes to know where and how its money is going to be spent if a grant is approved. I once managed a project that involved federal, state and local money. I saw more of the auditors than I did of almost anyone else. A vague, poorly written grant application will get rejected.
For purposes of this article, we’re discussing two basic types of grants. The first is an equipment-specific CEDAP (Commercial Equipment Direct Assistance Program) grant. The second type of grant is project-oriented and usually involves equipment, installation and possibly software, construction, staffing, training, etc. You’ll need to do your research to determine the best type of grant to fit the equipment solution or project you have in mind.
Before you start writing an application, do some research. Ask yourself: What do we hope to accomplish? Is our project eligible for funding? Are we talking to the right agency? Do we have a clear vision? If you know the answers to these questions, you can move on. Next questions: How big is the project? How long will it take to get it done? Last, but not least, when is the application deadline?
If you’re just looking for grant availability, check out the FEMA and DHS Web sites. Government-wide grant announcements are listed at Grants.gov. For additional funding sources, see pages 7 and 8 in this publication.
In this article, I discuss grant applications associated with public safety projects and offer some suggestions I hope you’ll find helpful.
Read the Application & Follow Instructions
Every agency that issues grant money has its own application and grading criteria. The instructions should be followed closely.
Recently, I spoke with a man who works for a local car dealer. He told me that his dealership had moved 500 cars during the recent “Cash for Clunkers” program. I mentioned that I had heard stories about dealers that weren’t getting paid. He replied that his dealership only had trouble with reimbursement for two cars. I asked him how he did it. “Simple,” he said. “Our manager called everyone in and spent two hours explaining how to complete the required forms and then checked them closely before they were submitted.” What a novel idea. It’s called being prepared.
CEDAP grants usually require the applicant to respond to a questionnaire with specific questions about the agency’s needs. Unless the application specifically states that no additional pages may be submitted, you may want to amplify your answers. For example, let’s assume the first question is, “Have you conducted an all-hazard survey for your area?” If the answer is no, and the second question is “Why not?,” then your answer had better be longer than six words. I once reviewed an application for which the answer to this question was, “It was supposed to be done by the person that had the job before me.” What do you think my recommendation was for this grant application?
Many people think they’re constrained by the space provided on the form. Remember, the people who design forms rarely have to fill them out. Use the space you need to provide clear, complete answers.
If you’re asked to provide an example of daily equipment use, offer real-world examples and be careful not to sink your ship. Your agency may have to provide some equipment to complete the project. Be sure to indicate that your agency is prepared to provide the necessary support.
One application I reviewed had requested a complicated hazard mapping system. One requirement was that the agency always have a computer available and provide software support. The applicant stated that the agency chief’s secretary “had room on her PC” for the mapping system. Would you want your hazard-response system mixed in with e-mails and interdepartmental memos?
Describe the Need
Your application must make the case that there’s a true need for whatever you’re requesting. Whether it’s being requested for law enforcement or fire suppression, the equipment should mesh with frequent operations. Don’t ask for something that will reside on a shelf until a major event occurs. Make it a part of your regular operations and training programs. This is especially important if you rely heavily on volunteers to support your operation.
Interoperability and interagency cooperation are critical these days. Many applications require proof of an existing interagency agreement. Don’t quote from one that’s 10 years old. And don’t say that you’re part of some state system—unless you are the state. Talk to your counterparts in adjoining cities and counties to ensure that any mutual-aid agreements are comprehensive and up to date. Provide for opportunities to test any system equipment that would be funded by the grant.
Project-oriented grant applications may require a little more thought and work, but can result in a larger grant and more value for the agency or agencies involved.
Before you start writing, gather everyone from your agency who will be involved—don’t forget the personnel from purchasing and finance—in a room with a blackboard and a calculator to brainstorm your plan, complete with a budget, timetable, milestones, staffing requirements and contracts. Make careful notes. If you finish in less than a day, you are missing something.
A project grant application will need to contain specific information, and your preparation should be done in a specific order. I recommend the following:
Write a clear statement of the project objective. Then list all of the activities required to complete the project—in the order in which the tasks must be completed. Using this activity list as the basis, make your best estimate of how long it will take to complete each activity. With this information, you’ll be able to prepare a project timetable. Various scheduling programs are available, but I like Microsoft Projects. It takes getting used to but it can be a valuable resource. It forces you to plan ahead and account for every activity. The schedule should have measurable milestones to track your progress.
Determine the resources (people) required for each task. Assign a person to each task. An important part of the application is outlining staffing requirements. It can be difficult to get grant money to pay personnel costs without a good justification. A Gantt chart, a graphical representation of the duration of tasks against the progression of time, can be helpful in assigning personnel to a specific task for a specific period of time (see examples above). Once tasks have been identified, you can assign resources. The Gantt chart will quickly show you how many people are required to perform the work. A completed Gantt chart is a good visual for any application, and it will help justify your request.
Prepare the project budget. Include all personnel and any hardware or services that you intend to purchase. We’ve been talking about implementation costs, but don’t forget that other parts of your agency, such as purchasing and finance, may be involved and should be accounted for. I’ve given very low grades to applications that say they will implement a million-dollar project with a part-time staff.
It’s hard to say enough about the importance of preparing and submitting an accurate, realistic budget. When you’re asking for money, you need to do it right. You need to account for all aspects of manpower, hardware, software, installation, maintenance and facilities. Prepare your calculations carefully. People who review grant applications have a pretty good idea of how much things cost. If local matching funds are required, be sure to include them in your calculations.
Don’t ask for contingency money. This will almost always be disallowed by the funding agency.
Once you’ve written a clearly worded mission statement, you can move on to performing the tasks listed above. Remember: The project must be attainable within limits imposed by the grant.
Review, Review, Review!
Last, but certainly not least, review the application carefully. And use spell check. There’s no excuse for grammatical mistakes or misspelled words. I’ve reviewed many grant applications that seemed to have been prepared in haste and never reviewed before they were submitted. This will cause your application to lose valuable points.
Have the application reviewed by someone unfamiliar with the project. Ask them if they understand what you’re trying to accomplish. Do they have any questions? If questions are raised, be sure you address and answer them in the grant application. You won’t be talking to the reviewer, so you must make your case clearly and accurately in writing.
Also be aware that preparing an application of any kind is not something that can be done in your spare time or over a weekend. Careful thought and organization will pay dividends in the long run.
I hope some of these suggestions have been helpful. Now get out there and start writing.
11 Steps to a Successful Grant Application