How to get Grants

Much of my time these days seems to be spent helping various livestock and crop associations apply for government grants. This is an extension of my work in assisting them to develop their business plans. I thought it would be useful to share my experiences so that deer/elk associations and farmers too can take advantage of grants.

Here in oil and cash-rich Alberta, there is approximately $30 to $40 million dollars available for agricultural projects from various provincial and federal government grants. Our neighboring province of Saskatchewan had some $95 million available a few years ago in their agri-innovation fund! Many states and provinces have similar grant programs available.

These grant programs are designed to support and advance agriculture within certain regions. Because of the challenges facing farmers, the goals of these programs usually focus on such things as agricultural diversification, improved productivity, rural development, value-added processing, attracting investment into agriculture, market development, commercialization, and development of business/technical expertise among farmers.

Funds may be available to associations, companies, researchers, universities and private individuals, depending on the specific program. Grants are usually NOT available to help you set up a deer or elk farm. However, if you want to set up a research/pilot project on your farm, funding may be available.

Several times in my past careers I was involved in reviewing and recommending approval of grants. So I have experience on both sides of the granting process.

Here are some of the things that funding agencies are looking for when considering grant applications:

1. A good idea - this certainly is not the most important aspect, but the concept must be consistent with the goals of the grant program, and make good sense. Funders prefer projects that are logical, that make sense to them, and that they can understand.

2. Promises benefits - the more benefits the proposed project has, the more attractive it is. The benefits must be broad based - for all the producers, the association, the industry and the state or province. Projects that are likely to only benefit a limited number of individuals/companies are given lower priority. It is important to clearly state the benefits in simple language in your application - they may be obvious to you but may not be so obvious to people outside your industry who are reviewing your application.

3. Detailed planning - my greatest nightmare has been to write up a grant application, get the funding and then have to deliver on what I promised to do! The problem is that I didn't do enough research on what was required to do a particular component, and when the funding came through, found it could not be done within the time or resources stated in the application. Therefore, it is absolutely critical that you do the proper research and planning to ensure that what you promise is doable.

Proper planning also includes working on and being able to describe the actual details of the project. It is not enough to say that you will do "market research" to measure the demand for venison. You need to specify what market research, where it will be done, who will do it (do they have proper credentials and expertise) and the detailed budget. Funders have had too many negative experiences with vague proposals to be comfortable in approving them.

4. Ability to execute - I don't have any hard facts, but have heard that about 80% of funded projects experience significant problems. These include such things as cash flow problems, being over-budget, not being able to meet timelines, personnel problems, technical problems, etc.

Every project needs to be managed by people who know what they are doing! Successful projects require managing people, tasks and resources. Projects and contractors require constant monitoring and an occasional butt-kicking! If you are applying for a grant, be sure to include funds for project management. Don't assume that one of your board members or a volunteer has the ability to properly manage the project.

In getting projects done, I have had the best success with professional consultants, government and university researchers. These people have the knowledge and experience in doing projects and usually deliver. I have had the poorest results with board members, association staff, volunteers and students. The problems often result from lack of expertise, experience and commitment.

Remember that if you screw up your project, funders will be reluctant to approve any future requests.

5. Use of results - these days, granting agencies want some assurance and evidence that the results of your project will be disseminated and used. I was once involved in a grants program that gave out millions of dollars every year. Projects were done, final reports were submitted to us, and neatly filed away. The research being done was not having any impact in the field. Needless to say the program was killed. Remember that the granting agencies are also being held accountable for the results they produce. And these days results mean industry impact and benefits, not the number of grants given or money spent.

Indicate how the project results will be disseminated for the benefit of the industry. Have a communications plan. It may include such things as presentations at conferences, use in workshops, articles in newsletters and the media, publication in professional journals, posting on your web site, and so on.

6. Accountability - grants are usually public funds, so are accompanied by significant accountability requirements. Be prepared to account for every cent spent of the grant; and prepare to be audited as well. Computerized accounting systems with project tracking capability are a must. If you are running several projects, don't even think of trying to do it by hand. Having proper accounting systems in place can also keep the project manager and your board up to date regarding expenditures related to the project.

