Competitive Grant Applications: Making the Cut and Justifying the Need

Image: North Charleston
Image: North Charleston

Public Safety Grant News and Tips by Kurt Bradley, Certified Grants Consultant

Grant reviewers have become increasingly more demanding and critical of applicants in making their decisions regarding who will, or will not, be funded. If you’re going to make the cut for a grant, you can’t just state you need something—you have to justify the need.

The economy has not only reduced the amount of money that is available to compete for, it has also increased the number of agencies who apply for assistance, thereby increasing the competition for those dollars. Simply making the statement that your community or agency has a problem, or “need,” is in and of itself insufficient to gain a funding award for most grant programs now.

Consider the Facts

Let’s get some facts out here that need to be considered.

In a popular federal grant application period, the funding source may receive 18,000-20,000 applications for the existing program dollars for that year.

For logistical purposes, they cannot simply read each and every application. That herculean task would take need large teams of reviewers doing nothing but reviewing applications for months, if not years. It would also cost a considerable sum of money, which must be taken from the allocated program dollars, to pay for the administrative functions needed to accomplish that.

The money that is used to accomplish those tasks is money that is taken away from the money that was going to be awarded, and let’s face it: the government does not ever do anything cheap.

The end result? Less money would be available to award the agencies who are applying.

The pool of money is finite, and they can only fund so many agencies with whatever money they have available. Because of this, they must have a process whereby agencies “qualify their need.” As such, the program can begin screening who has a bigger need and start to cull the number of applications down to a manageable number.

It is therefore essential that you, as a grant writer, not simply just say that you “have a need.” You must thoroughly discuss and justify that “need” in order to be funded. This justification process is accomplished in a grant application in a couple of different ways.

By The Numbers

Many Federal grant applications now require the applicant to answer what are known as “agency and activity specific questions.” This is done for two reasons:

The funding source is asking you to answer these questions in an attempt to give your agency the opportunity to statistically document the work that they are actually doing. It’s a chance for you to let them know that “Hello, I have some pretty important stuff here that we have responsibility for as well, and we need to also be prepared to deal with it when something goes horribly wrong.” This is also how they begin to compare you against other agencies in determining who has the greater need and stronger case for funding that need.

First, the Computer Review

At this particular point, a human being is not reading your application. In most case, during this initial stage a computer reviews and analyzes submitted applications.

When you push that submit button on your application, in a nano-second your application is already scored for purposes of being what is known as “in the competitive range.” Remember: computers add, subtract, divide, and multiply numbers, and they use complex “secret” algorithms to weight those responses. Computers then crunch those numbers all together to come up with a score. If you score high enough, you move on to the next stage of review, which is “peer review,” and it is only then that a human being actually reads anything you have written.

Don’t Ignore the Numbers

Many departments fail to really pay attention to these questions. Instead they believe, erroneously, that this is just “fodder” material to describe their agency or activities. The actual relationship to your overall score is often overlooked, and the importance of these questions is ignored—to the application’s peril.

These questions and their subsequent answers should first be read thoroughly, examined carefully, and addressed accurately. When you are answering these questions, the grant writer should always strive to have the most accurate answers possible.

This is not the place where an “estimate” or an “educated guess” is going to suffice. Nor should you just plug in any old number. Sometimes these numbers are assigned a crucial weighting factor. Failure to give proper thought and response to these questions can knock you right out of the competition from the very beginning.

No Need, No Grant

For example, the number and types of calls that your agency responds to is used to determine need. If you were asking for funding to purchase a new vehicle for your department, the decision to fund you is based in part on the number of times that vehicle will be used for the purposes stated. If your call volume fails to properly justify that you answer a large number of the types of calls needing that particular vehicle, you will not be funded.

This is why so many agencies fail in their grant applications. They may request, say, an aerial apparatus, yet they have no real definable reason for needing an aerial apparatus in the first place. When they ask you to list how many 3-story or taller occupied structures are in your first due area and you answer “0,” well there you have it. There is no need here, and if there’s no need, there’s no grant.

Want Is Not Need

Every year I deal with two or three departments whose only real need for an aerial is simply because the neighboring agency has one and they are trying to “Keep up with the Jones,” or they believe that every Fire Department must have an aerial. Remember: there is a huge difference between a “want” and a “need.” Learn to recognize the difference!

Include Mutual Aid Calls

Likewise, it is important to adequately and accurately state not just your own calls, but to take credit for your mutual aid calls.

DHS grants place great emphasis on “interagency cooperation and interoperability.” Therefore, you had better be able to show that you are a regular visitor to the “community sandbox” and that you “play well” with others in that same sandbox. Your mutual aid numbers add significantly to your justification of need.

Are Your Needs Their Priorities?

Another example is in the relationship that a particular question plays in establishing that you are addressing the grant maker’s program priorities.

For instance, in the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program (AFG), the stated primary purposes of this program is to:

“enhance through direct financial assistance, the health and safety of the public and firefighting personnel and to provide a continuum of support for emergency responders regarding fire, medical, and all hazard events.”

