What Separates the Winners from the Losers in Grants?

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

Most public safety agencies fight a continuous and ongoing battle in funding their existence. Shrinking tax bases, poor economy and swings from the budget axe all take their toll on departments daily and have become the norm, instead of an occasional problem area. Most fundraising activities, if you are allowed to conduct them, are only marginally successful. Generally they allow you to keep fuel in your vehicles, keep the lights lit and the phones turned on at the station, but little else. So how do we continue to wrestle with this beast and yet continue to keep our employees operating safely?

One answer to that question is through the use of grant strategy; planning, researching, developing and applying for grants. The grants ballgame is very much like playing the lottery. Simply stated, “If you don’t play, you can’t win.” From looking at the recent application numbers it appears that quite a few of you are in fact playing the game. Many of you may have gotten the dreaded “Dear John” rejection notice letters,” and some of you may even have received them multiple times. When you don’t win a grant, I am sure many of you are asking the obvious question: “What separates the winners from the losers”?

One year, I took on 18 departments who had previously had their grant applications rejected for a minimum of 2-3 years. This was done purposely, with the intent of conducting an experiment to see what impact “applying the rules” would have on the outcomes. Apparently my observations about what they were doing wrong were correct. That year, 14 of those 18 departments were funded after using this approach to their grant applications.

Lessons Learned

Part of this problem lies in not understanding exactly what a grant is, or what is required to get a grant. Let’s examine these two issues and see if a little knowledge can tear away the frightening mask that covers the face of this imaginary “boogey man.”

One of Mr. Webster’s definitions of a grant is particularly applicable to public safety grants: “giving to a claimant or petitioner something that could be withheld.” In the world of public safety, it is a gift or monetary award to perform certain deeds or services and to achieve certain goals and objectives while solving a unique, particular problem(s) exclusive to your agency and community.

Applying for, and being awarded a grant, is not just simply sticking out your hand and saying, “I need money”. In that scenario, the only thing likely to be placed into your hand will be a rejection notice. All grant programs are offers to fund solutions to problems that exist for your community, and for which no other source of funding is available. Grants are, in essence, a program or project to resolve community problems. Please pay particular attention to the use of the word “program” here.

Understand That It Is Not Just About You

The first thing everybody needs to understand is that all grant funding sources have “funding priorities” assigned to them. We need to remember that it is their money, and if you want their money, you must address their priorities. The successful grant writer is always the one who can form the proper nexus between the funding source’s needs, and the needs of their agency or community. If you don’t accomplish that first step, you have just failed the first litmus test of getting your grant to score high enough to be considered in the competitive range and be passed on to the next step, peer review. Let’s look at one federal grant program.

In the Assistance to Firefighters Grant, the Program Guidance document states that, the “primary reason” for this program is “to enhance firefighter safety.” What can we infer from that statement? They are seeking to make the individual firefighter safe. Those of you who have previously applied should now ask yourself what was your response to the questions that was asked in the grant application about, “How many firefighter-related injuries has your department had during the last three years?” Almost without fail, every rejected application I read had answered that question with “0.”

Now, if the primary purposes of the grant is to enhance firefighter safety and you answered that you had no injuries in three years, what do you suppose a grant reviewer, or in this case the “computer review” would conclude? The computer will assume that you run a very safe operation and that you do not need any help with safety-related matters. If you didn’t list any injuries and the program’s stated purpose is to prevent firefighter injuries, then why would they want to fund you? The key to this is you need to have “documented” these injuries.

On top of that when I asked the Chiefs why they had answered the question that way, the number one answer was “I did not want anyone to think I was running and unsafe department!” Really? Guess what? In the words of the noted Southern comedian, Bill Engvall, “Here’s your sign!”

My inquiries of these fire chiefs also showed that many of you did not understand how critical these answers are that the application asks you to answer in the front of the grant. People, 20,000 departments just like yours have filed for this single public safety grant program. Do you think that a human being reads every one of them first? No, they don’t! When you are dealing with this many grant applications you have to “screen” them somehow. A computer tabulates and assigns points to the answers you provide to those questions in all those little boxes at the front of the grant. If, in the end, your score as compiled from those little boxes does not reach a certain level, then your application does not score high enough to be considered in the competitive range. That means a human being never reads your request! All of the work you did in the narrative section now becomes moot.

It is vitally important that the answers to those “activity specific” questions are not put in “willy-nilly”. The numbers need to be researched thoroughly. They should be accurate and they need to be complete. You have to do some research here folks; just throwing in a number is a sure-fire way to get your grant scored lower than it needs to be. The decision to fund, or not to fund, can sometimes is decided by as little as .25% of a single point. You need to fight and claw to gain every fraction of a point that you can gain.