Accountability also means preparing regular status reports and interim and final project reports. These do take considerable time and effort to prepare. Be sure you have the people and resources to comply with these requirements on a timely basis.

Here are some other suggestions.

1. Obtain as much information as you can about the program. Many times the departments will send you a brochure or small pamphlet. Most programs have more detailed documentation. Check their web site.

2. If it is possible and practical, try and arrange a meeting with those responsible for administering and approving the grants. This will enable them to get to know you, and you can find out about their priorities and needs. You can also tell them what you are thinking, and quickly assess whether your idea will be accepted or not.

3. Be professional. Look as professional as possible. Send only typed letters without spelling errors, and be very professional on the telephone.

4. Be prepared. Do your homework before applying. Make a good impression by being thoroughly prepared.

5. Be patient. Government employees are not entrepreneurs. Most will not share in your enthusiasm and excitement. The systems are often complex and there are many channels and regulations. Do not try and rush them, and do not be in a hurry. Being patient is critical. This also requires advanced planning when submitting an application.

6. Deal with head offices as much as possible. Head offices are the ones who make the decisions. You will get your questions answered more quickly and accurately. If you must apply at a local office, get the main details from the head office first.

7. Deal with department heads whenever possible. Use an appropriate directory to find these people. Deal with the person in charge of the program first. They may be hard to get in touch with, but leave a message. Have them refer you to the best person in their unit.

8. Be confident. Confidence is important. Grant givers want assurance that you are confident - in yourself, your concept, your product or service and in your business. Most confidence is gained by doing your homework and being prepared.

9. Be persistent - do not take "no" for an answer. If you receive a "no", find out exactly why, then correct the situation and re-apply. On hundreds of occasions, the government says no the first time, and yes the second.

10. Hire consultants if you need help. If you feel that you do not have the time or expertise to prepare a grant application properly, then hire someone who is experienced and will do a good job. Be sure to agree on a fee and get a letter of agreement.

11. Ensure you have a detailed business plan (if the application is for a business) or a proposal. This will certainly help your case by showing how the grant will help you achieve your clearly defined objectives.

12. Be sure you have qualified people in place to do the work or project after the grant is received. Funding agencies need to feel comfortable that the project they are funding will be done on time, on budget and produce the promised results.

There are several other considerations that you should keep in mind:

1. Grants rarely cover 100% of the project - so you need to be sure that you (your association or organization) have the matching funds available. The granting agency will want to see evidence that you have the money (e.g., bank statements). Many grants will accept in- kind contributions as the matching portion. However, careful record keeping is required, and the time donated to the project by volunteers must be valued at reasonable rates. The percentage of costs that grants cover are sometimes negotiable - so ask.

2. It is easier to get a grant if several partners are involved. Therefore if the deer, elk and reindeer associations along with a university submit a proposal, the odds of funding are better than if an individual or single association applied. However, the downside of this approach is that greater cooperation, coordination and relationship management is required.

3. Consider the "unsolicited proposal" route. Having worked for government, I know that there is ALWAYS money available for projects. Also, as a consultant I have been successful for getting funds for projects without applying through normal programs or channels. If you have a good idea for a project that will significantly benefit the industry and state/province, consider developing a quality proposal and approaching the government directly. This is best done by industry associations, and can be done at the political or senior management level. It also helps if you have the input and support of lower level bureaucrats before you make your pitch.

4. Work with your funding agency. They will assign a project manager as well. Work as a team. If you run into problems, let them know immediately and work to resolve them. Don't hide things or avoid them. Your success makes them look and feel good!

5. In addition to government grants, there are many foundations that provide funds for research projects. So if you want to do a study of the effect of velvet antler on blood clotting, consider agencies such as the American Heart Foundation.

Grants are a source of funds to do research, market development and other projects that can benefit the business and farming industries. They require work to prepare applications, and if successful to manage the projects and account for the results. However, the extra funds available could have significant benefits.