Money may not grow on trees, but with a little diligence, grant money can be just as prolific. According to government sources, nearly $450 billion in federal assistance is awarded every year, mostly in the form of grants. Although the federal government is the largest source of grants, funding is also available through states and private foundations. Grant money helps support national infrastructure programs in homeland security and criminal justice, funds scientific studies and promotes cultural enrichment.
The key to successfully acquiring grant money is convincing grantors to fund your agency's projects.
Thomas K. Dubas, director of emergency services for Lackawanna County, Penn., and a particularly savvy grant writer, used grants to help fund an $18 million regional communication center. Because grants for brick and mortar buildings are hard to come by, he used grant money to pay for everything inside the building.
Dubas started by applying for federal grants and used those grants as seed money. We were fortunate our state was in the process of funding wireless communication, he says. The combination of state and federal grants paid for the equipment needed for the center. He says the Department of Emergency Services also had planned equipment updates to coincide with the new facility. Grants paid for the new phone system, back-up systems and new hardware and software.
Dubas says it was easier to ask voters to approve a bond for the building when they were informed the agency already secured $6 million in grants to pay for a third of the project.
The Grant Game
According to Dubas, interoperability is the big buzzword in grant applications these days. Getting a few players in on a project makes it a lot more attractive to secure grants, he says. Lackawanna recently partnered with local EMS systems, area hospitals, emergency management agencies, communication centers and medical command from eight other counties. Together, these groups received $2.3 million in grants to build a microwave system for enhanced regional and state communications. You have to learn how to build on, in the sense of what you get from one grant, as a step for another grant, he says. You may go to four or five different [grant] sources.
Grant sources include federal, state, regional and local agencies. Generally speaking, less money is available in the private sector for public safety projects, but grants through philanthropic foundations, corporations or community-based organizations are among the easiest to secure.
Grants can make a big impact on an agency, but some organizations get grantitis, greedily gobbling up available money without calculating the cost in staff time, upfront expenses and fixed deadlines. How can you make sure a grant is worth the effort? Here are some tips.
1. Identify the grant, then the need
Like dating, successful grant writing is all about finding the right match. Dubas recommends working backward. Instead of looking for grants to fund a particular project, look at the many funding opportunities and see if there are grants available to fund something the agency needs.
Roger Edington, medical services officer for the Tacoma (Wash.) Fire Department, agrees. He s been particularly effective in winning grants for his department by learning what grantors are willing to fund. Align your agency s needs with a national priority, he advises.
Dubas, a former police chief, says he s seen state legislators shift priorities from preventing driving under the influence to thwarting school violence. Part of his job is forecasting the next trend. The challenge is to shift to where the money is, he says.
Example: Many grants currently are related to radio interoperability. The largest is the Public Safety Interoperable Communications Grant Program, a cooperative effort between the U.S. Department of Commerce s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
The grant promotes the use of innovative and cost-effective technological solutions that allow police, fire, EMS and dispatch agencies to communicate with each other by voice, data and/or video during large-scale incidents, such as natural disasters or terrorist attacks. The money can be used for the acquisition and deployment of interoperable communication systems utilizing reallocated public safety spectrum in the 700 MHz frequency band for radio communications.
Local agencies are encouraged to work with their state governments to apply for a piece of this one-time-only, $1 billion grant. Using several current programs designed to identify the needs of various communities, the grant intends to shore up interoperable communication programs within the 50 states plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the four U.S. territories, bringing the entire country to a certain baseline.
This approach allows jurisdictions within each state and territory to develop solutions that work best for them, rather than adopting a plan formed at the federal level.
2. Find the money
With the advent of the Internet, locating grants has never been easier. Sources can be found at variety of Web sites, and the secret lies in diligent searches. Use keywords to find quality information.
Your state legislators are another potential source of funding. Ask them about pending legislation, or even make a suggestion for a competitive grant. Legislators are often looking for granting opportunities since it s easier and less politically precarious to distribute money via a competitive grant than to simply assign it.
Edington suggests finding and talking to local representatives, such as those from FEMA. Sometimes they know about federal grants not available yet, he says.
Agencies can also help create their own grants. When Lackawanna County was looking for money to purchase new radios, Dubas learned that a local congressman on an appropriations committee had yet to fund a project, so he forged an alliance with the rest of the counties in the congressman s district. The group applied for, and received, a sizable grant. You have to do your homework and be creative sometimes, he says.
3. Know your stuff
It s important to understand the two types of grants available up front and reimbursement. Up-front grants, which are less common, provide money ahead of the project.
The vast majority of grants are the reimbursement type. These require an agency to pay vendors for products or services and then apply for reimbursement, a process that can take up to 90 days. Some reimbursement grants require matching funds, so it s important to work within your agency s financial guidelines and include these projects in the budget.
