February 03, 2011

Searching for federal grants online

From The Grantsmanship Center's {CENTERED}
The federal government has put the Internet to work in many ways to increase access to grant information. Grantseekers will find several databases that aid in the search for federal dollars and detailed background information on specific grant programs.

Before starting a search, remember:
  1. Federal grant funds are, in general, highly targeted. If you start the process thinking, "There has to be money for my project," you may be disappointed. Congress and the administration have their agendas for what they seek to accomplish through grant funding. Operating funds and funding for purely local projects are harder to find than funding for short-term projects that have the potential either to generate information or to speed the adoption of contemporary methods for dealing with entrenched problems.
  2. There are many agencies, and they announce and process their grant applications in as many ways. It is important to think broadly, use your imagination, and be persistent.
  3. Some of the programs you think belong in one agency are housed elsewhere. The Department of Labor has education money, the Department of Agriculture has economic development money, and the Army pays for medical research.
  4. As useful as the databases are, they all have their limitations. It's important to recognize those limitations and try a variety of strategies.
  5. Commercial publishers use the free federal databases to create their own publications. While these online newsletters can be helpful, they often provide no more information than is available on the free federal web sites, and they are out of date almost immediately.
  6. Use search terms that are relatively broad and focus on the need and population of need, not on the specific methodology for which you are seeking funds.
The objective in your search is to find the federal agencies and departments with priorities that are aligned with your community's needs. You may find that they previously had grant programs that could have met your needs, but do not at this moment. Research on these agencies, and discussions with their staff, may provide leads on how your agency can access resources. The staff may point to another federal agency with similar programs. They may know of grants made to states that are supposed to be regranted at the local level.

What are the resources?
The Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance (CFDA) offers the most comprehensive look at federal grantmaking. The CFDA lists all assistance programs authorized by law--so it includes surplus property, technical assistance, and entitlement programs. The CFDA has a user's guide and intuitive search engines for key words. It is also possible to search by agency or sub-agency and by different types of assistance. The weakness of the CFDA, which is program centered, not grant oriented, is that some very large funding programs, with many grant opportunities, may all be included in one or two short listings. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has many discretionary grants, but in the CFDA the range of these programs is only hinted at.

A search in the CFDA will bring up listings for a number of agencies. For example, a search for project grants and the key word "drugs" will bring up programs at the Departments of Health and Human Service, Education, Transportation, and Justice, among others. If your interest is prevention, that may narrow your choice to Education and Health. If your interest is enforcement, Justice may be the right department. The CFDA will give you leads both in terms of what is being funded and within the many agencies that may have grant programs related to legal, illegal, and prescription drugs. The CFDA listing provides a program overview, including the law authorizing the program, contact information, anticipated budget, examples of funded projects, and the like. It also gives you the five-digit CFDA number (e.g., 93.123), which can be useful when you're searching Grants.gov or other databases.

Grants.gov was developed as a universal website for announcing, searching for, submitting applications to, and managing grant-funded projects. While the CFDA is program oriented, Grants.gov is a listing of requests for proposal (RFPs), requests for applications (RFAs) and notices of funding availability (NOFAs). As is true with the CFDA, a broad search will identify grant opportunities in a number of agencies. The broader the search, the broader the results. "Drugs," as noted above, has several meanings, as does "abuse." Search results may be sorted by date on which proposals are due, date of announcement, title of program, or name of agency.

A benefit to Grants.gov is that it is retrospective--grant announcements from the past are also listed. A key word search for "drugs" results in announcements that go back to 2005. This allows you to see which RFPs are announced every year, as well as which agencies have been interested in an issue in the past, if not at the moment. A recurring announcement suggests the grant program will come up again. Access to past RFPs also allows you to assess the degree to which a program meets your need and your potential for success--and to take the first steps in proposal development.

No search engine is fully adequate, but between the CFDA and Grants.gov you will find most, although perhaps not all, of your potential federal grants. Using common sense and clues from the CFDA and Grants.gov listings, you'd also be wise to check the websites of likely agencies. Most agency and departmental websites have a tab for "grants." Some have a "grants forecast," where you can view upcoming competitions. Specific programs may have lists of grants made, abstracts for grants made, and other program information on priorities. The deeper you dig, the more you'll find.

Finally, try a general search engine. With Google, for example, during a search on the term "drug prevention grants," many of the obvious candidates popped up--but so did a few dark horses. CFDA and Grants.gov searches for "fetal alcohol syndrome" led to no results, but Google found two federal research programs.

Charles R. Putney has been a consultant trainer for The Grantsmanship Center® for more than 20 years. He has worked extensively on successful federal grant proposals funded by the Departments of Health and Human Services, Education, Labor, and Housing and Urban Development.

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