What Do You Mean, Zero Injuries?

I have seen hundreds of departments completely miss this point in their application through one grave mistake.

There is a question in the Applicant Characteristics Part II of the grant application which asks you to “provide the number of firefighter and civilian related injuries that have occurred in the last 3 years as a result of fire?”

I don’t know how many rejected applications I have reviewed, and when I look at the answer they provided to this question they had “0” in all the boxes.

Bear in mind: a computer, not a person, is weighing and quantifying these answers. That computer is also assigning a score based upon those calculations. If the computer sees nothing but zeroes in those boxes, then it’s going to give a zero score. As far as the computer can determine, if no injuries are occurring, then no need exists for your department to receive grant money to improve the levels of safety being offered.

Although this is a noble achievement to actually achieve, it more or less nullifies your reason for needing assistance.

When I question Chiefs about why they put zeroes in those columns, the answer I usually get is not that they actually did not have any injuries, it is that they do not want to put the numbers there for fear that someone would believe that he/she runs an unsafe department.

Really? Poppycock!

You just shot yourself in the foot because a human did not read that box, a computer did.

Truth be known, the problem usually resides in the fact that nobody bothered to take the 30 seconds it would have taken to document the injuries to either their own staff or to the civilians.

How many times do you roll up on a structure fire and find the residents in the front yard or street, and almost every one of them is coughing from minor smoke inhalation? You, of course, send them back to the rescue or EMS coach and have them suck some oxygen. Almost always the victims claim they will be all right and don’t need to seek formal medical attention, right?

Let’s ask ourselves a simple question here:

Was the smoke inhalation a result of a fire?

Why, of course it was. But did you make a note on your run call record? How do you expect to recall all of this 12 months from now, when you are trying to apply to the grant program, unless you documented that fact, when it occurred?

Use Current Census Data

Agencies should also keep in mind that the numbers here, regarding your population and demographics, also play a critical role in determining your need. You have to take credit for every single human being that lives in your areas.

Remember that the US Census is done every 10 years, the last being 2010. So why did I see so many applications this year quoting census statistics from 2000? How much do you think things have changed in your area since 2000, the last time a national census was done prior to 2010? Has your population grown, or decreased, during the last 13 years?

For many of you, that growth can be significant.

But Remember Current and Recent Events

Consider a community that reported in the US Census in 2010 that there were 1,200 residents living there.

Now let’s say that in 2012, the State DOT 4-laned the US highway through their area and leading into the next major metropolitan area, making commuting a viable option for many. A developer saw this potential growth corridor and developed a 500-home subdivision to go in alongside this highway, which will draw the “city slickers” into your town. That subdivision was completed in 2013, and now there are 500 homes filled with residents and an additional 1,250 people.

That represents a more than 100% increase in your population. It would be critically important that this actual number be answered accurately and the situation leading to this was properly explained.

Do not just rely on what the US Census said in 2010. That data will be 4 years old in 2014. By putting up current figures instead, you may say quite a bit about your community. Do the research, do the math, and report it accurately!

Use Your Narrative

The narrative statement of your grant application is your second shot at justification of needs. If your application survived the initial computer screening process, and you have been fortunate enough to make it to peer review, this is where you do not want to squander you opportunity to really drive home the gravity of the situation in your community which you are trying to remedy.

Always keep in mind here that for every item you ask for in a grant, you must provide a proper, comprehensive justification of need for that particular item.

Think about that statement for a second.

What should you be telling the grant reviewer? What it is saying is that the more items you put into your grant and ask for, the more diluted your justification for each item will have to become to fit the space requirements imposed on most grant applications these days.

Leave the Shopping Cart at the Store

Don’t take a shopping cart approach; the grant might say that you can ask for all things, in all areas of need, but that’s a fool’s choice. Ask for one or two item, and then do a better job of justifying the need. There is always another grant somewhere else, or next year, for the rest of the list.

Fact Blast

The narrative statement is where you accomplish that task. It is not simply enough to make a statement that “the crime problem is out of control in this city” or that your equipment is “old and outdated.” Blast them with the facts, like these two examples:

“In 2010, our department responded to 81 burglaries of residential properties in our community, and the total value of property stolen during those crimes was $167,426.00. During the same time period in 2013, we investigated 105 residential burglaries within our jurisdictional control, and the value of property stolen increased to $224,589.00. This represents an approx. 25% increase in this major index crime in less than one year. It is obvious that we have a very severe problem with residential burglaries, and it is only a matter of time before a homeowner is severely injured or killed when they encounter one of these criminals burglarizing their domicile.”


“Our department has recently completed a critical needs assessment, and it was determined that at this point our turnout gear is our most critical problem. The turnout gear that we are currently using is all in excess of 20 years old. It is torn in places, has burn holes in the shells and is mismatched. There are female firefighters wearing turnout gear that is two sizes too large for them, and which causes them mobility problems and is not offering them proper protection from heat. The gear has closures and zippers which are missing or broken, and the stitching in many places is coming loose. Repeated washings of this turnout gear have reduced its fire-retardant qualities. Our current budgetary restraints preclude us from replacing this equipment except on a piece-by-piece basis. At that rate, it will take more than 10 years for us to replace all the turnout gear for our firefighters.”

