DOS AND DONTS STRAIGHT FROM THE FUNDING AGENCIES-Part III

Application Process:
 Make letters of inquiry brief (no more than 2 pages) but informative – stress the need for the project, your organization’s ability to carry it out, and the benefits which will accrue from it.
 Respond promptly if a foundation requests a full proposal based on a letter of inquiry.
 Check the web site of a funding agency thoroughly before e-mailing or telephoning so as to avoid asking questions which are clearly answered on the web site.
 Ensure that you have the latest version of the application and regulations.
 Check the math in the budget – although this is obvious, many applicants make mathematical errors.
 Pay attention to those agencies which require that a Letter of Intent be filed prior to a full application. In nearly all cases, there is a specific deadline for submitting this letter.
 Pay careful attention to the rating and ranking criteria when crafting a proposal. Incorporate the application language into the narrative.
 Be concise but thorough in the narrative.
 If there is a specific page maximum, be sure that you come as close to that as possible without exceeding it. You can rest assured that the other applicants will provide as much information as possible.
 Give a descriptive narrative with specific examples.
 Be crystal clear in your writing. Do not “beat around the bush”.
 Be complete and thorough in the narrative – do not leave the reviewer wondering what you mean. Answer the questions completely.
 Use good grammar and correct punctuation and spelling.
 Re-read the application at least twice.
 Give proper attribution for all information derived from others and cite sources for statistical data
 Answer the funding agency’s requests for additional information completely, cheerfully, and on time.
 Send letters of support with the application itself unless the guidelines state otherwise. However, some U.S. Representatives and Senators will only send support letters directly to the funding agency.
 If there is any doubt whatsoever about whether an application will reach the office of the funding agency on time, send it overnight or two-day guaranteed delivery.
 Send the application directly to the person named in the solicitation, with the correct number of copies.
 Check to see that the application arrived on time.
 Start on-line applications early so that you can get your questions answered before the deadline.
 Keep the user name and password for on-line applications in a handy place where they will not be lost.
 Do your best to stave off performance anxiety as the due date for the application arrives – this will impair your ability to do the best job possible.
 Do your best to be available for site visits when the funding agency wants to come. Only change the date if there is an emergency.
Project Administration
 Sign and return the grant acceptance documents promptly.
 Read the grant agreement carefully.
 Call the funding agency or foundation with any questions regarding the administration of the funds. They would rather have you call frequently than have a mess to clean up at the time of the audit. They are worried about those grantees who do not call.
 Ensure as much accuracy in financial recordkeeping as humanly possible. This is what the funding agencies will check first.
 Begin to implement your project as soon as you possibly can. Funding agencies do not like to give extensions and in many cases will not give them for any reason.
 If you are passing funds through to a sub-recipient, monitor their work closely. Your agency will be held accountable if anything goes wrong.
 Check to see what procurement procedures the funding agency requires for any purchases.
 Check periodically during implementation to be sure that the project is meeting the need and fulfilling the goals.
 For projects involving individual beneficiaries, be sure to get all of the pertinent information qualifying that individual or family (such as income verification) prior to approving or disbursing any benefits.
 Be completely cooperative during a monitoring visit and provide everything the funding agency asks for.
 Answer any monitoring findings completely and promptly. Funding for your next project will depend upon it!
 Keep accurate and up-to-date records as the project proceeds.

Dos and Don’ts Straight From the Funding Agencies-Part I

This is the first in a series of posts regarding my conversations with funding agencies over the 35 years I have been a Grant Writer. These posts will cover what the reviewers think is the most important pieces to the puzzle of getting funded. This one covers the “Dos” in general and in project design.
Do…
General:
• Read through the entire NOFA before starting the application.
 Review the NOFA with an eye toward looking for deal breakers.
 Identify the need before proposing a solution or searching for funds and quantify the extent of the need.
 Gather as much statistical and background data as possible before designing the project.
Designing Project:
 Discuss possible solutions with key people prior to designing the project – get as much input as possible.
 Discuss the project with funding agency staff by telephone or e-mail before starting the application.
 Review the solutions implemented by other organizations which have a similar need – however, be aware of your unique circumstances.
 If necessary, be willing to travel to see other projects which have a bearing on yours. If this is not possible, talk on the telephone.
 Think “outside of the box” when developing a project – the sky is the limit!
 Use common sense in project development – sometimes your own best judgment is the answer!

