Making Funds Count: Developing a Grant-Making Program

Whether agencies are applying for grants or choose to develop grant programs of their own, they can all benefit from understanding the grant-making process. Becoming a grants-maker can occur under many circumstances. For a public agency: (a) funds may be received from a grant and must be distributed to other organizations within its jurisdiction; (b) a new program may be established in which the agency is charged with carrying out certain actions or supporting services in the community; or (c) an ongoing program may be entering a new funding cycle and/or taking a new direction.

For a foundation, major additional funds may have been donated – or the board may have decided to develop different approaches to achieving its core mission. For a corporate-giving program, funding availability or changes in company priorities may have similar effects. Regardless of the specific circumstances involved, similar approaches and challenges are inherent in establishing an effective grants program.

Nonetheless, creating a grants program is not a simple undertaking and requires that important decisions be made every step of the way. By approaching the process systematically, examining each of the four principal phases of the process – development; application; review and award; and post-award – and addressing the external “drivers” that direct the grants program, the internal “shapers” that determine the specifics, and the “influencers” that factor into the final approach a helpful roadmap begins to emerge. Following are brief comments on how each of these factors contributes to a successful outcome.

Drivers: Federal Funds – Plus Federal Rules & Regulations

The source of funds, and the circumstances surrounding funds distribution, are two primary drivers of grants-making decisions. For organizations involved in emergency preparedness and response, the primary funding sources are the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). When federal grant programs are carried out by state and local agencies, these agencies must comply with a myriad of federal policies and regulations that pass down, along with the funds, to any agency that receives support.

Additional layers of requirements are often added as funds move from the federal to the state and local levels. Such requirements have the force of law and cannot be disregarded. Foundation and corporate grants may be less legalistic in the language used, but they are still governed by certain formalities. Thus, the first rule of grants-making is to gain a complete understanding of overall directions, policies, and laws – as well as the numerous detailed rules and regulations that accompany any funds provided – in order to incorporate these requirements into the grants solicited and eventually awarded.

The other principal driver for a grants program involves the distribution of funds. Very different types of decisions are made in the overall design of a program: (a) when an agency is developing community infrastructure and services, which usually are implemented over an extended time period; as opposed to (b) when an agency (or community) is responding to a crisis – which generates greater urgency (and often increases expectations). Therefore, understanding the overall environment and integrating the grants into that environment are essential to the applications requested and grants made to successful applicants.

Shapers: Needs Assessment & Sensible Decisions, Anchored in Reality

To undertake the major decisions that must be made during the grants-making process, the overall framework for the grants program must first be established. Building this framework begins with a needs assessment that: (a) identifies the issues confronting the community or service delivery system that the grants will address; (b) determines the key players involved to engage them as partners, stakeholders, and/or potential grant recipients; and (c) assesses the strengths and opportunities as well as weaknesses and threats that the grants requested can and must address.

The missions of the funding agency and the decision-maker directives from funders, the board, and agency leadership provide the first level of decisions about the types of program to be funded – e.g., related to health, education, disaster response, public safety, housing and/or other national or community needs. The assessment by staff members – working closely with agency leadership, key stakeholders, and/or community members from the target group – shapes the strategies required to form the core of the grants program.

A major prerequisite in strategy development is to maintain a clear and continuing focus on the purpose of the grants: for service delivery, training, or research, for example; or for planning or operations; for equipment purchase or ongoing expenses; and/or to expand existing programs, pilot new programs, or start major new initiatives. The target audience and geographic areas that will be served are also part of the thorough preparation process needed to set the parameters of the grants program. This step is often short-circuited, unfortunately, because of time pressures and/or a lack of awareness of its critical importance. If and when that happens, the result will probably be a grants program without an anchor securing it in the broader dynamics of the community served – or, to use a different analogy, the compass required to navigate a community’s complex environment.

The other inevitable shaper is the amount of grant funding available. This becomes a key factor in determining many of the specifics of the program – including but not limited to the scope of the program, the size of the grant, and the number of grants awarded. The amount of funding available serves as the reality check needed to move a grants program from concept to actuality.

Influencers: Asking the Right Questions; Answering Them the Right Way

After the framework has been determined, a grants-maker must focus on the numerous specific details needed for program implementation. This includes elements that are shaped by funding such as the scope of activities to be undertaken, the grant funding range, and the number of grants allocated. Funding may also be an important consideration in determining: (a) whether a grant will be for a one-time or an ongoing program; and/or (b) the length of the funding period.

Eligibility requirements for applications must also be decided. Those requirements include the type of organization eligible, whether it is public and/or non-profit, and its geographic location. Another matter for consideration is whether to seek community partnerships or collaborations in which several agencies with related missions join forces, perhaps, and jointly apply for a grant – with one agency serving as the lead or recipient agency but all of the agencies involved working together to undertake the project. A collaborative approach is strengthened and more realistic when the agencies involved can show a history of partnership and have a good track record for dealing with the more complex dynamics that collaborations entail.

