10 simple steps for a successful grant application

Grants are the lifeline of the volunteer fire service so it’s essential we set ourselves up for success in the application process

Fact: Most volunteer fire departments struggle to make ends meet financially. Even with the donations, spaghetti dinners, pancake breakfasts and bingo nights, most volunteer departments operate on a shoestring budget. In many cases, organizations will gladly accept hand-me-downs from larger, better funded organizations. The pure fortitude and perseverance of many volunteer organizations reflects greatly on their commitment to serve their community.

With budgets tight and the cost of operating even the smallest department on the rise, the need for financial assistance from grants and alternative funding sources is only growing more critical.

Fortunately, there are many sources of grants for fire departments. Your state training or fire marshal’s office is a great source to check with if you are uncertain about the available grants in your region.

With budgets tight and the cost of operating even the smallest department on the rise, the need for financial assistance from grants and alternative funding sources is only growing more critical.
With budgets tight and the cost of operating even the smallest department on the rise, the need for financial assistance from grants and alternative funding sources is only growing more critical. (Photo/Getty Images)

On a national level, the FEMA Assistance to Firefighters Grant program continues to make a huge impact on America’s fire service. As of Sept. 21, 2021, FEMA has made 2,200 awards totaling $710 million, inclusive of Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) and Fire Prevention and Safety (FP&S) grants – programs that have had a huge impact on leveling up the safety of our nation’s firefighters.

So why then, with this investment and impact, are the application numbers decreasing?

There are many reasons that fire departments might not apply for grants – no time, past rejection and too much work, to name a few common arguments. And while, yes, the process can be involved, grants are a critical funding source, so I urge you to not give up. Sometimes you just need some guidance to help you on the way. With that in mind, following are some simple steps to streamline your application process.

Step by step: Preparing to write a grant

Here’s where to begin in the grant-writing process:

  1. Start now: Don’t wait until you see the grant announcement. Start compiling your information now. This isn’t as daunting as it sounds. I find myself using many of the same grant data and narratives from year to year and updating as needed. Whether you’re working off a previous application or starting fresh, an early start gives you time to get multiple reviews of your application prior to its due date.
  2. Develop a needs assessment: Conduct a basic needs assessment. A needs assessment can be as simple as your officers, members or boards identifying critical safety needs that are impacting the efficiency and safety of your operations. The critical point during the needs assessment is to clearly define a need, not a want. We too often get distracted by the newest shining tool that we want but may not need. For most grant applications, your needs should directly impact the safety of your firefighter and/or your community.
  3. Compile the numbers: For almost every grant application, you will need supporting data like call volume by call type. If you are filing National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) reports, your state fire marshal can help you collect your numbers. If you are not reporting to NFIRS, this is your opportunity to start. Prepare to have three years of budget information. Your budget, no matter how big or small, needs to be clearly defined. Saying that you only have a $50,000 budget is not enough data. Break the budget into expense categories so your application clearly states your financial need. Finally, community demographics are important in explaining your needs. Your county or state officials can help you gather data about population, area economics and household average income. In addition, your state tourism department can share the number of annual visitors, and your state highway department can provide data to support railroad or interstate highway activity. Note: There are four more numbers you must have for most grants – NIFRS number, Employer Identification Number (EIN), System for Award Management (SAM) number, and a Unique Entity ID (previously a DUNS number).
  4. Identify national standards: You now need to identify any national standards that your project will address. Whether an NFPA, ISO or OSHA standard, highlighting how the grant will help you meet these standards adds strength to your application.
  5. Get bids: For most grants, you will need bids for the total cost of the grant. When collecting your bids, don’t forget to include training for the new equipment or training. For example, if you are applying for a vehicle grant, you should include driver/operator training in your application.
  6. Start writing and get it reviewed: Writing is not easy for most of us. In fact, it can be very intimidating to have to write 1,500 to 5,000 words to describe your department’s needs. My recommendation comes in two variations. My first recommendation is just start writing. Your emotions will start to flow through your fingers, and you’ll find yourself with a compelling grant for a true department need. Once you have a draft written, get it reviewed. Your local school English teacher is a great place to start. Also, there might be local business owners who can review your grant for you. Bottom line: Don’t assume it’s fine as is; seek out others’ help. My second recommendation is hire a grant writer. Many grants provide funding to hire a grant writer. I will warn you that there are pros and cons to grant writers. Be sure to research the grant writer before you contract with them. Also, because most fire grants are awarded by your peers, you can lose some emotional connection to the reviewer by hiring a grant writer to handle the application. Make sure the final product expresses your need and the pain points experienced that make the grant award essential for your department.
  7. Be ready: Many grants open each year at the same time. Be ready, as there can be quick deadlines. And do not wait until the last day to submit!
  8. Cut and paste: For every grant that you complete, save the data and your narrative needs statements. Why reinvent the wheel each time when you can cut and paste from grant to grant? This approach allows you to streamline the application process and build a better application year to year as find new or different ways to present the information.
  9. Stay positive: Many grant programs can be a long, drawn-out process. Keep a positive attitude, and if you don’t get an award the first time, keep trying. The more grants you write, the greater chance you have of receiving an award. Bottom line: Don’t get discouraged; keep the faith.
  10. Keep records: Finally, it is vital to follow a clean, simple record-keeping system for awarded grants. Make sure you have both an electronic and hard copy of all applications, bids and data that you used in the grant application. I suggest a three-ring binder to keep all hard copies of receipts, canceled checks and bids. In addition, keep a copy of the original grant along with the award letter. Solid record-keeping will help with applying for additional grants in the future and for defending how you spent any awarded money.

Keep pushing

Grants are a financial lifeline for so many in the fire service. But for many organizations, applying for grants can be a daunting or frustrating event, leading leaders to throw in the towel before even beginning the process. Don’t be discouraged. Follow the above 10-step process to improve your grant applications. And if it doesn’t work out this round, keep applying and improving you grant application each year. You will eventually receive that exciting email or phone call announcing your successful grant award.

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