A Guide to Plan, Prepare and Apply for a Grant
In our last post, Finding Fire Department Communication Grants, we walked you through how to research and find grants to help provide funding for your communications projects. We linked a handful of resources to make your search easier and laid the foundation on where to begin the funding procurement process. If you haven’t already read that post, we suggest you start there. In this guide to plan, prepare, and apply for a grant, we are going to spend more time going into the application process and how to make it work for you.
Stage 1 | Define your projects and get ‘grant ready‘
The first step before you apply for a grant is to get ‘grant ready’ by defining a project that will have a significant and positive outcome for your community and your agency. Use your agency’s strategy sessions to hone-in on a well-defined project. If you are considering upgrading communication infrastructure or implementing an automated system into your agency’s mission-critical workflows, define and document your needs, and how a request for funding will address your agency and community’s problem. In thinking about a new technology project, think in terms of what the risks or negative outcomes would be if the problem is not addressed. For example, if your emergency communication infrastructure is not upgraded, there could be lapses in communication, and response times could be slower, impeding the health and safety of your community.
After you have defined a grant worthy project, form a planning committee to guide the project development and help with the grant application (see our guide on assembling your FSA project team). The committee should include all of the stakeholders from your agency, and also stakeholders from your community who would be affected by the project, for example;
- Local government
- Public health and safety organizations
- Partner agency members (if you are co-applying for a grant)
- Executive level individuals (anyone authorized to give permission for grant applications)
Confirm you are registered with the System for Award Management (SAM), if you are applying for a federal grant. If you have already registered for a previous grant, confirm that your registration is current. Make sure you have a D-U-N-S number, which is also required to apply for a federal grant.
In this first stage, research and identify grant opportunities that align with your project. Ensure that your project fits the grant eligibility requirements, the scale of the grant award, and that you will have time to prepare the application. Additionally, ensure that your agency’s policies allow for the type of grant you want to apply for and that you have the capacity to manage a grant if you are awarded it.
Stage 2 | Start the application proess and get organized
After you have defined a worthy project, and taken the steps outlined above, begin the application process. The most important step in this process is to thoroughly read the funder’s application guidelines. Note the deadlines for submitting forms and materials, carefully review the funder’s information requirements, and confirm if you need to create an account to apply for your grant electronically through a portal.
If the funder does want you to use a portal to apply, it is a good idea to create your account as early as possible to allow the funder time to approve your account. Online portals sometimes require a bit of time to develop a familiarization with the function of critical tasks such as document uploads. As a result, create your accounts early to give yourself plenty of time before the grant deadline.
A key part of the application process is identifying and gathering all of the materials you will need to apply for the grant. A very common reason why a grant application is not accepted is that an applicant does not comply with the application guidelines and requirements outlined in the grant solicitation (RFP).
To make sure you keep on track of all of the information required, use the solicitation as a checklist as you review and work through the application. Additionally, stay organized by creating a notebook and/or a folder (electronic and paper-based) to store the information you collect and create. This will be important when applying for your current grant(s), but can also be used if your application is denied, and you need to apply for other grants in the future. Download our grant application folder checklist as a resource.
Use the funder’s solicitation as a guide to determine how they want the application materials organized and formatted. Many granting agencies want to see information in a specific order, and want your documents to use specific formatting (font, font size, margins, spacing, page limits, etc.) Also, avoid using lengthy appendices, unless the grant funders request specific documents. It is important to follow the funder’s response requirements. Often, applications are turned down, because an applicant does not follow the funder’s instructions.
Stage 3 | Put your plan ‘to paper’
After you’ve gathered the information needed for the grant solicitation requirements, it’s time to put the application together. More often than not, funders require a needs statement and a project narrative in addition to data and a budget proposal. Private grant entities may also want to see a ‘letter of interest’, which precedes a full grant application. The letter of interest (LOI), should explain to the private grant agency your needs and includes important highlights of your project plan. It is meant to help a private granting entity gauge if they have an interest in what you are proposing.
