Author: Matthew Low

Matthew Low, PE is the Director of Engineering Operations at Hoyle Tanner. He is responsible for the coordination and quality of the firm’s service offerings as well as productivity and efficiency. With a background in structural and transportation engineering, he has inspected, designed or rated nearly 200 bridges for state transportation agencies throughout New England as well as municipalities and private entities; he has also managed complex multi-disciplined transportation projects. Matt most recently won the 2019 NH Engineer of the Year Award. He lives in Manchester with his wife and two children.

Competitive Grant Writing 101: 7 Tips to “Show You the Money!”

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Competitive grants can be a big help for project owners who are responsible for large, complicated and expensive infrastructure improvement projects.  Whether potential grants originate from federal agencies, such as the USDOT or the EPA, state agencies, or local entities, the competition can be fierce and funding requests typically significantly outweigh what is available. So, you have a great project in mind – what do you have to do to position your project over the tens, hundreds or thousands of others that are pursuing the same pot of gold? Here are some opinions and helpful hints that may guide you to success!

Be Prepared and Get Started Early.

Be Prepared and Get Started Early. Competitive grant applications require extensive and detailed information and the submissions may have short turnaround times. If you wait to do your conceptual planning or develop a convincing “purpose and need” for the project until the Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) is issued, you may be too late. For example, the recent $1 billion RAISE (Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity) Grant from USDOT was released on April 23, 2021, and applications were due no later than July 12th – a 12-week turnaround. This may seem like a lot of time, but it disappears quickly considering what needs to be included in a solid application, even if you retain a consultant to assist and do the heavy lifting.  In anticipation of a NOFO being issued, having a completed feasibility study, conceptual plan, project cost estimates, public support and other elements of a strong application can go a long way – there just isn’t time to prepare and collect the information once the NOFO is issued as the application preparation itself can be intense.

Be Objective about Your Project.

Does your project truly check off the boxes that the funding agency is looking for with regard to safety, socio-economic benefits, state of good repair, improvements to quality of life, life cycle analysis, benefit vs. cost analysis, and other important elements? Competitive grant applications such as TIGER, BUILD, RAISE and others can be time-consuming and expensive to prepare. Make sure you are looking at your project objectively against the required criteria and not simply justifying its worthiness by your personal attachment to its local importance. Answer this – why would the funding agency want to participate?  The funding will only buy so many ribbon-cuttings — so why yours?

Tell the Story of the Project.

Picture this – you are a reviewer of applications in Washington, D.C. and you have a stack of 500 applications to wean down to those deserving further review to eventually make a recommendation of a certain number to the ultimate decision-maker, maybe the U.S. Secretary of Transportation. The recent RAISE grant application had a 30-page limit for the project narrative – for 500 applications that could total over 15,000 pages of project content to review!  Make it interesting – don’t make it read like an engineering report cluttered with facts and data (not that those aren’t important).  The reviewers aren’t all engineers – some have business backgrounds, while others may have a pure administrative or political background.  Use graphics and maps wherever possible. Sell your project in a way that it meets the funding requirements and tells an engaging story of the positive impacts of local, regional and possibly national importance.

Be Invested and Don’t Just “Take a Shot” and Hope for the Best.

If it looks like the application is presenting a project that will die a quick death without grant funding maybe it isn’t really all that vital and you are only presenting the project for the money. Funding agencies (and politicians) hope your project is important enough that somehow it will move forward even without the grant funding – grant funding would simply accelerate the benefits to the taxpayers. Your application must demonstrate that there is significant funding in place, or debt service, to be able to fund the project and the grant funding will help that much more to defray local costs.

Don’t Ask for the Moon.

Request the real amount that you need for the project after significant investment from other sources. If 95% of the project costs are proposed to be through the competitive grant funding that may not inspire a lot of confidence in the preparedness of the project owner to be able to move the project forward. For instance, with a set amount of funding to spread around, two $10 million ribbon cuttings creates more photo opportunities than one $20 million ribbon cutting. There should be a strategy in the amount requested compared to your other competing interests and funding commitments. Answer this too – if you got the grant funding to offset costs, what would you do with the money that was offset? What other problem could you / would you solve for the taxpayers?

Last but not Least – Check and Double-Check the Format for the Submission.