Example: An agency in Alaska, which was awarded a grant to hire additional firefighters, had to commit to funding for several years before being reimbursed. The city manager determined it would cost the city too much money, and the agency was forced to turn down the grant.
Federal grants are dispersed as discretionary or block grants. Discretionary or project grants allocate money directly to the agency awarded the funds. Block or formula grants are distributed to state and local governments, which then forward the money to successful applicants.
4. Follow the grant guidance
Because most funding opportunities are competitive, it s important to make a good case for why your agency deserves a particular grant. Knowing what the grantor is looking for and aligning your agency s needs with the grantor s priority improves the chances of successfully landing the funds.
All of that information is found in the grant s guidance. The guidance not only describes the grant s intention, but also serves as the blueprint all applicants are expected to follow both during the application process and after being awarded the money.
The key to being successful in obtaining grants is to read the guidance, Edington advises. Those new to grant writing often misinterpret or even fail to read the documentation that comes with every grant, ensuring the demise of their proposal.
Some of the application requirements can take a good deal of time to complete. You must adequately plan for gathering data from various sources, including statistical and demographic information. Check and double-check to ensure all data is correct and complete. Partial or inaccurate data is cause for a grant application rejection.
Edington recommends paying particular attention to areas of the guidance, which explain how applicants will be rated. He also says to concentrate on thoroughly explaining the ways your agency meets those expectations.
One of the necessary items is a DUNS number, a nine-character identification number assigned by Dun & Bradstreet as a standard business identifier for federal electronic commerce. The government uses DUNS numbers as a contractor identification code for all procurement-related activities.
If your department doesn t have a DUNS number, it will need one to apply for any federal grant. Call Dun and Bradstreet at 800/333-0505 for more information or visit the Web site at fedgov.dnb.com/webform/displayhomepage.do. Allow up to two weeks to receive your number.
5. Assemble the right team
Edington discourages agencies from assigning one person the sole responsibility of applying for grants. A lot of public safety agencies get tunnel vision and want one person to write the whole thing, he says. It s not a good strategy.
Edington explains that once a grant has been identified, he assembles a team of subject-matter experts to help write the grant s narrative. The team also reviews the draft as it s being developed and provides input.
Begin by reviewing all relevant grant documents. Then use the inverted pyramid approach to the narrative. The first paragraph should be a short, precise summary of the project. Subsequent paragraphs flesh out the details. The grantor must know you understand the purpose of the grant and have a worthy project. A poorly written or confusing proposal can get your grant proposal eliminated faster than you can say, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
If you have questions, don t hesitate to call the awarding organization for clarification.
Edington also has someone edit the final document for grammar, misspellings and awkward sentence structure.
Avoid excessive formatting. Just because your computer can produce Word Art doesn t mean it s appropriate for a grant proposal. Limit fancy typefaces, keep the use of bold and italic typefaces to a minimum, and avoid exclamation points at all costs. Clear and professional is your goal.
Finally, Edington suggests having someone from finance or budget serve as a member of the team. Agencies able to provide matching funds have better leverage when bidding for a grant. Second, grants that include actual budget quotes are more likely to succeed. By weaving budget quotes from a manufacturer into the grant application narrative, the agency avoids over- or underestimating the cost of a project or purchase. If you overestimate, your application may be less competitive. Estimate the quote too low and your agency may have to make up the difference.
6. Pay attention to details
A quick way to derail any grant is to fail to pay attention to details that will automatically disqualify an application. According to Edington, approximately one-third of Federal Fire Act Grants applicants don t make it through the initial qualification process. Most of these grant applications are rejected because they re missing the required documentation or signatures.
The guidance for most grants is very specific, usually right down to the size of the type and the page margin settings. This is a case where failing to dot the T s and cross the I s can cost both money and time.
7. Meet all performance-period deadlines
An important part of planning for the grant is anticipating how long it will take to complete a project. It takes time to get city council approval, or consent from a contract and awards board. It s essential to build realistic timelines because once a grant is awarded, an agency must meet the performance-period deadline. When an agency doesn t live up to its contract, it may be responsible for repaying the money awarded. Sometimes grant deadlines can be extended, but others are fixed.
If an agency finds it won t be able to meet its deadline, Edington recommends reporting the dilemma to the grantor as soon as possible. They re much happier to work with you on [an extension] than if you miss your performance-period deadline, he says.
Assigning a project manager is a good way to ensure timely completion. That person is in charge of written reports, correspondence and project oversight. It s a lot of paperwork and record keeping, Edington admits.