A needs statement is a declaration and justification as to why your department needs the project you are seeking to secure additional funding for. It is critical to use data and statistics to legitimize your project and cast away any doubt of the impact the project may have on the community that will ultimately benefit from it. If call stacking is increasing as a result of an influx of incidents met by a manual process that can’t keep up with the call volume, the following example would be a great way to highlight your need:
“In 2019, our agency was unable to process 15% of dispatch calls, which resulted in 12 lives lost and destroyed six properties in the community. If our agency were to receive $85,000 in grant funding to purchase new communication technology that automates dispatching and reduces call stacking, we could improve our response times by 15%.”
The project narrative or project plan should outline how your project will work. You will want to include project milestones and deliverables associated with the project. Do not over-promise! Set goals for your milestones that are SMART (specific, measurable, accountable, and timely). In explaining the project, use bullets, charts, and tables to make your project narrative easier to read.
If you feel like you are having a difficult time putting your needs statement and project description in writing, find someone outside of your agency to listen as you tell ‘your story.’ Afterward, write down what you told the person. Sometimes talking through the story first, makes it easier to express your ideas in writing.
Before you turn in the application, make sure you find two to three people in your agency to review your statement, the project description (if it is required), and the supplemental materials. Make sure to provide your reviewers with the grant solicitation requirements. This way they can verify that your application follows the organization and document guidelines and that you have addressed all of the information requirements.
Stage 4 | Submit your application and wait the funder’s decision
After you have received feedback from your reviewers, make any necessary changes to your application, and double-check your budget proposal. You are now ready to submit the grant application. Give yourself plenty of time to submit your application and the accompanying forms and materials. You should receive confirmation that the funding agency received your application, but if you don’t, contact the funder.
Next, the funding agency will review your application, making sure it is compliant with the requirements outlined in the RFP. If the application passes the screening, it will then be reviewed more thoroughly. The review and decision process can take up to 12 months, but typically takes three to six months or as little as one to two weeks.
If your application is turned down, request feedback as to why you were denied funding and what you can do to improve your application for the future. Commonly, the granting agency may request that you collect more data for a time period to strengthen your need for the project and show greater potential for outcomes if the funding is awarded. Although it can be frustrating to be turned down, you now have feedback on what they are looking for when you reapply, giving you a significant advantage over other candidates applying for the first time.
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Stage 5 | Manage the grant award – be a ‘good steward’ of the grant money
After you are awarded grant money, thoroughly read the funder’s instructions for managing the funds. Most granting entities want to make sure that you are being good stewards of their money. Make sure that you use the grant money for the intended purpose. Follow through on the milestones and goals you described in the application, and consistently track the project’s progress. For example, if you said that by the third month of implementation, response times will be 4% faster, collect data to show that you are making progress or meeting this goal.
Most granting entities require awardees to regularly report on the project’s progress. Use the notebook or folder you started during the application preparation to store receipts, reports, and other materials that relate to the project, and then refer to these materials to develop the reports you submit to the funder.
Stage 6 | Close-out the grant and re-apply (if needed)
Prior to, or directly after the grant period ends, you will need to make sure you follow the grant funder’s instructions for all of the administrative processes and reports needed to close out the award. The close-out stage is required for most grants, and is important to follow, especially if you will be re-applying for the next cycle of the grant. If you have been storing all of the data, receipts, and reports from the application through the project period, closing out a grant should be a fairly straight-forward and painless process. This also helps to make re-applications go very smoothly.
As community needs evolve so too must the institutions in place to protect them. Budget allocation has always been a hurdle for many departments to meet the demands of their towns and cities but it doesn’t have to be an impossible hurdle to overcome. Although it can seem overwhelming to apply for a grant, if you prepare, stay organized, and follow these tips for each stage, you can achieve success.