Four Steps to Take Advantage of New Funding Opportunities

Want to know exactly how to take advantage of these new federal funds? Tia Cavender, CEO of Dig Deep, outlined four steps to do this on the Ripple Effect podcast.

Step one is to figure out which funding agency funds the projects you have. For example, if your project deals with water reclamation, you should be looking at the USBR.

Step two is to sign up for that funding agency’s notifications and get on their email distribution list. That way, you can be notified if any news of interest is blasted out or in case you need deadline reminders.

Step three is to pay attention to your project’s eligibility and determine which grants are worth your time to invest in preparing an application. Your project needs to be in the top 2-10% of all applicants to be competitive for federal funding. If you’re less competitive than that, it’s not worth your time or resources to pursue. The FEMA BRIC program, for example, is the most competitive program. The top 2% of applicants move forward for consideration but are not guaranteed funds. This competition is due to more people coming to the table and costs having risen, reflecting larger asks and less money to go around.

Step four is to ensure you have enough time to plan. Infrastructure funds take years to make an impact. If you’re used to thinking that it’s best to throw your hat in the ring now to take advantage of a grant opportunity before the deadline, even if your application isn’t perfect, you need to change your approach. In this funding climate, you’re better off waiting another year if your project isn’t fully developed and/or competitive enough. Quality over quantity.

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Breaking Down All This New Funding

Have you been hearing about all this new funding but don’t know what it means? The federal government has passed acts to support infrastructure funding including The Infrastructure and Jobs Act, Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and the Inflation Reduction Act. What do these acts aim to do? How can you take advantage of these funds?

All of these are intended to fund existing grant programs or start new grant programs that push money out for infrastructure projects like those for drinking water or wastewater. These acts can also create new loan programs.

The other goal is to make funding more accessible. SRF (state revolving fund) programs in every state are loan programs, sometimes associated with principal forgiveness. With Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) funds, states have been supplementing principal forgiveness which helps disadvantaged communities. This evens out the playing field and makes the funding landscape less competitive for rural and disadvantaged communities, which is an administration aim through the Justice40 Initiative.

Now that you know more about these funding opportunities, you are able to make educated decisions as to what types of funding to pursue. Just because more money has been allocated, it doesn’t mean you should apply to any and everything expecting results. Assess the options and only apply to programs you are highly competitive for. Don’t waste your resources on grants that won’t be fruitful.

The Standard Components of a Grant Application Explained

Once you have defined your project and identified potential funders, it’s finally time to start preparing your application. Every application is different, depending on the requirements of the funding agency; but there are some fairly standard components of capital funding applications.

The budget is the single most important element of any application. The budget is the financial expression of your project and shows funders exactly where their money will go. The budget usually consists of two components: budget form and budget narrative. The budget form must define every cost associated with the project. The budget narrative provides an explanation for items included on the budget form.

The narrative is the written description of your proposed project. The component parts often request the following information, though the headings may vary: project summary, project goals or objectives, project description, and performance measures. These sections are fairly self-explanatory, but be sure to remember that there is usually a word count associated with the narrative. Multiple rounds of editing are needed to ensure you include all the necessary information in the most concise manner possible.

Additional documentation in the form of organizational attachments will be required including mandatory federal forms, letters of support, and resolution. These documents are important to provide evidence of compliance and support. Technical attachments are required as well, which include documents such as a map of the project area, land use compatibility statement, permits, and environmental crosscutting requirements.

It is important to familiarize yourself with every requirement of a specific application before you get started so nothing is missed. While it may seem daunting, identifying and understanding each element early will help you make a plan that allows the application to be completed by the application deadline.

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You Never Know Until You Ask

Having trouble finding grant opportunities? Not sure if an application is worth the time and resources to complete? Confused about where to begin in general? We get it. The world of grants is overwhelming. Even experienced grant-writers struggle sometimes.