These statements paint a clear picture, using facts and a full explanation of circumstances to state the case for need. They don’t just say, “our gear is old,” or, “our number of burglaries is increasing.” They provide fact-based, quantifiable data that someone can clearly make a comparison with and draw a logical conclusion form.

Conduct a Survey

Many grant programs are extremely dependent upon proper studies being conducted to actually determine the need.

I can see many of you asking the question, “How do I go about conducting a study? Don’t they require a lot of money or hiring consultants to do this?”

The answer is not simple. But, depending upon what you are trying to study, it can be accomplished in most cases with relative ease and little expense. You first must ask yourself the question: “is it worth spending a little money, to get a larger pot of money?”

For example, let’s say that your fire department thinks there are not many smoke detectors in the homes in your community. Now notice I said, “thinks” there are not enough.

They apply to the Fire Prevention & Safety Grant Program, making a request to gain an award so that they can buy 1,000 smoke detectors. You could never apply to the Fire Prevention & Safety (FP&S) grant program with just that statement, and it would never get funded on that alone, because the first thing a reviewer is going to ask is, “How do they know they need 1,000 smoke detectors?”

Folks this is 2013, not 1953. Modern building and fire codes have been around for quite some time now, and those codes demand that new construction or significant remodeling must meet certain electrical, building and fire codes, which include working smoke detectors to be in place prior to human occupancy.

Smoke detectors are the norm, not the exception—so how do you make the care for that lack of smoke detectors in your community?

Address the Program’s Priorities

What you should do instead, is to keep in mind a number of things. First on that list is to also recognize, from your careful and thorough reading of the program’s Funding Opportunity Announcement (or FOA) that the stated program priorities are to address fire prevention and safety, with the identified high-risk, targeted audience being juveniles under the age of 14 and senior citizens over the age of 65.

Now, in plain English, what did they just say? They said that they want to fund things that are related to fire prevention and safety, specifically for those people who are under age 14 and those over age 65. Now, I don’t know how they could be any more specific than that about what they are primarily interested in giving money to your department to accomplish.

Surveys on a Shoestring

I would prove that need to them by accomplishing a simple study in the following manner.

Approach the scout leader of a local scouting troop and ask them if they would help you with a “community service project.” Most scouting programs require that the achievement of civic and other merit badges is tied directly to community service. We tend to usually think of this as the troop picking up trash along the highway or in local parks. On the contrary, “community service projects” cover a wide range of activities.

Have the troop agree to station several scouts in front of the local Wal-Mart for the next couple of weekends. Provide them with a simple questionnaire with 4 questions on it:

  • Are there children under the age of 14 in your home?
  • Are there any persons over the age of 65 in your home?
  • Do you have a working smoke detector in your home?
  • Do you live in “Your-Town-Here,” USA?

Most people will gladly take 30 seconds to answer 4 questions for a Boy Scout or Girl Scout (and maybe they can place an order for their annual cookies while they are at it).

Now, have the scouts ask every adult that enters the store these questions during that time period. If you have 10,000 residents in your town, a good scientific cross representation of them would be considered with 25% of the population polled. So you need them to get responses from 2,500 people. That might seem like a lot, but have you watched Wal-Mart on Sunday afternoon lately? It won’t take very long to poll 2,500 citizens. Once you have the results, add up the figures for each category and multiply by 4.

Hey, guess what?

You just conducted a scientifically based study that is statistically accurate and actually proves your theory that there are not many smoke detectors in your jurisdiction. The inclusion of this data in your narrative statement can substantially increase the chances that your program would be funded.

Another Way to Get the Data

This same technique could be used with school children to test their actual knowledge of fire safety or crime safety.

Enlist the aid of a few school teachers and come up with a simple test of 10 questions regarding crime or fire safety. Now have the teachers make the questions age-appropriate for their age groups that they each teach. Then gain permission from the local school principal or school board to have the test distributed in all classrooms with children under the age of 14. Collect the tests and tabulate the results.

Once you have been awarded your grant, you can then conduct your education program with the school, re-administer the same test, and notate the subsequent increase in their knowledge.

Hey, here you go again!

Now you have conducted a true study of their actual knowledge.

You identified the problem, established a baseline of their exciting knowledge, educated the students, then retested them and provided an effective evaluation of your program’s success to report in your final report for the grant program.

Documenting the success of your program is critical to obtaining additional funding nowadays. Those departments who take the time to conduct these types of surveys are consistently funded more frequently than those that do not.

It should also be noted that neither of the 2 scenarios above actually cost the department anything other than a little time to conduct. No big consultant fees or extensive mass mailings. Simple, easy and effective!

Justify the Need, Get the Grant

Conducting and properly documenting need is a critical part of any grant application. It is not something that should be done in haste. Proper planning, in advance of the grant program opening, is the ticket here.

There is no way to guarantee an award. But, if you justify your need, you greatly improve your chances of getting the grant.