Have you ever read about a generous grant a neighboring community just received for an exciting project - and felt just a tiny pang of jealousy? Did you think about what your own community could have done with that money? Did you wonder exactly how your neighbors got the money? How did they even know there was money available? Who helped them with the application? And what was it about their particular application that made it successful?
As you think about projects to improve your community - be it adding a bike path in the park, storing municipal records electronically, or opening an after-school youth center - one of your first thoughts is bound to be "Where will we get the money to pay for this?" One potential way to finance these projects is by obtaining grant money.
Why don't more municipalities apply for grants? Usually it's because the grant writing process is something of an unknown. In fact, when I'm asked what I do, and I respond that I am a grant writer, the response is almost always the same: "Uh. so you, uh..???" While many people have a general sense of what a "grant" is, most really don't quite understand where the money comes from or what's involved in getting it.
A grant is basically a gift for a particular purpose. In this case, we are talking about a gift of money that will be used to undertake a specific project. There are two main sources of grant money: private foundations and government entities.
A typical private foundation is set up to allow an individual, a family, or an organization to take a large amount of money, grow it by investing it and/or receiving additional donations, and then give a portion of that money to non-profit organizations. The advantage to the donor is that the foundation can give large contributions to non-profit organizations, while receiving a variety of tax incentives (for example, there is no capital gains tax on the foundation income). By federal law, this type of foundation (a non-profit organization in and of itself) must give a certain percentage of its assets to other non-profits annually. Most foundations have what they call "funding priorities", or fields of interest (for example, the arts or the environment) in which they are more likely to make grants. The original funder and/or the trustee(s) generally determine these funding priorities, and decisions about whom and what will get funded are then at the discretion of the trustee(s). If your project fits within their field of interest, and you present a clear and compelling case that your project deserves to be funded, you have a good chance of getting a grant.
Government funding can come from any level of government (federal, state or local). This type of funding usually has a very specific, clearly defined purpose and rigid application guidelines and deadlines. Proposals are read by a number of "readers", and each section is rated on a points scale. Proposals garnering the most points are the ones that get funded.
Improving Your Chances:
There are many reasons why a grant proposal may or may not be funded, and some of them are beyond an applicant's control. For example, there may be twenty well-thought-out, cost-effective proposals that are a good match for the funder's priorities, but only ten grants can be awarded. In some cases, personal and professional connections can enter the picture. For example, if one of the applying organizations has an existing association with one of the trustees, their application will probably be viewed more favorably. These are factors you really can't control.
However, there are also a number of factors that you can influence. Whether you are seeking funds from a private foundation or a government entity, there are things you can do to improve the chances of getting your project funded. In this article we'll discuss the first - and probably most important - step in the process.
Step #1 - Plan the Project
While you might think the place to start would be finding the right funder or a Request for Proposals that looks like a good match for your project - it's not! The fact is that any proposal will have a better chance of being funded if the project has been thought through and planned out well in advance of actually writing the grant application. The best process is to first thoroughly plan out the project, then look for potential funders, and then write the proposal.
While each funding source will have its own proposal format, the basic components of the proposal will always be the same. By keeping these elements in mind as you plan your project, you'll be in good shape when it comes time to find a funding match and then write the proposal itself. Ultimately, the process of mapping out the project before you even start looking for funding sources will improve your chances of getting funded.
As you plan your project, keep in mind the basic components of almost any grant proposal:
- Establish the need and desire for the project: How do you know this project is needed? How will the residents of your community use the services provided? To the extent possible, this needs to be hard data. Detailed needs assessments can be very useful here.
- Define the desired outcomes with specific, measurable objectives: What do you want to accomplish, and how will you measure whether the project has indeed addressed the problem?
- Describe the methods you will use to achieve these objectives: What will you actually do in order to meet the objectives? How do you know that this is an effective method to address the problem you have identified, and will lead to the desired objective(s)?
- Establish your organization's credibility: Why are you the right organization to undertake this project? Have you had success with similar projects?
- Determine how you will evaluate the success of the project: How will you know whether the desired objectives have been reached? For example, will you be surveying constituents, or tracking the numbers of individuals using a particular service?
- Create a detailed budget: What are all of the expenses related to the project, and what other potential funding sources exist? Will your organization be contributing funds toward the project?
- Describe the future of project: When the money from this funder is used up, how will the project continue? Is it a project that will require a continuous influx of money, or will it somehow become self-sustaining?
So take your latest project idea, and start planning it out in detail. In the next two articles we'll look first at how to find potential funders, and, finally, how to put together a proposal. If your project is already mapped out, you'll be ready to move on to those next steps!
Sometimes it is all about the money. What clerk or administrator doesn’t want to upgrade the way the municipality’s records are managed? It’s not always easy to make it happen. There are, however, programs in some states and on a national basis that provide grants to finance such improvements.
In New York, the State Archives offers grants and awards to support and promote sound records management practices. Between 500 and 700 local governments apply each year, and the competition is tough. The deadline for the next Local Government Records Management Improvement Fund (LGRMIF) grant cycle is December 1, 2004. Information about the program is available online at www.archives.nysed.gov/a/grantsawards.shtml, and grant application information sessions are held in advance of the deadline.
More and more state governments are instituting similar grant programs, often funded by a portion of the document filing fees collected by county clerks. New Jersey is launching its PARIS grant program in 2005, and you don’t have to speak French to apply! The Public Archives and Records Infrastructure Support (PARIS) grant program will initially have a narrow focus looking specifically to fund state-coordinated county needs assessment and strategic planning services and grants-in-aid for imaging systems and services; archival records preservation services; and municipal needs assessment. Application forms should be available in January from the Division of Archives and Records Management of the Department of State, which is overseeing the grants program.
The sixteen-month-long planning process that resulted in the PARIS program was principally funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC). In states where there is no state-sponsored program for grants, the NHPRC may be the only game in town. The Commission funds projects that deal with the following kinds of material: records of state, county, municipal, tribal, or other non-Federal units of government; manuscripts, personal papers, or organizational and business archives; collections of photographs, motion pictures, sound recordings, electronic records, and/or such visual materials as unpublished architectural, cartographic, and engineering drawings. One example: A grant of $28,460 to the City of Milwaukee, WI, to establish retention and preservation criteria for tape recordings of city government activities.
In Connecticut, the State Library’s Historic Documents Preservation Program purports to be noncompetitive and give every eligible town that applies within the established guidelines an award. As applications increase and with limited funds available, it is expected that this program will become increasingly competitive.
In Pennsylvania, the History and Museum Commission uses an annual appropriation from the General Assembly. Grants are offered up to $15,000 for such projects as county records improvement or preservation of local government records.
The moral of this story: If you don’t ask, you can’t receive. The time a municipality puts into applying for grants on both the state and national levels could reap big rewards and help to bring its records management practices into the 21st century.