Statement of Need

Although this is one of the most important parts of any grant application, it also tends to be one of the most poorly written. One of the reasons for this may be that many grant writers just assume that the need for the project is obvious. Do not assume anything. The grant writer must make the case for both the need for the project and the need for financial assistance to do the project in a very clear, comprehensive, concise, and compelling manner. These are the four C’s for writing any grant application. This section is no place for vague, general, weak, or “stretching” statements.

Grant reviewers are not fond of flowery language. They tend to regard this type of verbiage with suspicion. It is as if the grant writer does not really have anything substantial to say and relies upon words designed to disguise the fact that there is no substance to the proposal. Whenever I read something like that, I feel rather insulted, as if I had been confronted with a particularly bad sales pitch. What counts with grant reviewers is a simple, direct statement of the facts. Please let your facts shine through and speak for themselves. They do not need to be embellished or exaggerated. Do not, under any circumstances, tell falsehoods in your application. This will damage your credibility with the funding agencies and word will get around. Your success rate will plummet rapidly. At the risk of sounding redundant, I will say it again: it is not worth the risk.

As I have said before and will certainly say again, it is very important to be specific. The use of statistics, when available, makes a very compelling case. Individual histories and anecdotes are also helpful. In short, anything which can help the reviewer to get a clear picture of the project should be added to this section of the narrative. The basic elements of a well-written project need section are just commonsense. They are as follows: general description of the situation, the number and type of people affected, the extent to which these people are affected, and what will happen if the project is not done.

It is also extremely important to discuss the need for financial assistance in order to carry it out. The applicant must clearly demonstrate that without grant funding, the project will not move forward. If the applicant has been turned down by other potential sources, it is necessary to specify that and to include copies of the letters rejecting the request for funds. It is always helpful for agencies to know that they are not the only source which is being requested to provide funding. An applicant will have more credibility if it can be demonstrated that potential funding sources were carefully researched and a funding strategy was well thought out.

Another angle to demonstrate financial need is to show the allocation of funds in an organization’s total budget in order to demonstrate that no applicant monies are available. This information will show that all available funds are going toward operating costs and cannot be used for new projects or that other needed projects are consuming the entire budget of the organization. In many cases, a copy of the applicant’s most recent audited financial statement must be submitted along with the application.

In the case of municipalities or counties, information regarding the economic situation of the community is critical. If an area is considered to be economically disadvantaged and demonstrates high unemployment, low median income, and a high rate of poverty, then the assessable base or value of the real estate upon which taxes are calculated is low. This dictates that the local government has only a limited ability to raise taxes and thereby realize additional revenue. It may very well be that the population of this political jurisdiction cannot afford to pay additional taxes which could fund new programs.

In the case of nonprofits, financial need may be demonstrated by a statement that the organization has a small donor base or that a reduction in donations over a certain period of time has occurred. Information should also be given on the nonprofit’s operating costs in order to show the amount of money which is being spent to keep the organization going.

Obligations That Come With Grants

Grant agreements can vary in length from the two to four pages required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency all the way up to the thirty or forty pages of a CDBG grant agreement. Since the administrative and fiscal requirements are generally the same from grant to grant, much of the governmental grant agreement is boilerplate material, with information specific to a particular grant inserted in the appropriate places.

If the grantee is a local government, the chief elected official is the person designated to sign the agreement. If a nonprofit is the grantee, generally the President of the Board of Directors is the official empowered to sign. It is a good idea to review the agreement carefully prior to signing. Most grantees have their attorney review it. I have only seen two or three grantees who decided to not proceed with the project after reading the grant agreement. Most of the provisions of the agreement relate to administering the project according to the laws governing that particular program. In addition, the grantee is signing off that the project will proceed just as it was described in the grant application.

