Grant funding: Get your share of the 'free' money

I was going to begin this post about funding for technology with, "In these tough economic times ..." But when do you ever have enough money to fund all the worthwhile projects that need to be done?

I was going to begin this post about funding for technology with, "In these tough economic times ..." But when do you ever have enough money to fund all the worthwhile projects that need to be done? It is rare to have more than enough money to get the job done.

That being the case, we should always be on the lookout for ways to add to our existing funding streams. Grant funding is one way to do that. Oh, don’t roll your eyes. I know that while some departments live and breathe because of grant funding, technology departments don’t often seek them out because of the work involved – and they are work!

They are certainly worth the effort, however, and can provide a significant boost in your funding stream – often for years. So what kinds of grants are available? There's a seemingly endless list of types of grants: higher education, grants for nonprofit organizations, university grants, nonprofit funding, K-12 grants, school grants, education grants, science education grants, vocational education grants, federal grants, government grants, corporate grants, technology grants, technology funding grants, etc.

But where do you find the specific grants within these broad categories? This is where research comes into play. My first visit would be to your organization’s grant coordinators (if you have them available). If you do, make them your friends! They can be invaluable in navigating the myriad of possibilities out there. If you do not have a resource like this, you can make use of the thousands of resources, paid and free available on the Web. Definitely check out FedGrants and the Technology Opportunities Program.

Questions you'll need to answer

Before you start looking or making an appointment with your grant coordinator, make sure you have your list of needs/projects in hand. In fact, when evaluating a potential project I always ask, "Is there any grant funding available?" If the request is from a department, they will have done some of the research and perhaps used their inside information to determine grant-funding availability.

Also be prepared to answer whether you have "matching funds" available. Some grants require you to put up half the funds in order to get the grant. So don’t go looking for a $5 million matching grant if you don’t have millions to put up as a match. Be aware, however, that your match does not always have to be in the form of dollars. In-kind contributions, such as value for work performed, employee’s salaries, hardware and software, can sometimes be used as all or part of your match.

Things to know

Once you begin searching, keep an open mind. Acquiring grant funding is as much an art as a science. While being super-analytical can help you as a technologist, it is a drawback when evaluating possible grants. Grantors often give grants to programs/projects that in your mind are "loosely" connected to the purpose of the grant. That’s where the art of grant writing comes in. I am still boggled by some of the grant awards I have seen over the years - those were a testament to the creativeness of the grant writers.

Partnerships are highly valued when awarding grants. Grantors look kindly upon partnerships, especially public-private partnerships. So it is worth your while to foster good relations with other government organizations - local, state and federal - as well as not-for-profits and even for-profit businesses.

Understand the strings attached. Many people assume that grant money can only be spent for the express purposes of the grantee and that no one else can take advantage. This is patently false. I have used grants awarded to a specific department to purchase enterprise-level hardware because, by doing so, I was able to provide the specific services to the department required by the grant. The fact that the rest of the organization benefited from the purchase was just a plus.

The point is that you will need to understand the caveats of the grant. Some grants assume you never actually own what you purchase with the funds and that you will return the goods back to the funding agency when you take them out of service. Others offer much greater flexibility. Understand the grant to maximize your flexibility! Gray areas can be your friend.

Make sure you are prepared to be a diligent record keeper and can show exactly where, when, and how grant funds were expended. You will be required to do so.

Lastly, under the category of things to know, be prepared to spend the money! You will drive your finance department and the grantor crazy if you get funds allocated to you and then do not move forward with spending the funds at hand. So if you get a grant, make whatever projects associated with them a high priority. Trust me, I speak from experience on this. Being cautious and frugal is not what the grantor is looking for. In their minds, if you are not using the dollars in the time allotted, they may as well have given the funds to someone else.

Writing your grant proposal

When you finally choose one or more grants to go after, it is time to put on your writing hat. If you haven’t written one before (and even if you have), it often pays to get a model of a grant submission that was awarded funding in previous years. It can also be worth your while to take a grant writing course to learn some of the ins and outs. Additionally, if you made friends with your grant coordinator you might get lucky enough to be able to work with a grant writer who can write the majority of the grant and let you fill in the technical parts.

In any case, being able to bolster your funding via grants can go a long way in giving you the ability to meet the technology needs of your organization. Like anything worthwhile, you'll have to  make an investment to get started, so forget about easy money. But know that your hard work can provide dividends for years to come.