Paint a Complete Picture

A grant writer must be an artist. You are providing the funding source, or “grantor,” with a picture of your community, its problems, your department’s problems, and the proposed solution. The problem with them is they lack sufficient detail. Many times I have received grants for review and am presented with what amounts to a black-and-white picture describing the proposed program. What is needed is an 8×10, color glossy, 12-megapixel digital image.

The grant writer is painting their picture with too broad of a brush stroke and the reviewer is left with no sense of scale. Here is what I mean; let’s look at describing a common piece of critical infrastructure, such as Interstate 75 as it goes through Atlanta, GA. Obviously, there might just be a little bit of difference in terms of scale between I-75 in Venice, FL and I-75 in Atlanta, Ga., right? However, without stating that detail specifically, and providing some sense of scale, the problem or concern can be totally lost, especially if the reviewer happens to be a person that has never been to your area (which happens quite frequently). Which of the two statements below does a better job and provides you with some sense of scale?

“We have a critical infrastructure concern with 5 miles of I-75 in our area”.

or We have critical infrastructure concerns with 5 miles of I-75. This is a limited access, 16-lane highway with and Average Daily Traffic Count of over 750,000 vehicles daily, of which 30% are commercial vehicles.

Never Underestimate The Value Of A Professional Consultant And/Or Formalized Training

Utilizing someone who deals with grants as a profession or increasing your level of formalized knowledge as it concerns grants is always a wise investment. Gaining their insight and knowledge on your applications prior to submission can save you countless hours and eventual hair-pulling frustration vs. having to learn through the school of hard knocks. A word of caution about this though! Picking the right grant consultant or trainer is crucial to your success. Writing successful public safety grants are very much different than writing for non-profit or social services grant writing. Be sure that the grant writer you use has a specific background in writing and winning these specific grant program awards; all grant writers/consultants are not created equal!

Photo: Athena Workman

Grant Strategy: Gaining Buy-In from Administration

Image: Flazingo Photos - www.flazingo.com and flic.kr/p/nbAu8Y
Image: Flazingo Photos – www.flazingo.com and flic.kr/p/nbAu8Y

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

One of the most frustrating problems, for any public safety grant writer in trying to establish a proper grants strategy in their agency, is to gain the consensus or “buy-in” needed from our administrators that hold the check books. My experience has shown that this is predominantly a problem of the administrators relying on preconceived, outdated information or myths in regards to the current arena of grants.

Those charged with the responsibility of establishing or developing a grants program within their agency need to begin their agency’s overall grant strategy by carefully taking the time to assure that those who have the ultimate decision of saying “yes or no,” are properly educated well ahead of any program that you are thinking of applying for.

This issue has become so critically important that we have recently seen some grant programs that have promulgating rules that require proof that the administration has been properly briefed or informed prior to submission of an application.

One of the absolute worst things that can happen to an agency or a grant writer is to develop, submit and win an award, only to have the administrators refuse the award once it is brought before them because you failed to inform them of what their responsibilities would be. Being properly armed with the correct and accurate information is your first order of business. After all, you would not go to a gunfight, armed with only a knife would you?

One of the more popular shows on TV for the past several years is on Discovery Channel and is called Myth Busters. So let’s do a little “myth busting” of our own here in regards to grants. Just exactly what are some of these myths that administrators need to be aware of in working with you and your agency’s needs?

Myth #1

How many of you have heard this from an administrator?

“Don’t apply to any grant that does not cover 100% of the costs”.

If you eliminate corporate and private foundation funding (which is somewhat limited for public safety agencies) you just knocked yourself out of applying for more than 98% of all government funded grants. The fact is, that most grant programs are going to require a “matching dollar requirement” of somewhere between 5%-50%.

Grants should always be treated as a “hand-up” not a “hand-out.”

The stark but realistic way to look at this, or to counter a statement such as that, is quite simply “would you rather have 80% of something or 100% of nothing?” I don’t know how things work around your household, but if my wife sees 75% off something at Wal-Mart, in most cases she is going to get it regardless of if we need it or not.

Know thy opponent! You should speak to these politically elected officials in their own language and that language is “being fiscally responsible with tax dollars”. Most would prefer that the taxpayers view them as being fiscally conservative. In fact, gauging by this last mid-term election, that was a political platform battle cry. You should ask them point blank” would their constituents rather them pay 100% of the cost of some critically needed item by raising taxes to pay for it, or would they rather only pay 20%”?

It has never ceased to amaze me at the number of administrators or elected officials that have absolutely no idea where Federal, State and local grant program dollars originate from. When you receive a grant into your community you are in essence re-capturing your resident’s tax dollars for them. Not only are you recapturing your own resident’s tax dollars but, you are also getting a little piece of every taxpayer’s dollars back for your community’s benefit.

So what is the lesson here? Always have some dollars set aside in your budget for local matching dollar requirements and set the record straight with administrators regarding the fact that there is no “free ride.”

