Friday, July 16, 2010

Free Federal Grant Money

Pot of Gold at the End of the Rainbow or Dangerous Myth?

Matthew Lesko really hacks me off.  First off, he looks like the riddler in those tights.  Second, to listen to him and other grant hucksters tell it the federal government is just jumping up and down about to wet its collective pants waiting for you to ask them for money.  Ads for books, tapes and videos on how to get the “Free Federal Grant Money” are deceptive and cruel. They prey on people who are poor, people who have big dreams that they are trying to make come true and people who have bought into the idea that the federal government is one big Santa Claus and if they just know the right magic incantation, they can get him to “Open Sesame” and all the gold will come pouring out. 

A federal grant is never free, no matter what Lesko and his ilk may say.  The only reason federal agencies award grants is to pay someone or some organization to do something the agency believes the public wants or needs and is for their collective good.  They do not give grants to help you pay your way out of debt, renovate your bathroom or clear up your acne.  Federal grants pay for research, delivery of human services, public arts projects, economic development, data collection or testing of a new drug or weapons system.  If you get such a grant, you can bet the agency that gave it to you not only wants you to do something specific with it, but also will be looking over your shoulder to make sure you do it the way you said you would and that you don’t misuse or misappropriate the funds.

That’s how they get people to fill up all those nice federal prisons.

That said, here’s what you do to get a federal grant.

Decide What Good Thing You Want to Do

First you need to figure out what needed thing you want to do that can’t be funded through a bank loan or investors – the way an ordinary business is funded.  The project should be something the community needs but doesn’t have and can’t get without help.  One way to do this is to listen around the community to what people are complaining about.  Not enough baseball fields for Little League?  Maybe you need a park.  Too many teens running the streets and getting into trouble? Maybe you need a youth center or after school program. Listening to the radio, reading the newspaper and watching TV is a good way to recognize recurring themes.  Talk about your idea for fixing the problem with community leaders if you want your grant application to have a chance of success.  Get their input and support for your idea.  Now you’re ready to start work in earnest.

Conduct A Series Of Stakeholder Meetings

Stakeholders are people and organizations that have a stake in your cause. If your idea is an after school program for youth, invite parents, teachers, law enforcement and even the kids themselves.  If your community needs improved transportation for people with disabilities, seniors or low-income families, invite city-planning officials, human service agencies, transportation providers and people who will use the services and get ideas from them.  Stakeholder forums help you collect ideas and synthesize them into a plan. Stakeholder meetings also help you get communities behind the plan. You’ll need that later.

Identify The Lead Agency

The lead agency is whoever will handle the money, write checks and assume responsibility for the execution of the project and for the many (repeat many) detailed reports the government will ask for. The lead agency should be be someone everybody trusts. If it’s a collaborative project, the partners should agree on the lead agency and that agency should have a record of trustworthy behavior. This is important because the lead agency can make the collaboration work or screw it up royally. If you’ve ever been a junior partner in a collaborative projects, it’s likely you’ve been burned by a lead agency that cut you out or reduced the amount of money you received. Selection of the lead agency is of primary importance to the success of the project.

Write A Project Plan

A project plan is pretty much the same as a business plan.  You’ll need a multi-year budget depending on the Request For Proposal.  You’ll need to develop staff lists, qualifications of key project leaders and organizations, certifications, licenses and permits needed to operate. You’ll need to create goals and objectives, strategies and implementation plans. You may even have to create a new organization from scratch if one does not already exist that can handle the project. Write the project plan up in a business plan format.  The project plan answers the proverbial 5 W’s:  Who is doing the project; What the project is; When the project will take place; Where the project will be conducted; Why the project needs to be conducted.  Answer those questions in your project plan and you’ll be ready to write the grant.

Find Federal Funding

Visit on the Internet and sign up for their e-mail newsletter. The newsletter is published frequently and lists all new federal RFP’s as they come out.  The announcements include links to downloadable applications and instructions for RFP’s.  When you sign up for the newsletter, you will choose which programs you are interested in, what areas. Think about what you are doing.  You project may be able to receive funding from several agencies.  Suppose you were funding a high school student internship program at a rural wildlife refuge. You might approach the Department of Education, the Department of Agriculture, Fish and Wildlife or the Department of Labor if they had funding for this type of project.  Request or download a copy of any RFP for which you qualify and study it to make sure you are eligible.

Fill Out the Application

Follow the instructions in the RFP closely. If you don’t understand something, call the federal agency’s contact person for help. They love that. Nothing warms the cockles of a bureaucrat’s heart more than to have you sit at their feet, eager to learn from them. Calling for help can keep you on track and help you build rapport with the agency awarding the grant. It may not help you win the grant (the process is pretty strict about the decision being in the hands of impartial reviewers), but it can help make the process easier if you do win the grant.

Collect Support Data

Put together all the data, documentation and letters of support from the community that are required by the RFP.  If there is a matching funds requirement (and for federal grants there usually is), then now is the time to raise the matching funds. You need to at least know where the matching funds are coming from and be almost read to submit the matching fund application BEFORE submitting the application for federal funds. The federal funds won’t be available till the matching funds are in place. Get letters of support from politicians and public officials as well as other agencies with whom you will work.

Complete the Application

Fill out the application, its appendices and attach the proper documentation and all of the letters of support you have collected. Send the application as soon as you have it completed.  Don’t wait for the last minute. It never fails that you need something else or that something gets delayed.  Plan to be finished early and you’ll be finished on time.

Be Patient

Wait for the announcement of who won the grants.  The date is published in the RFP.  Don’t pester the agency for information.  They won’t tell you anything before the scheduled announcement.  All you will do is hack everyone off and only lose friends at the agency.  AND they still won’t tell you anything.

Success and Failure

If you win the grant, all you need to do is do what you said you would do, when you said you would do it. Do that and it scores you extra points when you reapply for later grants.  If you fail to get the grant this time, don’t despair.  Most grant applicants fail to win the grant the first time out. Don’t just give up.  Contact the representative at the agency and as for copies of the grant reviewer’s comments about your application and figure out what went wrong.  As soon as the grant comes up again next in the year or so, reapply using the information you learned last time.  Don’t quit. Sometimes you have to apply two or three times to win a grant.

What Not to Do

The “Free Grant Money” people will often give you “template” letters to write. Do the grant or don’t do it. Shoddy or cookie cutter applications are worse than useless. Do NOT write generic letters to federal agencies asking for money.  They give the agency a bad opinion of your competence to use federal funds effectively. A federal grant will not pay off your credit cards, buy you a house or help you start a business simply because you are a woman, a minority or a person with disabilities.  A federal grant may fund a project from which you draw a salary.  It won’t pay you to write the grant. Most of the time you half to raise half of the money somewhere else. 

Still federal grants can help you raise a lot of money.  Stick to the grant application.  Follow the instructions in the request for proposal to the letter.  Keep in mind the tips I’ve laid out here and you can create a successful project and grant application. 

Good luck with that first grant, it’s a doozy! 

Good Places to Search for Federal Grant Resources.
Federal Register
Federal Funding Tools and Links
Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance (CFDA)

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