Standardized Grants Forms: It’s Hard to Make It Easy

Victoria Collin from the Office of Management and Budget spoke at the National Grants Management Association’s November training session about the new Council on Financial Assistance Reform. The Council was created by the White House in October to make sure that the money others spend for the government is spent correctly and produces results. In return, the government is going to look at how to make it easier for people and organizations to apply for that financial assistance.

One of their aims is to better standardize grant applications across the Federal government to relieve some of the burden on applicants. This is difficult, as Federal grant programs cover so many different areas. Just as a challenge, I tried to come up with a standard application for three grant programs, Amtrak, WIC (Women, Infants, and Children), and cancer research. All have applicants, all represent social needs that deserve Federal support, all transfer resources from one entity (the Federal government) to another (the grant recipient).

So here is my form that would cover all three equally:

  1. Name of the program to which you are applying:
  2. Your name:
  3. Your address:
  4. Amount requested:
  5. What you will do with the grant:
  6. When you need it, and how long it will meet your need:
  7. Why we should give it to you and not someone else:

I thought about a lot of other fields, like “How we will know that you are using the grant for what you say,” or “Name the Congressional district that will benefit,” or “List the deliverables you will produce,” or even “Give the number and names of unemployed veterans you will hire, how long each has been out of work, and the highest education level for each,” but the first question doesn’t make sense for the poor pregnant woman who gets two gallons of milk through WIC; the second doesn’t work for Amtrak; the third doesn’t easily apply to cancer research, and the fourth, as worthy as its goal might be, is just annoying.

I understand that it’s complicated to apply for grants, but if you want to spend someone else’s money, you are going to have to go along with someone else’s rules.

Nevertheless, the Council on Financial Assistance Reform will try to make the rules simpler in four aspects of the Federal grants enterprise:

  • Fair and transparent award-selection procedures
  • Government-wide reporting requirements, to emphasize results and allow government to blend funds and programs
  • Consistent treatment of direct and indirect costs
  • Risk-focused audits, looking for waste, fraud, and abuse

I wish them luck.

I’ve got to give a shout-out to Victoria Collins. She exhibited my favorite three best presentation practices:

  1. Her slides were bullet points, charts, and pictures, not paragraphs, making them easier and more interesting to read.
  2. She did not read her slides, she spoke to them, so we in the audience could follow along but were not distracted by reading ahead of her. We could listen.
  3. Most difficult, she repeated questions before she answered them. Her audience was knowledgeable, so the questions were complicated, with a lot of explanation. She pulled the essence out of each question, and repeated it before she answered it. That is really tough to do, because the temptation is always to start formulating your answer as you listen to the question; she had to pay close attention to what the questioner was saying, and figure out how to rephrase it gracefully and accurately — and then answer it.

Well done, Victoria.