Myth #2

“We are too small of an agency to get a grant; they only give them to the larger municipalities.”

Wrong. Nothing could be further from the truth!

Our firm has specifically targeted medium to smaller size public agencies and has assisted them in winning approximately $200 million in awards so that just totally debunks that statement.

Now that is not to say that there is not some truth in a statement that “size matters” in some Federal and State grant programs however, it should not be the sole determining factor in gauging your chances of success or your decision to apply. You have to play, to get paid!

Most grant programs, especially from the Department of Homeland Security, are given based upon the “risk and need”. Now even the most experienced grant writer cannot create need, where need does not exit but, many public safety agencies are somewhat perplexed at what actually constitutes the need or risk.

There are several types of needs and risks. You have “actual” risk which is typically dependent upon statistical values such as how many people you protect or how many buildings there are and how many calls for service that you answer a year. Then there is “perceived” risk which is based upon what is actually present which, by its very nature, has a likelihood that a critical incident would occur there requiring your people to be properly prepared to deal with it.

IE; Several years ago we helped an agency that had been trying to get a new fire truck for several years to replace their only fire truck which was over 40 years of age. The population of their area was only just slightly over 2000 residents.

The local fire chief had been trying to win a new fire truck from the AFG program for three years with nothing but rejection notices in hand for his efforts.

Once we started working with them we discovered several things about them in terms of “critical infrastructure” in their area which he had neglected to put into his application. Once we got the Chief to make some inquiries we discovered that he had three 72″ natural gas pipelines buried through his jurisdiction and also had a major Department of Defense contractor with a manufacturing processing plant there as well.

Once those items were properly highlighted in his grant application, he was funded in the first round for his new fire truck.

The moral of the story is that the size of your community or agency is often not as big of a stumbling block to receiving a grant award as you might think.

Unless you have been properly educated to know how to present something to a grant funding source which forms the nexus between your needs and the grant funding source’s needs, you are only guessing at your likelihood of being a good candidate for a grant award.

Educating not only yourself, but also your elected or administrative officials to these grant programs and what is required to win an award, is just plain good common sense.

Myth #3

“We cannot afford to spend the money on training or consultants!”

To which my response would be, “how can you afford not to do this?”

Look around folks, tax based revenue has fallen drastically and the end is still nowhere in sight at this point. We are unlikely to recover that tax base for the next 5-10 years. Yet what happens in regards to public safety during times of economic crisis? Calls for service go up!

EMS gets more calls because people have no health insurance because they lost their jobs and then they wait too long to seek medical attention until they are in a crisis stage. Their lack of insurance fails to cover your costs and so billing revenue becomes harder to collect.

Crime rates typically go up as more and more people without income become homeless or start committing crimes to feed their families. Typically robberies and property crimes increase proportionately with the unemployment rate. Money issues are the number one topic of domestic violence incidents and a high unemployment rate naturally escalates these feuds between domestic partners thereby also increasing the local law informant agency’s work load.

The mortgage crisis has a huge number of people upside down in their homes. Bank foreclosures and bankruptcy are at record high numbers during the past two years. Fire Departments typically notice an increase in their activity due to arsons from disgruntled homeowners who look to insurance settlements a way to avoid foreclosure or they set the home afire to punish the mortgage holder. Vehicle arson also typically increases for insurance fraud purposes. Squatters and the homeless start occupying vacant homes and buildings and set accidental fires in an effort to just keep warm in winter.

This leaves these agencies with little or no choice other than to seek grants to replace or upgrade safety equipment needs. The number of agencies applying for grants these last two years is huge and growing as the tax based revenue they depend upon for operational budgets, shrinks ever further. This increased competition means the programs are becoming more and more competitive and an agency will need every competitive edge it can get to fight for those also shrinking grant dollars.

Seeking and obtaining professional assistance is a fiscally responsible move when you consider the average return on investment after receiving a grant award is around 80:1.Spending $1K to assure that competitive edge by having professionals assist in training you and guiding your through the process, is without exception a wise and prudent investment.

Conclusion

The lesson to be learned here is simple. Professional assistance and training costs far less than most people actually think yet, the return on investment is huge.

Look at it this way. If you needed 10 MDTs or 10 sets of new firefighting turnout gear this cost is less than buying one set of gear or 1 MDT. Those versed in providing this assistance also have to live as well though so the old saying that “you have to spend a little money, to make a lot of money”, has much truth here.

Having a sit-down session with your administrators, to set a proper grant strategy in motion, is a worthwhile use of your time and effort. Dispel their myths, impress upon them that many things have changed in the world of grants and that you and they, need to be brought up to speed.

Maximizing the use of your available budgetary resources in times of economic austerity, does not simply mean cutting out all spending. Wise analysis of what spending offers a high rate of return on investment, means that everybody wins; the administrators, your department and your community’s citizens.