Standard information included in the grant agreement is as follows:

• a description of the project with the amount of the grant and the amount of the local match
• contact information for the agency and the grantee
• grant period or timeframe by which the project must be started and deadline by which it must be completed-this is generally at least one year. However, some programs offer multiyear funding. The timeframe will be spelled out in the grant solicitation. In general, most multiyear grants provide for no more than three or four years.
• listing of any information which the grantee must provide to the funding agency prior to beginning the project
• information regarding the penalties to be incurred if the grant terms are not adhered to
• provisions for modifying the project
• listing and description of the various laws which govern the program, including those dealing with environmental review, labor standards, historic preservation, fair housing, and equal opportunity

Once the grantee is satisfied that the requirements of the grant agreement are fully understood, it should be signed and returned to the agency. It is well to complete this process as soon as possible, as the project cannot start until the grant agreement is fully executed-meaning that it is signed by both the funding agency and the grantee.

Funding for For-Profit Businesses

This post is written with the goal of assisting individual businesses in their own search for funds as opposed to looking at the broader picture of economic development in a particular city or county. I would strongly recommend that for-profit businesses approach the economic development offices in their area first. Many localities have programs which assist local business. Two examples of locally-administered programs are facade improvement programs in downtowns and revolving loan funds. Most of the time, these programs are funded with monies from the federal or state government. Their goal is to improve local economic indicators, such as the unemployment rate and assessable base.

Economic development departments can also be extremely helpful to individual businesses in that most of them are the referral point for state and federal programs which can help them. Obviously, there is a variation in the services provided by different economic development offices depending on their budget and staffing. Most of these offices provide a complete referral service to local businesses and assist them throughout the entire process up to and including the submittal of the applications for assistance. Most of the time, these services are free.

If your city or county does not have an economic development office which assists local business, the next step would be to contact the state’s economic development department. Most states have specific agencies dedicated to business development and administer financial assistance programs. The business owner would be well advised to either contact the relevant staff member or to search the website.

The major federal agency charged with assisting small business is the Small Business Administration (http://www.sba.gov). SBA provides help in the form of counseling, financial assistance, and expert advice regarding contracting opportunities with the federal government.

S.C.O.R.E. (Service Corps of Retired Executives) is a nonprofit organization which partners with SBA in order to provide free advice and low-cost workshops to small businesses. There are 364 chapters of this organization, which is comprised of working and retired business executives. Its name is therefore a bit misleading. The website can be found at www.score.org/index.html.

Small Business Development Centers throughout the country counsel small businesses on their management strategies. These centers are organized to provide for cooperation between the private sector; the educational community; and federal, state and local governments. Women’s Business Centers provide assistance to the female entrepreneur. SBA also provides help to businesses interested in going international.

SBA provides assistance to help small, disadvantaged, and female businesses receive federal government contracts. The agency has a program to provide surety bond guarantees. This helps contractors who cannot obtain bonding through regular channels. These bonds are required for many government-funded projects. If the contractor fails to complete the project, the surety bond will pay the project owner for the cost of the uncompleted work.

Venture capital is a type of private equity capital usually provided for companies that are just starting out and which have a lot of potential in exchange for shares in the company. It is provided through Small Business Investment Companies, which are privately-owned and managed investment funds regulated by SBA. These companies are permitted to borrow funds at favorable rates from SBA in order to provide operating money.

Most of the financial programs provide loan guarantees. The agency’s primary program is referred to as “7(a)”. This program provides a guarantee to a bank loan which is structured to SBA requirements. Businesses may not participate in 7(a) if they have access to other borrowing at reasonable terms.

The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program provides for-profit businesses with the opportunity to access a reserved portion of federal research and development funds. A company applies to become an SBIR firm on a competitive basis. Eleven federal departments participate in the program. In order to qualify, a firm must be American-owned, have less than five hundred employees, be a for-profit concern, and have the principal researcher employed by that business. Funds are provided for the start-up and development phases.

The Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) Program provides joint ventures involving small businesses and nonprofit research institutions with an opportunity to access a special reservation of federal funds. Five federal agencies participate in this program. This is done in recognition of the fact that small businesses often do not have access to research and nonprofit research institutions do not have the means to translate that research into commercial ventures. The qualifications for participating in this program are the same as the SBIR program except that the principal researcher need not be employed by the small business. The nonprofit research institution must be a federally funded research and development center.