Timing is another intangible factor that can affect the initiation of a grants program. With public funds, certain deadline requirements may impact the entire process, particularly if awards must be made by a certain date or activities undertaken within a given time period. Of course, external deadlines not only can control how much time is available for the grants-making planning process but also can help determine the set dates related both to the application process and implementation of project activities.

The Four Major Phases of the Application Process

The application process itself consists of four major phases: (a) development; (b) application; (c) review and award; and (d) post-award. Following are brief explanations of each of these phases.

Development: During the development phase, the funding agency compiles all of the materials, the resources needed, and the procedures required for the application process itself. The most important tasks here are the design of the application (i.e., identifying all of the information necessary for the applicant to include), the development of clear and reasonable instructions, the determination of timelines and deadlines, and a decision on how the application will be submitted (i.e., electronic or hard copy). If an electronic application is used, web links and related material must also be created. In addition, a letter of intent – which may be requested from potential applicants – should be considered as it can serve two purposes: (a) help determine the number of respondents and, therefore, the reviewing resources needed; and (b) give advance information on who or what type of agency or organization might be applying for the grants.

Among the other pre-application decisions considered during development is whether technical assistance will be offered to applicants – and, if so, how it will be done (individually, by the posting of FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions), and/or through webinars, teleconferences, and other types of meetings). The application review process also must be determined, along with the rating criteria used, so that applicants can adequately address these requirements as well. Finally, a review team – which may be internal, external, or a combination of the two – must be designated, ahead of time, to ensure availability of the reviewers.

Application: Generally, a grant application consists of the following: a cover letter or form with basic information and authorizing signatures, the body of the proposal, and whatever appendices are needed. The cover letter/form provides contact information and indicates that the applicant agrees to any requirements attached to the grant. The proposal “body” usually has at least five major components. The exact names of those components may vary, but they will include the following: (a) a problem/issue analysis or statement of need, which usually incorporates the background of the applicant and the reason for addressing the issue; (b) objectives to be achieved (these are often written as SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-framed – components); (c) methods, which spell out in detail how a project will be carried out; (d) evaluation, describing how problems will be identified and success will be measured; and (e) budget, detailing projected expenditures for the resources being sought – and, not incidentally, establishing the fact that realistic costs have been determined that are appropriate to the scope and scale of the project.

The number and length of appendices will vary from one project to another, but usually will include such ancillary information as: biographical sketches or resumes and/or job descriptions of the personnel participating in the project; organization charts, work plans, timelines, and maps; and letters of support. Other information items may be included, depending on the particular application. Reasonable page limits should be set, though, for both the proposal and the appendices to facilitate both the application preparation and the review process.

Review and Award: A review process may be either objective or subjective – to varying degrees. An objective process is theoretically “blind,” with the reviewers knowing little or nothing about the applicants and/or having any connection to them – excusing themselves, in fact, on conflict-of-interest grounds if they do have an existing relationship. A subjective process, in contrast, uses the knowledge of reviewers about the applicants as part of the assessment process. In many cases, a review will incorporate both objective and subjective components. Decisions related to objective-vs.-subjective review often rest on the nature of the funder, the type of proposal involved, and various practical circumstances. No matter what other circumstances are involved, though, clear review criteria and a sound rating scale are mandatory to support reviewers in their analyses and decisions.

The award notification should provide successful applicants with equally clear specifics – including the amount of the funds awarded and the starting date of the project, funder contact information, any reviewer concerns or comments that must be addressed, fiscal details on funding and cash flow, related start-up information, reporting requirements, and due dates. The award notification may also include, to be counter-signed by the award recipient, an acceptance letter that also details the grant requirements and expectations. (Common sense and common courtesy dictate that unsuccessful applicants also be promptly informed, of course, about their status and, if possible, the reasons their projects were not awarded funds.)

Post-Award: Grants-making does not end with the grant award, but continues throughout the grant funding period. The way in which the funding agency will interact with its grantees must be determined, and spelled out in clear detail, as part of the grants development process. From a programmatic perspective, this guideline covers – depending on the potential impact and scale of the grant – reporting requirements, monitoring, site visits, and evaluations. Such fiscal details as expenditure reporting requirements, schedules, and forms should be provided upfront, and financial review and auditing requirements also should be made clear. In short, the bottom line should be creation of a mutually supportive relationship between the funder and the grantee that is focused primarily, and on a continuing basis, on the success of the project.

One final observation: What might be called “The Golden Rule” of grants-making is simply to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Achieving that goal is best accomplished by a thoughtfully planned, realistic, and reasonable process that centers on the intent, scope, and scale of the grant-funded projects.

Michele Mindlin

Michele Mindlin is Associate Director, Research Projects at the Rollins School of Public Health, Emory University, in Atlanta, Ga. In this role, she coordinates a project examining the use of the Incident Command System and emergency operations centers in public health agencies. Prior to assuming her current position at Emory, she served as the grants director for the Georgia Division of Public Health and, prior to that, the New York City Department of Health. She has extensive management experience directing large, grant-funded human-service projects in both the public and non-profit sectors of the U.S. health care community.



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