Write that grant!

Grants to fix basic internal problems are hard to come by, but if you partner with one of your business units to help them solve a technical problem, they're likely to get funding and you're likely to free up some budget dollars.
Written by Ramon Padilla, Contributor

I have written on occasion that obtaining grants can be a way to augment your operations should you need additional funding in some areas. But if you just go out looking for grants because you are short on money and need to fix internal budgeting problems, you are going to come up short. There are not many organizations willing to hand out money to fix your basic problems.

You can kill two birds with one stone, however, by partnering with one of your business units in trying to help them solve a technical problem that is likely to get grant funding. This, in turn, could free up your budget dollars if your business-unit partner can get grant funding for their issue.

As an example, let's say your social service agency wants to help reduce homelessness, and the homeless shelters in your area lack computing resources to perform administrative functions. Together, all three groups form a partnership to create a data collection system for the shelters where the information regarding their homeless population gets entered into a centralized system managed by the social service agency for statistical purposes. Once this concept is agreed upon, you can then look for grants that might pay for such a thing.

So, if you are looking to fund the above project – where do you start? First, you need to decide if you want to go for government money or foundation money. The rules of the game are a bit different for the two. While governments have to be fair and equitable and treat everyone the same, foundations play by their own rules. This may or may not work in your favor. Foundation grants often require less paperwork than government grants, and they can grant funds at any time. Government grants are usually fixed to a fiscal year and have definite application periods. But foundations can be fickle, and they can have criteria that you may not be able to accommodate as a government entity.

Government grants are more structured and methodical and have strict rules regarding the process and, of course, the administration of the grant. However, the playing field for obtaining these grants is relatively level.

Besides thinking about what type of granting organization you are going to go looking for, you need to know if you are in the position to do any matching. Matching grants often require a 1-1 match dollar per dollar, or in-kind contribution. So there is no point in looking at that 10 million dollar matching grant if you or your partners (always best to partner and collaborate) can’t come up with the match.

Once you have made those kinds of preliminary decisions – you need to carefully study the requirements and deadlines for potential grants. Your modus operandi in this case is to determine if you can do the amount of work that is required to prepare the grant (and run it, if awarded) by the deadline given. Sometimes your answer will be no. It might be a great grant opportunity, but you just can’t make the time investment to produce a quality proposal.

Also, make sure that, as part of your reading of the requirements, you look closely at eligibility requirements. They can change from year to year, and often federal grants have additional requirements added to them if the money is funneled through a state agency. Also look for geographic restrictions.

The two types of granting bodies also advertise opportunities differently. Governments usually announce their grants through a Request for Proposal (RFP). Foundations have a variety of ways for publicizing grant requests. In fact, foundations may not call for a full-blown proposal at all, but instead may request a letter of inquiry. A letter of inquiry is often harder to do than a full blown proposal because it has to be brief (usually no more than three pages). That means you have to communicate your need, your proposed solution, and your qualifications for implementing the solution very concisely.

If you haven’t gotten the hint by now, obtaining a grant is hard work and like most projects, the 80/20 rule applies. In this case, obtaining a grant is 80% planning and 20% writing. If at all possible, work with an experienced grant writer if you haven’t written one before. It will greatly increase your chances of creating a good proposal.

However, if you do not have the luxury of working with someone with experience, there are ways of getting up to speed. Most large organizations offer in-house grant writing training. If you are part of a smaller organization, many colleges and universities offer these courses as part of their continuing education programs. And of course there are books and the Internet. Grant Writing for Dummies is an excellent book to get you started

The Foundation Center is a key resource. They offer two short courses on proposal writing and budgeting.

Participating in grant writing can strengthen your relationship with your business units and help extend your already limited funds. I personally believe that every government IT staff should have a dedicated grant writer, whether in house or assigned to them from another department. Doing so can be the difference between being able to service only some of your client’s needs or going much further in helping them to do their business.

IT staff often do not think that grant writing is in their realm of possibilities, but smart government IT management knows that effective grant writing can add immensely to their capabilities. And anyone can write a grant; you don’t have to be an English major – you just have to have a problem to solve, a solution to propose, and the willingness to do the work to prepare that proposal.

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