Federal Grants Website: Will it Click?

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The federal government is making it easier for nonprofits to find, apply for and win federal grants.

Those goals are not fully realized, although three years of effort to streamline the federal grant-making process are beginning to pay dividends. By this month, grant-seekers should be able to find information on every grant offered by the federal government on one website – www.grants.gov. And federal administrators are optimistic that visitors will be able to submit a single, unified application for multiple grants by Oct. 31.

It is just the beginning of much-needed changes, nonprofit leaders say. Kathy Crosby, work force development director for Goodwill Industries International, told a congressional subcommittee in April that “nonprofits like Goodwill are finding the search and mining for federal funds to support and extend their mission increasingly challenging on several fronts.”

The website is “going to make a big difference,” said Scott Klein, a professional staff member of the House Government Reform subcommittee on technology, information policy, intergovernmental relations and the Census. “Every nickel you can secure from the federal government will be in one spot.”

Visitors can search for grant opportunities by a simple text search, specific funding opportunity, date posted, Catalog for Domestic Assistance (CFDA) number, funding activity category, agency, funding instrument type or grant topic.

Visitors can also register for a free e-mail service that notifies subscribers when new grant opportunities become available.

For grant-seekers, this could spell an end to scanning the Federal Register’s table of contents every day looking for grants. It might also free them from searching the CFDA each year, which lists anticipated grants to be awarded later. And perhaps they won’t have to visit each federal agency’s website every day.

The system sounds great in theory. But will it save time? And will it make getting a check in the mail any easier?

Probably not – or at least not yet, said Dave Kittross, editor of the Federal Assistance Monitor, a biweekly newsletter that tracks federal legislation and public and private grants.

“I’m not sure it’s that much better, [although] I guess it’s always helpful to have one place to go,” said Kittross, whose newsletter runs $359 a year. “To us it looks mainly like what has been available – an online CFDA.”

A Headache

One requirement of the unified application – and of all federal grants, regardless of application process – was causing headaches for some nonprofits last month: As of Oct. 1, applicants were to have had an identification number supplied by the Dun and Bradstreet business information company in order to apply for grants.

The nine-digit Data Universal Numbering System – or “DUNS” – numbers that are assigned to nonprofits will be used as universal identification numbers across the federal government, similar to Social Security numbers for individuals.

Although getting a DUNS number is fairly easy, the government did a poor job of educating the public about the new requirement, according to OMB Watch, a public interest organization that monitors spending and policy at the federal level. OMB Watch is also a member of an advisory group established by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to work with the government as it implements its Electronic Government initiative. Part of the initiative involves streamlining the federal grants process.

Mazes and Labyrinths

Navigating that process is not easy, even for the veteran grant-seekers.

According to the House Government Reform Committee, the federal government has 600 financial assistance programs administered by 26 agencies. Each year the government awards $60 billion to nonprofits, universities and other groups through approximately 71,000 grant programs.

Another $300 billion is awarded to state and local governments through 141,000 awards.

Federal grants are decentralized, administered by thousands of federal employees. The federal process remains primarily paper-based, despite the growing integration of computer technology into daily business, according to committee reports.

Nonprofits seeking federal grants must know which agency administers the grants, when the grants will become available, deadlines for applications and how to apply. In addition, they must understand how to write a grant proposal that demonstrates their needs and qualifications.

In 1999, Congress enacted the Federal Financial Assistance Management Improvement Act to improve the effectiveness of grant programs, simplify the grant process, improve delivery of services and make it easier to coordinate services.

The Bush administration decided to make other changes to how the government announces, awards and manages grants. One priority was establishing the “e-grants” website as a central source for grant-seekers.

“You need one-stop shopping for all the folks outside the Beltway to know where everything is,” said Klein, of the House subcommittee.

The government is still trying to establish a unified application process, he said, so each agency can fill out one grant application and use the same information to apply for subsequent grants without rewriting an entire application.

One stumbling block has been the notion that each agency believes its grant applicants should submit special information that would not fit on a unified application, Klein said. He said that would result in a system that requires the unified application and a “sub-application” for the special information.

But overall, the grant simplification process is proceeding well in the eyes of Congress, Klein said.

“They’re right on target,” agreed OMB Watch junior policy analyst Abbey Tyrna. “So far, so good, except for this DUNS number requirement.”

A centralized application process is a good first step toward making it easier to apply for grants, but it is not the only help nonprofits need, said Crosby of Goodwill.

In April, Crosby told Klein’s House Government Reform subcommittee that the government should consider using common definitions in grant proposals across all federal departments and agencies; implementing common standards for requests for proposals with regards to timelines, formats and scoring; and categorizing grant opportunities by common services or service populations, rather than by agency.

She said the grants “mining process is complex in that the grant announcements are often difficult to decipher, and the requests for proposal language may be vague or, conversely, misleading.”

Providing simplified explanations is one of the benefits of subscription-based grants services like the Federal Assistance Monitor. “We don’t write in Federal Register-ese,” Kittross said.

Regardless of how simple the application process may become, nonprofits will also need the government to give them more time to apply if the grant process is going to be friendlier, Kittross said.

Foundation Grants: Still Scattered

Grant-making foundations don’t appear ready to emulate the federal government’s attempt to consolidate its grant information through a single website.

“I’m not aware of anything ... as organized as the e-grants initiative,” said Kathy Crosby, work force development director of Goodwill Industries International, based in Bethesda, Md. “Our experience in the foundation world is it’s still about relationship-building.”

The New York-based Foundation Center is considered by many as the leader in helping nonprofits find information about foundations and their grants. The organization offers both free and fee-based services, such as databases of funders and an e-mail alert about current requests for proposals.

“The Foundation Center is the closest thing we have to being a type of clearinghouse or portal for the foundation sector,” said Joe Mizereck, a fund-raising consultant in Florida. Mizereck recently launched www.grantsalert.com, which features grant opportunities focused primarily on educational programs.

Some state governments have encouraged foundations based within their states to accept a common application form, which all nonprofits could use to provide background and financial information when applying for grants, according to the Foundation Center.

“There is so much more that can and should be done to provide grant-seekers with the information they need to pursue the funds available to them,” Mizereck said. “It won’t be easy because of the great diversity in the sector. ... But for there to be real progress, we need to go down a similar path” to that of the federal government.