Most competitive grant applications have very strict composition requirements including the table of contents, page limits, and font types and sizes, just to name a few. Make sure you are thoroughly familiar with each of these requirements and you are adhering to them during the preparation of the application – not as a final task right before the submission is due.

Submit Early if Possible.

Don’t let technological glitches, like an internet failure, get in the way of your million-dollar request being accepted. Many grant application processes allow the applicant to submit their application electronically and update it or resubmit components up to the deadline published in the NOFO. There may also be registrations, passwords, user accounts or other things like that which should be set up early – make sure those tasks are done well in advance. Nobody wants to be sitting at the keyboard being denied access to the submission website or during a power outage within the hour the submission is due. Plan days ahead and rest easy.

Grants can make a big difference in the success of your project – but competition can be fierce. NOFO’s are issued throughout the year so know in advance what funding may be available and when. Being ready and preparing a quality grant application can make all the difference.

Growing Stronger Through a Crisis: How We Got to the Other Side of the Pandemic & What’s Next

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COVID-19 brought challenges to our personal and professional lives that few of us have ever experienced or could have imagined. There have been strains we have never felt and losses that we couldn’t have fathomed. Through the last year, though, the engineering and public works professions have not only persevered but reached new levels of collaboration, resiliency, teamwork, and dedication. Tough times and challenges offer opportunities, if you look for them, to find out what you’re made of. Our firm is small by most standards, 100 professionals, but the last year has shown what a proud and dedicated group of teammates can accomplish in the face of adversity. Being ushered out the door in March 2020 to work remotely for an unknown amount of time was, well, unsettling to say the least. We really had no idea what was ahead for us; it wasn’t just us, the uncertainty extended to our clients, too. Still – important projects that directly affect quality of life needed to be done. The work needed to continue. Failing roadways, deteriorated bridges, antiquated wastewater treatment plants, and dated airports had no idea there was a pandemic.


So, as we get to the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic – what have we learned?

For one thing, investments in emerging technology are extremely important. Those that had previously invested in networking, laptops, video conferencing applications, online collaboration tools, and other remote working technological assets barely missed a beat while those that needed to play catch-up fell behind quickly and suffered. Some of our public agency clients were not prepared for remote work because it wasn’t allowed due to network security reasons or other IT issues. It took a bit of time for those issues to be remedied and get their programs running again on all cylinders.

At Hoyle, Tanner we realized our strength and dedication to our projects carried us a long way to making sure that schedules were maintained to the best of our ability. We quickly learned that our professionals could manage themselves without needing to be in an office full time – which will be a tremendous asset in flexibility and work-life balance moving forward. Our industry and many others that were accustomed to in-person situations are likely forever changed for the better.

Lastly, company culture and leadership are integral to success. Rainy day and sunny day leadership are very different, and it takes an independent skill set to excel at either, or both. Are your employees engaged? If so, they would probably run through a wall for you to keep pushing the values and mission of your firm. If not, productivity, excuses, and missed deadlines were probably the result. During the pandemic, we took the opportunity to undertake a comprehensive strategic planning program, initiate a rebranding project, and most importantly didn’t panic. All with the goal that as we emerged from the last year of darkness, we would be poised and ready to serve our stakeholders (clients, employees, and consultant partners) better than ever before. We “leaned into the punch” and tried to use the situation to figure out who we would be next.


What’s next?

More challenges for sure. There’s talk in Washington, D.C. of infrastructure spending, recovery funds, as well as a growing need for investment into aging assets. Will injecting more money into the system solve these issues? Maybe but maybe not. There is a labor shortage in the construction industry that more money alone may not fix. Construction industry jobs have increased by nearly 2 million in the last 10 years, but openings have grown by nearly 250,000 (US Department of Labor, 2021). One of our New Hampshire offices recently assisted a client in advertising a bridge project twice with no bid responses for either. More money may not be the remedy for that. For projects that are receiving bids, the prices are escalating tremendously due to strains on the material supply chain, likely partially (or mostly) caused by the pandemic. Time will only tell if material costs and labor availability will come back into alignment with the available funding in the system.

With all we have been through in the last year, it is only natural to wonder what awaits in 2022 and beyond. One thing we can count on, though, is that the engineering and public works industries will likely be at the forefront of continuing to shape the “new normal” that we all eagerly await. One thing you can count on, Hoyle, Tanner will be here, ready to take on these and many more challenges just like we always have.