So how do you navigate this world? Put your questions to use and ask them. Whether you consult a program officer or a grant-writing consultant, there are people who have the skills and knowledge to assist you in the process.

Program officers can be particularly useful since every funding agency has a contact person, or program officer, that is responsible for managing the application process for a given opportunity. Create a list of questions, asking for their perspective on how well your project aligns with their priorities. In addition, ask them to give you suggestions, both general and specific, about things to include that will make your proposal stronger.

If you want to invest in a consultant, you then open the door to additional grant-seeking resources like paid subscription services and therefore be able to more efficiently and effectively identify funding opportunities. In addition to their resources, consultants can answer many if not all of the questions you have regarding the entire process. Make full use of this optional investment by engaging them as much as you can.

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Match Requirements: An Important Aspect of Evaluating Funders

Evaluating funding opportunities can seem daunting, even for experienced grant-writers. Federal grant guidelines often include 75 or more pages of information and instructions! Not every funding opportunity will be a good fit for your organization or your project. By breaking down the evaluation process into stages, you can avoid spending too much time assessing programs that are an obvious mismatch to your water infrastructure project.

The first step is to eliminate programs for which you don’t meet the basic eligibility requirements. The second step – before you really dig into the guidance to assess competitiveness – is to do a more thorough assessment of the nexus between your project and funding program.

One of the most important aspects to focus on is a grant’s matching requirements. Funding agencies almost always expect your organization to bear some of the financial responsibility for the proposed project. This responsibility is known as the match and is usually expressed as a percentage of the request amount. It’s not always necessary to meet match requirements with cash, depending on the funding agency. Some will allow staff time, in-direct costs and volunteer contributions as “in-kind match”. If you can’t meet the required match percentage, consider whether it’s reasonable to lower your request amount so that the match is feasible.

Evaluating a funding opportunity can seem overwhelming. However, by focusing on a few important considerations like match requirements, you will be able to better determine if a funding opportunity is worth pursuing.

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Types of Project Stakeholders and How to Engage With Them

An important piece of the puzzle to securing support from your community is identifying project stakeholders and determining the appropriate level of involvement. Stakeholders will vary in their power to influence a project, either positively or negatively. Similarly, stakeholders will vary in their interest in the project, from indifferent to committed. Stakeholders will need to be involved differently, based on their relative power and interest.

A simple way to determine a stakeholder’s power and interest is to categorize them within a Power/Interest Grid. Low Power/Low Interest are stakeholders that are likely only indirectly affected by a project. Information needs to be available to them, but active involvement isn’t necessary. Low Power/High Interest are stakeholders who may care deeply about your project’s outcome. As such, they need to be actively informed of your project. Also because of their interest, it is important to show these stakeholders consideration as you move forward.

To contrast, High Power/High Interest stakeholders may not be particularly interested in your project but it is important to keep them actively informed, as they do have power over your project’s success. Similarly, it is important to keep this group of stakeholders satisfied, to the best of your ability, so that they do not use their power to negatively impact your project. Lastly, High Power/High Interest stakeholders are the most important to your project as they have the biggest impact on its success. These are stakeholders that you must engage regularly and work to maintain a positive relationship. They will need to have the opportunity to provide direct input into the project and may be involved in key decision-making.

Take the time to categorize your stakeholders using a Power/Interest Grid. By doing so, you will be able to determine the appropriate level of engagement for each stakeholder. This will allow you to focus your energy and resources more on key stakeholders, while still meeting the needs of the larger group.

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How to Utilize Existing Connections in Your Grant Application

Funders are interested in supporting projects that have the support and participation of the community. The more support that you can demonstrate, the stronger your grant application will be.

It is likely that your organization already has relationships with other organizations that are directly working on the project or have an interest in the project’s outcome. Make the effort to formalize these existing relationships by asking for a letter of support, letter of commitment, or memorandum of understanding. Once the connection is formalized, the documentation can be included to strengthen your application.

