More than $300 billion in federal, state and foundation grants are available to local governments each year. Analysis shows grant expenditures account for 7 to 18 percent of local governments’ annual budgets, depending on their services, goals and effectiveness.
However, the grants process is often a daunting task for local officials. Many expect external service departments to find, apply for and win the funding, while the responsibility for meeting the grants’ spending and audit requirements are entrusted to finance officers. If the grant is mismanaged, recipients might have to return funds, incur penalty expenses or fail audits, and finance departments often are held responsible. In addition, grant requirements often change and are sometimes open to interpretation. Before applying for grants, local governments should create a monitoring system, set up communication methods for sharing information and establish a method to track the application process to avoid problems.
Implement a system
A system includes a process, checks and balances for decision-making, and provides predictable outcomes. Some cities — such as Glendale, Calif.; and Boynton Beach, Fla. — form grants teams that meet monthly to set grant goals, align funding opportunities with projects and collaborate on applications. Chicago assigns a central liaison to communicate with departments during and after the grant application to disseminate financial and budgeting information. Outlining methods and responsibilities, such as organizing regular meetings or instituting new software, should be done early and can improve the post-award effectiveness of grant funding.
Get answers early
Service departments that monitor grants often are inherently focused on output, such as equipment needed and residents served, while finance departments are focused on outflow, including match requirements, reporting needs and allowable expenses. By setting and sharing service and financial goals early, all parties will know what to expect if the application is successful. Using software or other methods to centralize information for both pre- and post-award tracking also helps eliminate “lost” or “forgotten” information because of staff turnover or other reasons.
Many agencies measure results following receipt of a grant but do not measure the pre-award stages of the grants process. Local governments should consider measuring the following steps early in the grants process:
Number of grants considered for each project. To determine which grants are best for a particular situation, ensure all funding options are exhausted and focus on the most valuable opportunities for the community.
Average lead-time to complete application. Taking steps to increase lead-time by streamlining approvals will result in higher win rates and better information exchange.
Establish matching requirements. Setting a reasonable percentage or dollar goal for matching funds allows everyone to understand the financial constraints of the organization, while motivating departments to pursue grants.
By applying basic guidelines during the early stages of the competitive grant application process, local governments can increase their share of grant funding.
The author is vice president of Pasadena, Calif.-based eCivis.