Applying for Federal Grants

We’re into “tax season” here in the U.S. as the corporate tax deadline looms for March 15th, and personal taxes returns are due on April 15th. Although we spend lots of time and effort sending money to the Internal Revenue Service, it is always nice to recall that many other government agencies will give it back if you ask nicely, at the proper time, using their forms. Yes, this means grants.

Our own experience is primarily with the SBIR program. It turns out that 2.5% of all “extramural” procurement, that is, goods, services and research done under contract for a government agency must, by law, be provided to “small business”. What constitutes a small business may be laughable when you consider that a small business can have a couple hundred employees, but my own case also applies; most of the time my little corporation has one full-time employee, with a lot of subcontractors. You provide credibility by working with others, and demonstrating your ability to fulfill the requirements of the grant. Often this means that you need to hook up with a Large Organization…say the local college or university, and use their expertise and facilities as part of the grant.

As my ink jet printer spits out another 60-page set of grant instructions, it occurs to me that there are several pre-requisites for success when chasing down these grants:

  • You must be a company or corporation. For SBIR you must be a for-profit business; otherwise, you probably need to be a 501c(3) non-profit organization. Most of the grants listed in the Chronicle of Philanthropy are targeted at non-profits; health care, social service, or educational institutions. Grants to individuals are rare. (If you want to get government money as an individual, get a gig at a federal or state agency).
  • You must have accounting competence, or the ability to find it. So, you need a CPA who is experienced with federal accounting, and a bookkeeper who can keep everything straight. If you are terrified of doing your own tax return, you’ll need to find people who aren’t. If you are familiar with TurboTax, then multiply it by ten, and that will give you an idea of the effort involved for a grant of significant size. (>$60,0000) both to do the application, and then the ongoing accounting and management.
  • You need to be able to do a budget in a spreadsheet, use a word processor, and be able to create PDF files.
  • You need to be able to work with other organizations (see above). Grant makers love collaboration and synergy. They recognize that it is unusual for a single person or organization to be expert in everything.

The gumint has been switching over from paper grant submissions to electronic submissions, and it continues to be quite a trip. A couple years ago, you filled out Word forms and sent them in as PDF files. Then they switched to online forms, which often requested longer narratives to be uploaded as PDFS. Now many of not all federal agencies participate in Grants.Gov, a central point for all federal grant applications. And, yet, working with NIH and NSF, I note that they each have their own interfaces and ways of doing things.

Your organization needs a DUNS number (from Dunn and Bradstreet), if you don’t already have one. This is a prerequisite for registering in the CCR, the Central Contractor Registration Database. Registration in the CCR is a prerequisite for applying for federal grants. You’ll also get lots of unsolicited phone calls from people who say they can “assist” you with working with the government. Ignore them, and find out if your local SBA office can help.

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