Letters of support indicate general support for the project. The author will not play a specific role in the project, but believes a project is worthwhile. High-quality letters of support add valuable depth to your proposal, just allow time for your connection to draft it. Letters of commitment indicate actual investment in a project. These letters express a willingness to commit resources, personnel, facilities, cash or other assets that will help ensure the success of the project. A memorandum of understanding (MOU) is a formal agreement between two or more parties, but does not contain legally enforceable promises. An MOU typically outlines the goals, expectations and duties involved in a formal partnership.

These types of documentation show formal proof of your connections (with various levels of commitment) and therefore makes your project more likely to be funded. When you are crafting your grant application, you want to identify fundable elements and both incorporate and emphasize them. The more fundable elements in your application, the greater chance of your project securing the funding it needs to be completed, even in the competitive landscape of water infrastructure grants.

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Job Creation: An Important Aspect to Emphasize

It seems like common sense, but a new water infrastructure project will most likely create jobs. But what isn’t always common sense is using that fact to make your project more fundable. Funders are interested in investing their money in ways that create economic opportunities for communities through job creation.

There is always a greater need for infrastructure improvements than there is funding available. In order to improve the “fundability” of your project, it is important to understand the general funding landscape. Specifically, there are general project features, including emphasizing job creation, that get particular attention from funding agencies. The more fundability your project has, the better its chances of securing funding – even in a competitive landscape.

Capital and infrastructure projects can create jobs in the short-term through construction. Some projects can also create long-term jobs through ongoing operations and maintenance. Other projects may also indirectly create jobs in other related sectors. For example, improved infrastructure with greater capacity can attract new business to an area.

Job creation stimulates development or revitalization in a community. Infrastructure projects that have a larger development or revitalization can have a significant positive impact on a local economy. Consider how your proposed project might have a larger, indirect benefit to the community. The more you detail, the clearer the picture for a potential funder.

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Best Practices: Why Are They Worth Pursuing?

Funders are interested in supporting industry accepted best practices for capital infrastructure projects.

  • Technology – Incorporating green technologies or other emerging technologies into your project is easiest done in early phases of the design and construction process. Incorporating these technologies into your project may also be an opportunity to develop a partnership with a research institution, power company, or environmental group, thus boosting your project’s fundability
  • Environmental Stewardship – Capital and infrastructure projects almost always impact the environment in some way. It is worth making the effort to minimize any negative impacts and/or maximize positive impacts to the environment. Environmental stewardship is both the right thing to do and will also increase the fundability of your project. In general, funding agencies want to fund projects that exceed what is minimally required by regulation.

Making your project more appealing to funders does not have to involve dramatic changes. In many cases, highlighting what you are already doing and formalizing existing connections will increase the fundability of a project without much effort. Other elements, such as incorporating industry best practices, can be easily included if you start thinking about increasing your project’s fundability early in the design process. There are many ways in which you can increase the fundability of a project, making it as appealing to funders as possible.

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The Importance of Identifying Project Stakeholders

Depending on the project, the number of stakeholders can be very small, or can include entire geographic areas. The following is a list of examples of possible project stakeholders:

  • Surrounding neighborhood, city or geographic region
  • Governing bodies of tribal groups
  • Funding agencies, creditors or shareholders
  • Nonprofit organizations or environmental groups
  • Prospective customers or users
  • Professional groups, unions or trade groups

Almost universally, funders want to see that your project has stakeholder support. To have a truly competitive project proposal, it is imperative that you identify and involve project stakeholders. Additionally, by involving stakeholders, you are able to get a more varied perspective on your project. This will help you to anticipate potential problems and develop creative ways to address them proactively.

It is natural to be nervous about involving stakeholders in a project. There is often a fear that by bringing more people to the table, the process will become more complicated. However, it is better to think of project stakeholders as potential allies that can help your project to succeed. Through the involvement of stakeholders, you have the opportunity to build your project’s credibility and ultimately strengthen your proposed project.

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