Federal funding for small businesses may also be found at Grants.gov. In order to see the universe of grant opportunities available for small businesses (or businesses of any size) go to the site and only specify the type of applicant, leaving all other search fields blank. The searcher may specify one of the following: opportunities which are open to small businesses; those which are open to businesses which are not considered to be small; and those which are unrestricted, meaning that any type of entity may apply. Just to give the reader an example, I conducted this type of search on Grants.gov in late October of 2009. Of the total of 1184 grant programs which were open for applications at that time, 647 were open to small businesses, 615 were open to businesses other than small concerns, and 165 were unrestricted.

Writing a Compelling Abstract

Abstract
This is a brief summary of the application, generally running no more than two pages in length, although many solicitations limit the abstract to one page. This element of the application is not always required, and should only be prepared when explicitly requested in the grant guidance documents. In some cases, the specific points to be covered in the abstract are delineated by the funding agency.

When specific guidance is not given, the following items of information should be included:

• The heading should clearly state the title of the project, the funding agency to which the application is being submitted, the name of the funding program, and the name of the applicant.
• The first paragraph should be a summary of the activities to be undertaken with the funds as well as the amount applied for-it is helpful to funding agencies to know exactly where their money is going at the very beginning of the application. This provides a clarity which makes a positive impression.
• The second paragraph should briefly describe the need for the project and give statistical information to back this up.
• The third paragraph should delineate specific positive outcomes resulting from the grant.
• The fourth paragraph should briefly describe the capabilities and experience of the applicant organization, as well as the reasons why the applicant cannot afford to undertake this project on its own
• The final paragraph should be a brief “wrap-up” which states how the project will be evaluated and then sustained after the grant period has expired.

After reading this chapter, it will become obvious that the abstract is no more than a very brief summary of each section of the application in turn. This is a very important part of any submission, as it provides a brief, “at a glance” description which should make a very positive impression in the very beginning.

Demographics and Other Research

One of the most critical elements of any proposal is solid statistical documentation. This is the most compelling way to make the case as statistics are a common denominator which can be used to compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges. Most grant applications require some sort of numerical data. Solid documentation of this type is one of the most convincing ways for a grant writer to make a compelling argument for a project because it makes the need seem believable and more real.

An example of how this works would be the hypothetical case of a grant writer who is trying to show that the majority of residents of a particular neighborhood are of low-and moderate-income status. The proposal writer would need to gather statistics from a recognized source to document this. Data from the Census offers information on household and family income for various geographies from the block level up to the national level. This is the most widely recognized source of demographic, social, and economic data in the United States. In our hypothetical example, if the proposal writer is lucky, the neighborhood in question may conform to Census geography. It is possible that a particular block group may comprise the neighborhood in question. Where this is not the case, the writer may need to work with individual blocks in order to build data which corresponds to the neighborhood in question. A detailed discussion on what information is available through the Census and how to use it is provided later in this chapter.

The grant writer may also use other indicators of economic distress such as the level of poverty, the age of housing in the area, the median value of the houses, median contract rent, number and percent of housing units lacking complete plumbing or kitchen facilities, and number of families not owning a vehicle.

The writer of a grant proposal for a heritage tourism project, such as the development of a small local museum, could use this same information in order to make the case that the area in which it is located exhibits economic distress and therefore show the need for a tourist attraction. The application should document that promotion of heritage tourism will bring in needed dollars to stimulate the local economy. In this instance, since we are talking about an area broader than just a single neighborhood, it would be appropriate to use unemployment statistics which are available by county from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (U.S. Department of Labor).

Tips for the Application Process:

