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

Why Are You Not Applying for Grants?

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

Over $68 billion dollars in grant funding is available every year for public safety agencies. It never ceases to amaze me that I am continually told “we don’t have any money in our budget for equipment, staffing or training.” My follow-up question is always “Did you apply for any grants this year?” The usual response is “No.”

Why is that?

The most common reason for this response is “procrastination.” I have heard every excuse you can possibly imagine as to why a department did not apply for the grant:

  • “I didn’t know about that grant opportunity”
  • “We were just too busy that month”
  • “Darn, I forgot about it” (my favorite)

Really? Seriously? That is about as lame of a response as the City Manager telling you he forgot to do the payroll that week!

You have to have the tools to the job

If you don’t have the proper tools to do the job, how can you do the job? Equipment is just as important as manpower. You can’t have one without the other. A local governing board might try to make you think that you can, as we have all experienced before, but the one goes hand-in-hand with the other in public safety work.

It is your responsibility to watch out for the safety of your employees and the safety of your community. In order to do this, you should always have in the forefront of your mind: “Where am I going to get the funding to supply these things?”

If you turn a blind eye to those issues or expect that you can just let the local governing boards handle these problems as they occur, then you are in for a rude awakening. The financial health of your department is crucial to the ability to perform your mission and to ensure the safety of your employees and citizens.

One tool in the toolbox

Grants are but one tool in your toolbox of resources that you should make maximum use of every year. As I have said before, and will no doubt continue to say, “Grants are like the lottery. If you don’t play, you cannot win.” Playing the game means finding and applying for the programs that are there.

Learning how to get in this game and be an effective player is critical. Education of someone within your department, regarding how to properly research, find and apply for these grants is not something that should be continually placed on the “back-burner”.

So what is it that you, as a department, should be doing to make sure that you are on this team and playing effectively?

  • Become “grant savvy” and get educated about how to research, develop and apply to grant programs that are available
  • Know what resources are available to you to assist you in pursuing funding
  • Apply for the grant programs that are out there and that you are eligible for yearly
  • Keep proper statistical data about your department and your community
  • Stay current with NIMS
  • Know your area of response and what is in it
  • Stay informed on what’s happening in grants and your industry
  • Recognize that you must form a nexus between your needs and those of the funding source
  • Understand how to properly position your budget so that you can take maximum advantage of the grants

$68 billion in grant funding available… but are you going to try for a slice?

Let me say it again: from the federal to local levels, or from non-profit and corporate sources, over $68 billion in grants is available every year. Out of such a large pool of grant funding available, there are grants out there that can help you to obtain the equipment and training your department needs.

But the only way you’ll ever get that funding is if you apply. So what’s it going to be? Will this year be another year where you don’t apply for grants? Or will this year be the year you “get off the bench and get in the game”?

Photo: David Beyer