Federal grants are at once the most easily recognizable type of grant, and the least understood.
Federal grants receive a portion of all the general federal revenue, and can only be used for the purpose of public support that is specifically authorized by a law passed by the Congress and signed by the President. Federal grants cannot be used to acquire items of property or specific services that directly benefit the Federal government. At last count, there were 26 Federal agencies offering and administering over 1,000 grant programs.
The spending on these programs is part of the Federal government’s discretionary spending budget. According to an article published 3/11/2011, by the Pew Charitable Trust (www.pewtrusts.org), 36% of the Federal spending for FY 2012, which began October 1, 2011, out of a proposed budget of 3.7 trillion dollars will be used for discretionary spending, and includes $584.3 billion in outlays to state and local governments.
This is the funding source for all of the Federal grant programs. How does the process work?
Let’s say that you are the fire chief for a rural fire department, and you need a new fire engine.
First, you will need to go to the grants.gov website and receive an identification number. Then you use some specific search terms to narrow down the field to grants that you can access for funds to buy your fire engine. Let’s say you use “assistance for fire fighters”. One of the results will include Program 97.044 – Assistance to Firefighters Grant. This will list the agency responsible for the grant, which happens to be the Department of Homeland Security, and the applicable Federal law that allows that agency to utilize general funds for this purpose. It will also list the objectives, and the items that the grant funds may be used to purchase, which does include a fire engine. It will also specifically identify what agencies, and under what circumstances the agencies may apply for the funds. From that point on, the grant guidelines will provide a roadmap to complete the application, but is up to you to fulfill the grant requirements. As an example, this particular Federal grant requires you to certify the population size of the community to be served, so it would be wise to include either census figures if available, or tax rolls or other documentation that prove your figures. A “fire department” for the purposes of this grant requires that the fire department have a “…formally recognized arrangement with a State, territory, local or tribal authority…” etc. You will want to include a copy of that agreement to prove that yes, you are a fire department within the definition given in the grant.
The grant also refers to several Federal OMB forms, so you will need to download those and be sure you are complying with any instructions or restrictions therein.
Federal grants are some of the most detailed and difficult grants to write. It pays to note the program officer’s name and contact information, if given, and try to establish some sort of rapport with them. You don’t want to pester them, but if you are really stumped by specific language in the grant, it’s nice to be able to make a call and try to get clarification.
It is worth noting that individuals can seldom apply directly for funds from a Federal grant. While the funds may ultimately be used by an individual, this assistance nearly always comes through a block grant or restricted funds grant to a state or local government or agency.