Competitive Grant Writing 101: 7 Tips to “Show You the Money!”
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.
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 $900 million BUILD Grant from USDOT was released on April 23, 2019, and applications were due no later than July 15th – 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 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 BUILD 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 $10M ribbon cuttings creates more photo opportunities than one $20M 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.