Looking Outside the Traditional Fire Service Grants Box

Obviously, the goal of any grant application is to hit the bull's eye and bring home the money. But, with an industry-wide grant writing average of only one in six applications getting funded, certainly creating competitive applications will increase our chances of being the one funded instead of the five turned down. Since our goal is to receive funding for any project instead of just one or two, the question should be: are we throwing enough darts to increase our chances that way also?

Many organizations concentrate on just one or two grant applications per year. In the fire service many know about the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program (AFG) as well as its siblings the Fire Prevention and Safety (FPS) and the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) programs. While they are some of the largest award pots they each have a specific focus that neither of the other two duplicate so in reality there is only one chance in this arena per year to hit certain awards such as personal protective equipment, self-contained breathing apparatus, smoke detector programs, or hiring of personnel.

While it is nice to hit any award, what we really should be looking at is if we need something to improve our organization, why aren't we going after the rest of the programs that we can get funding from? Very few departments have only one or two needs, especially since most everything we use has a limited life cycle. So while it may seem like a lot more work, if we truly have a need we should be tapping every resource available and putting in as many applications as possible so we increase our chances for funding. While many of the programs may be limited in funding amounts, if we can bring in any money for any of our needs we're still making progress so the efforts aren't wasted by any stretch of the imagination.

Some of the other federal programs that fund the fire service include:

U.S. Department of Agriculture - Rural Community Development Program
Monies from U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) can be used for just about anything, with the exception of salaries and benefits. So we can use this program for construction projects, vehicles, or equipment.

The funding matrix is based upon the median household income (MHI) of an area, giving three levels of grant eligibility. Organizations can receive 35 percent, 5 percent, or 75 percent of their project in grants from USDA, and in areas of extreme economic distress it can be 100 percent. The nice thing about USDA is that an organization can get 100 percent of their money from USDA since their loan program is practically unlimited so we can do a combination grant/loan for a project. Loan rates are basically at prime rate and they'll amortize up to 40 years to make things as affordable as possible.

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development - Community Block Development Grants
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) traditional role has been to housing those in need, but that role has changed in recent years so the program has a new purpose of assisting areas of lower economic status in any way possible. Since everyone deserves a base level of public safety readiness funds from CDBG can be used in the same manners as USDA funds, with the same restriction of no salaries and benefits.

The City of Houston used some of their funds in 2005 to purchase new vehicles, and in past years other cities have done the same as well as build new stations or renovate older buildings. Since CDBG funds are a block grant it is free money for the community.

U.S. Department of Forestry
Forestry runs two programs, the Volunteer Fire Assistance program and the Rural Fire Assistance program. Both have a purpose of decreasing wildland fire risks, but they have different maximum project amounts, different matching requirements, and also they differ in the priorities of certain projects.

Private Foundations
There are nearly 100,000 private grantmaking foundations in the United State giving out billions of dollars in charitable giving each year. These are the hardest waters to navigate since the private foundations don't necessarily advertise their existence, and anyone that knows about them usually keeps the information to themselves in order to theoretically decrease the competition. Lucky for the rest of the crowd not in the know that there are websites available that provide information about these grant programs, their contact information and other particulars.

One of those is the Foundation Center, a subscription-based service that provides as much information as one needs provided that one is willing to pay a nominal fee for it. Based on what I've seen out there in my own searches their costs are more than reasonable for the information they provide, and if it costs $20 a month to find grant programs where you bring in a few thousand each year, I'd say there is a positive return on investment there.

But you don't necessarily have to spend money to make money in the beginning. Most major corporations have foundations that give grants, and a visit to their websites will give the information one needs in order to put in an application from their eligible applicant listing to the application itself. Wal-Mart, Microsoft, General Electric, and many others in their respective industries have programs.

Another genre has come out in recent years as a great supporter of the fire service, and with good reasoning: insurance companies. Think about it, if they can better prepare the emergency services organizations in their policyholders' communities, there will in theory be less damage when fires do happen which results in smaller payouts to rectify the situation. Fireman's Fund Heritage Program is one of the most well-marketed, but other companies like FM Global also provide support related to code enforcement and investigation projects. Allstate and other companies also have programs that support the usual range of non-profit organizations so while they are out there the competition is stiffer in the private arena because our applications are competing against applications from other community organizations such as the YMCA, schools, scouting groups, and the like.

The last part is not something to focus on and use as a reason to not apply at all. All organizations need funding, but the first step in diverting some of the funding towards ourselves is to make sure we're asking for it. Many grant programs might have never given funds to a public safety agency, but that may be because no one ever asked. The program's listed administrator is the inside expert on their grant program, so make contact with them to ensure eligibility and funding requirements. Most importantly, don't be discouraged by getting turned down. Most applications ask for the same information just in slightly different formats so moving on to the next application doesn't require all new information so each successive application should take less effort than the one before with the same level of potential reward. As I've mentioned in articles passed, the first step before applying for any grant is an assessment so the reasons we need the funding should be in our heads long before we pick up a particular application.

One final note along this front is my simple belief in success versus failure in grants: the only failure is not applying. As far as I'm concerned recognizing a need exists and taking steps to correct it are the important pieces of pursuing grant funding. Of course it's nice to use other people's money to make those needs go away, but this process also makes us think about how we're using the funding we have currently and if there are better things we should be spending it on. The goal of grantmaking foundations is to assist in the improvement of other organizations by providing funding for a solution, but it is up to us as individual organizations to take the first step in making those improvements happen in order to increase our chances of being funded.

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BRIAN P. VICKERS, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, has been in the fire service for 16 years and is currently with the Westlake Volunteer Fire Department in Houston. He is CEO of Vickers Consulting Services (VSC), one of the country's leading public safety consulting firms specializing in strategic financial planning and grants. To date VSC has helped their clients receive nearly $120 million in grant awards. To read Brian's complete biography and view his archived articles, click here. Brian has hosted a variety of podcasts that look at the Assistance to Firefighter Grants program. You can reach Brian by e-mail at brianv@vickersconsultingservices.com.