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Unless you’re a nonprofit manager or a scientist, who habitually applies for grants, the concept of federal grant money for your business may seem far fetched. Have you happened upon those late-night TV commercials designed to reel you in for a free seminar, where they promise to tell you how you can get a government grant to buy a house, travel, start a business, and secure the various other government-as-fairy-godmother possibilities? I had to discover what those were about. When you go to the seminar, they try to sell you thousands of dollars in services to help you find grants. While researching this column, I discovered a Web site that fronts as a grant proposal writing help site; it’s actually a “pay me to get you easy grants” site. If you are tempted by one of these fast-talking huckster shows, please know they’re all bogus. Don’t get suckered.
What is a grant? According to Grants.gov, it’s “an award of financial assistance from a federal agency to a recipient to carry out a public purpose of support or stimulation . . . . Federal grants are not federal assistance or loans to individuals.” You don’t repay grants. You receive the money to perform specific actions, as specified by the terms of the grant.
You’ll find free detailed grant data for most government agencies at Grants.gov. Managed as a service of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the resource allows you to establish an account, search for openings, and apply, track, and manage a wide spectrum of grants applications from the Grants.gov Web site. Their introductory presentation makes it clear that there are no costs associated with this process. Much effort was invested in development of the Grants.gov online search capability, created to help you find what you need among thousands of available grants. You can search by category of work, agency, keywords. Or you can look for specific contracts that are part of the Recovery Act (Stimulus Bill) funding, which has beefed up the quantity of available grants.
These agencies offer grants in addition to those posted on Grants.gov:
- Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS)
- Department of Defense (DOD)
- Department of Education (DOED)
- Department of Energy (DOE)
- Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)
- Department of Justice (DOJ)
- Department of Treasury (Treasury)
- Department of Transportation (DOT)
- Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
- National Air and Space Administration (NASA)
- Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
- National Science Foundation (NSF)
Grants are usually competitive, although that’s not always the case. You apply for grants by preparing a written proposal to supply specific data requested by the grantor. There is an art to excellent grant proposal writing; FederalGrantsWire.com provides a brief overview of a proposal.
Grant-writing courses are often taught as a public service by libraries or civic organizations. Most libraries offer a selection of books on grant-writing. You’ll notice that every grant asks for specific details in your proposal. I once lost a lucrative grant because I worded one sentence a little differently from what the granting agency asked for. The capability that sentence would have demonstrated was mentioned throughout our proposal, however, I didn’t express it specifically in one paragraph, where the agency asked to see it. Our competitor’s overall presentation did not approach our level of expertise. However, he delivered that specific requirement along with all others, as requested, and we lost the grant. Lesson learned: pay rapt attention to the tiny details requested in a proposal.
While it is true that many federal grants go to states, cities, and 501(c)3 nonprofit corporations, there are opportunities for small businesses and individuals hidden among the thousands of available contracts. Or, you may want to establish a 501(c)3 corporation so you can compete for more grants. Last week I was talking with a businessman, whose travel company has taken a significant financial hit with the economic downturn. Because he possesses unusual skills needed by several government agencies, he formed a 501(c)3. When the economy improves, he may dissolve the nonprofit or he could continue with both entities as long as they are managed as separate legal businesses, with no cross-pollination of funds.
When you dig through the federal grant listings searching for opportunities it can feel a bit like cleaning out an attic, where someone has stored stuff in hundreds of shoeboxes. It’s a tedious, time-consuming process. And it’s the only way to discover projects you’re qualified to apply for. When you’re selected to receive grants, all the work required to get there will add joy to your celebration.