 Make letters of inquiry brief (no more than 2 pages) but informative – stress the need for the project, your organization’s ability to carry it out, and the benefits which will accrue from it.
 Respond promptly if a foundation requests a full proposal based on a letter of inquiry.
 Check the web site of a funding agency thoroughly before e-mailing or telephoning so as to avoid asking questions which are clearly answered on the web site.
 Ensure that you have the latest version of the application and regulations.
 Check the math in the budget – although this is obvious, many applicants make mathematical errors.
 Pay attention to those agencies which require that a Letter of Intent be filed prior to a full application. In nearly all cases, there is a specific deadline for submitting this letter.
 Pay careful attention to the rating and ranking criteria when crafting a proposal. Incorporate the application language into the narrative.
 Be concise but thorough in the narrative.
 If there is a specific page maximum, be sure that you come as close to that as possible without exceeding it. You can rest assured that the other applicants will provide as much information as possible.
 Give a descriptive narrative with specific examples.
 Be crystal clear in your writing. Do not “beat around the bush”.
 Be complete and thorough in the narrative – do not leave the reviewer wondering what you mean. Answer the questions completely.
 Use good grammar and correct punctuation and spelling.
 Re-read the application at least twice.
 Give proper attribution for all information derived from others and cite sources for statistical data
 Answer the funding agency’s requests for additional information completely, cheerfully, and on time.
 Send letters of support with the application itself unless the guidelines state otherwise. However, some U.S. Representatives and Senators will only send support letters directly to the funding agency.
 If there is any doubt whatsoever about whether an application will reach the office of the funding agency on time, send it overnight or two-day guaranteed delivery.
 Send the application directly to the person named in the solicitation, with the correct number of copies.
 Check to see that the application arrived on time.
 Start on-line applications early so that you can get your questions answered before the deadline.
 Keep the user name and password for on-line applications in a handy place where they will not be lost.
 Do your best to stave off performance anxiety as the due date for the application arrives – this will impair your ability to do the best job possible.
 Do your best to be available for site visits when the funding agency wants to come. Only change the date if there is an emergency.

Sometimes A Project Just Won’t Be Approved

Sometimes even the best applications are not successful. One example that illustrates this beautifully is a story I heard about a municipality who was applying to the state government for funds to rehabilitate a street that was in imminent danger of collapse. There was a very real need here and the only solution was a costly (four hundred thousand dollars) complete rehabilitation of the street. This town had a population of only 750 people, and only about 50 residents on the street would benefit most directly. The application was turned down the first year it was submitted. The funding agency was good enough to make a regular practice of letting the applicants who did not get funded know the reason for that decision. In that case, they mentioned a few minor issues with the narrative which were easily corrected. However, their main problem seemed to be centered on the fact that no other funding sources were being sought. It was obvious that they did not feel comfortable making a grant of that size and being the only funding agency involved in the project.

Unfortunately, grant sources for municipal street work are not plentiful in that part of the country. The town reapplied the next year and made the requested narrative changes. An attempt was made to find other sources to leverage, or match, the state monies. The town was able to show that it had at least tried to find other funds. However, the town itself, with its budget of only $375,000 per year, could not afford to put any money into it. The application was turned down for the second time even though the town did everything that the state asked for with the exception of contributing its own money to the project. This was a very unfortunate case as the project really needed to be done and there was no other place to turn. However, this just goes to show that the best written project can be turned down because of situations beyond the grant writer’s control.

Basic Elements of a Proposal

Never underestimate the importance of doing a superlative writing job on the grant application. This is one of the most critical predictors of success. However, many people are under the impression that the grant writer’s skill in writing is the only important thing. In my opinion, the most critical factor is a well-designed project which meets the identified need with the most economical use of resources. The best written proposal cannot disguise the fact that a project is ill-conceived and designed and will not accomplish the desired outcomes.

The following steps should always be followed before beginning to write the proposal:

• Read the entire solicitation at least twice from beginning to end.
• Call or e-mail the contact listed in the solicitation in order to discuss the project and to make certain that it meets threshold requirements.
• Determine whether it is possible to gather the data and write the application by the deadline-the grant writer will need to consider his or her own schedule and pace of working as well as the availability of colleagues who will be involved in preparing the grant application.
• Determine the feasibility of obtaining statistical data to directly support the project.
• Determine the feasibility of obtaining supporting information from others.

It is very important to write in a style which conveys the urgency of the need and the necessity for the project. The application should be written with feeling and give a sense of the serious consequences to the beneficiaries if the project should not be funded. This is the “human side” of the request. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to teach someone to write with feeling. That generally comes about with practice and a passion for one’s work. Some of the individual stories of the potential beneficiaries can be used to show the very serious and personal nature of their distress.

The Golden Rule of grant writing is to be specific. Vague and general statements will not get the grant money. If the grant writer is working to make a specific point, he or she should be very clear, use statistical support and examples, provide a clear picture of the need, the project, and the outcomes.