Connecting state and local government leaders
Streamlined grants management and cross-sector partnerships can help governments with limited resources overcome barriers to accessing federal grants.
Historic legislation in recent years like the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the Inflation Reduction Act and the CHIPS Act have presented state and local governments with a bevy of federal grants to support economic development, sustainability and infrastructure improvements. But some say the complexity of the federal grants processes creates barriers, blocking local governments’ ability to leverage those funds.
For many, it’s difficult to apply for federal grants because “there’s no front door,” said Pari Sabety, a senior grants advisor at U.S. Digital Response, or USDR, a nonprofit that uses technology to help public entities solve challenges. “Too many small cities, townships, counties and villages actually opt out of pursuing a grant because the journey is so complex.”
To determine whether applying for a grant is worth it, for instance, agencies calculate their chances of qualifying for a grant and don’t apply unless they’re sure they can win. Or, they conduct a cost-benefit analysis and decide the burden of managing the grant application and implementation outweighs the advantages, Sabety said during a webinar Tuesday. Plus, grant applications and reporting can require applicants to navigate new and different systems and processes, creating an administrative burden for government agencies that typically have one- or two-person grant management teams.
With no uniform system for applying to federal grants, it can feel like “learning a new language every day,” said Chelsea Sadler, director of the Office of Grants and Opportunities in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
One way agencies can simplify the grant process is by establishing a central office to manage grant applications, reporting and compliance operations, according to USDR’s recent report highlighting the challenges and potential solutions for small communities seeking federal funds. Centralization can help streamline the search for funding opportunities, monitor grant progress and coordinate communitywide grant efforts, the report said.
To boost its success rate in applying for federal funding, Chattanooga prioritized streamlining grant operations. In 2021, Mayor Tim Kelly planted the seeds for the Office of Grants and Opportunities, Sadler said, which was officially created in 2022 and has since grown to a five-member staff. The city received $38.6 million in American Rescue Plan funds, and the grants team manages the resulting 34 subrecipient projects, 29 beneficiary projects and 19 city-led projects. They pursue funding opportunities that align with Kelly’s One Chattanooga Plan, a framework for improving the city’s services, and supporting internal and external partners with grant operations.
State and local governments should start by evaluating community needs, which can bolster agencies’ chances of finding funding opportunities that match their priorities and that they are likely to win, according to the report. Grants managers should also develop and maintain a list of departmental funding priorities to more quickly identify grants that are relevant for their communities. For instance, grant managers can use USDR’s grant identification tool to search for funding opportunities by keyword or search filter and set up email alerts for new and updated grant notices.
Another way to overcome barriers to accessing federal grants is by partnering with organizations that offer grant support, the report said. The University of Delaware’s Institute of Public Administration, for example, is a state-funded program that helps local governments with limited resources “enter the grant space,” said Matthew Harris, an associate policy scientist at the university.
The institute offers local governments support for grant management through workshops and virtual learning sessions for local leaders where they receive technical assistance with tasks like project identification, grant impact evaluation and reporting requirements. It also maintains an online portal where users can search for grant opportunities for Delaware municipalities.
“Easy ways to navigate the federal ecosystem means fewer disappointed communities,” the report said, “and a higher level of satisfaction with the quality and accessibility of federal resources to support critical community services and needs.”