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.
• 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!

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.

How to Survive a Grant Monitoring Visit

Some agencies will perform a review (monitoring visit) of the grantee’s files after the grant period has expired. The purpose of this review is to determine whether the grantee carried out all of its administrative and financial responsibilities in an acceptable manner. Among the items generally covered in such a review are the following:
• If a public hearing was required, did the grantee hold the hearing, provide ample advance notice to the public, and retain documentation of what transpired?
• Was any competitive bidding handled in a fair and equitable manner, with ample opportunity given to any Disadvantaged Business Enterprise?
• Was the work to be funded by the agency properly inspected prior to any disbursements of funds?
• Were all financial transactions completely documented and properly handled consistent with the policies of both the grantee and the funding agency?
• If the project involved direct assistance limited to individuals with certain characteristics — i.e., low and moderate income status, did the grantee properly qualify each beneficiary?
• Were project goals and objectives met?
• Did the grantee evaluate the project for its success in meeting the identified need?

Some programs monitor every grant. It may even take a period of a few years after the expiration of the grant, depending on staff, but the monitoring will be done. Other agencies monitor only a small percentage of their grants on a random basis. Still others send in the monitoring team only when there is reason to suspect there are problems.

Most monitoring visits of which I am aware are done in the spirit of trying to assist the grantee. Naturally, if problems are found, corrective action must be taken. However, most funding agencies tend to take the attitude that the monitoring visit is more of a technical assistance session. However, if monies are spent improperly, either on purpose or inadvertently, the grantee must generally repay the entire amount in question. One example of this would be a grantee which did not properly qualify certain individual beneficiaries of assistance. If this were the case, they would generally have to repay the amount of direct assistance provided to persons who did not qualify under the guidelines of the program.