8. Don t forget reporting requirements
Nearly all grants require grantees to report on progress, which is a problem for agencies that overreach their ability to administer the grants they receive. Reporting requirements in the grant guidance differ depending on the grant. While some grantors expect a monthly progress report, all require a closing report. Grantors are primarily interested in how the funds were used to meet your organization s needs.
Grants are similar to a contract for deliverables, so grantors also will want a full account of how you spent the grant money, including inventory reports and tracking, often in a particular format.
Some grantors are turning to the Internet for automated financial tracking and reporting to help streamline the administration process. The Ohio Department of Public Safety offers an online grant management system which features online submissions and automated tracking of highway safety grants. As technology develops, expect to see more grants managed by way of the information superhighway.
An agency should expect federal grantors to audit an agency s paperwork, regardless of the method. Someone somewhere along the line will come by and want you to account for the money, Edington says. Sometimes you have to ask yourself if it s worth the effort.
As some agencies have learned, misappropriation of grant money is considered theft and subject to criminal and civil prosecution. Last spring, an agency in Florida was forced to return $378,800 in homeland security grants after it charged personnel costs that didn t exist. A legal investigation is underway.
9. Go to school
Grant writing isn t hard, but it can be daunting. If you feel particularly overwhelmed, there are a number of ways to educate yourself before applying for that first grant. Online tutorials are available, or you can attend any of a host of classes or workshops offered by private institutions and government agencies.
The Foundation Center (www.foundationcenter.org), for example, offers online resources plus free assistance at any of its offices in five major metropolitan areas.
10. Ask around
Some sources say a mere 10 percent of agencies that apply for grants are successful. The best way to improve these odds is to get tips from those who have beaten them. Most agencies are willing to share their grant writing success stories. Use the Internet to search for agencies that have applied for similar grants and ask for suggestions. FEMA, for instance, touts success stories on its Web site (www.firegrantsupport. com/afg/stories/
The Bottom Line
Grant money isn t free. It comes with its own set of costs in terms of staff time. And applying for grants is not for the faint of heart or the easily discouraged. However, as many tax-supported entities have found, an aggressive grant writing effort demonstrates good stewardship of public money and a genuine attempt to find alternative sources of funding something tax-weary citizens can appreciate.
The name says it all. Search for federal grants by word, category or agency. Apply for grants and even track your application online. Be sure to sign up for Succeed, a quarterly e-newsletter and register to receive e-mail notifications of new grant postings.
This page on the Department of Homeland Security site offers links for state homeland security contracts and grant information. You can also register to receive e-mail updates. Links for grant guidance and other resources are listed at the bottom of the page. Click on the Grants button for additional resources.
The FEMA site includes grant searches by audience (emergency personnel, government, individuals, etc.), type (disaster-specific recovery programs, environmental and historic preservation, hazard-related, non-disaster programs, etc.), and alphabetical listing.
This page contains information on financial assistance available from the U.S. Fire Administration and other federal agencies for fire departments and other first responder groups.
The Transportation Security Administration offers grants to improve the security of vital transportation systems through screening travelers and providing law enforcement personnel. The money is also used to make small investments like new chainlink fences at a local trucking company s terminal or new locks at a warehouse storing dangerous chemicals. The site includes application information for the Law Enforcement Officer (LEO) Reimbursement Program.
The online Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance is a database of federal programs available to state and local governments (including the District of Columbia); federally-recognized Indian tribal governments; territories (and possessions) of the United States; domestic public, quasi-public, and private profit and nonprofit organizations and institutions; specialized groups; and individuals.
This site includes official information on grants, but links are mixed with information about loans, financial aid and other benefits from the U.S. government.
The Hazardous Materials Emergency Preparedness (HMEP) grant program provides financial and technical assistance as well as national direction and guidance to enhance state, territorial, tribal and local hazardous materials emergency planning and training.
The USDA s Rural Development Program funds projects for rural area facilities, including essential public facilities and services. The program has an $86 billion portfolio of loans and administers nearly $16 billion in loans, loan guarantees and grants through its programs.
The Office of Justice Programs is dedicated to improving public safety in communities throughout the nation. In 2007, the Office for Victims of Crime awarded more than $535 million to states in support of local victim services and state-administered victim compensation programs. BJA awarded an additional $11 million to develop and enhance statewide-automated victim notification programs.
This Web site offers an overview of programs available to help fight drug abuse.
The Web site for the Housing and Urban Development office offers information about available grants, funding announcements and explanations of HUD s grant system.
The Library of Congress Web site is an excellent source for background data.
The mission of the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council is to improve public safety and communications interoperability. The Web site is an excellent source of information on topics such as broadband, software-defined radio, re-banding and technical education.
Federal Grants Wire is a free resource for federal grants, government grants and loans. It currently offers more than 1,800 federal grants and loans organized by sponsoring agency, applicant type and subject area.