Grant Writing 101

May 1, 2006
Dominic Colletti presents the "Customer Value Proposition," offers ideas for fire departments on limited budgets and reviews some top-level grant-writing and funding-source issues.

At press time, the grant application deadline has just closed for this year’s Assistance to Firefighter’s Grant Program. The peer-review process for grant applications is just about to begin. A battle also has ensued on Capitol Hill regarding fiscal year 2007’s funding level. A proposed budget of $293 million for fiscal year 2007 is 46% lower than the 2006 funding of $545 million. Regardless of the final outcome of the funding level for fiscal year 2007, one thing is for sure: as we go forward, grant funds will be more competitively sought after than ever before.

If your fire department is rural, with a limited budget to throw at improving grant writing, there are a number of inexpensive resources out there that you can use to help improve the odds of a successful grant award. Before we discuss these resources, let us review some top-level grant-writing and funding-source issues. Funding sources for grants can be divided into two broad categories: corporate and governmental. We will examine corporate funding in this article; however, many of the issues we will discuss also apply to governmental funding, including the development of a clearly stated and highly focused Customer Value Proposition.

Corporate Funding

After identifying a potential corporate grant-funding source, you will need to know if and how your fire organization matches up to both the broad and technical acceptance categories of the grant institution. You have upfront investigative work to do to find out! When approaching a corporation for funding, research as much as possible about its grant foundation. As a first step, find out who the past grant recipients are and how much money has been awarded. How does the mission of other grant awardees’ programs compare to that of your organization? Can you write a clear, concise, and short mission statement about your department’s grant request that closely matches the intent and mission of the prospective grantor’s foundation? From there you can proceed to formulate an action plan.

Your grant proposal and the actions you take to market it to the grantor need to highlight the benefit of your program to the prospective grantor’s organization, not the benefit to you. Remember, “It’s all about them!â€

For a hypothetical example, say you have a geriatric center in town that’s home to 25 elderly residents. You have identified a potential funding source in a supplier of medical devices to that geriatric center. Initial research into the medical device manufacturer discovered that it has awarded grants in the past to assist organizations that have a common vision with the company – improving the quality of life for the elderly.

Your department does not own a thermal imaging camera, but could desperately use one for search and rescue at fire responses throughout your district, including the geriatric center. You have potentially found a “win-win†situation – your grant-marketing plan and written grant request focus on the benefits of thermal imaging technology for the community, which includes its lifesaving potential when used during fire response to the geriatric facility.

The “win,†or “what’s in it for them,†for the medical device manufacturer in approving your grant is the goodwill the company will generate with the facility’s staff and the community. The creation of goodwill, while intangible, is an essential part of the company’s continuing business success. By taking this approach, you have made it a lot easier for the prospective grantor to say, “Yes.â€

One most important element in your grant writing work will be the clear conveyance of a focused “Customer Value Proposition.†Before we review what a Customer Value Proposition is, we should define the word “value.†What is value? Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary defines value as, “relative worth, merit or importance.†In the fire rescue service, I define the word “value†as the competitive advantage we give to our customers.

In our hypothetical case of a grant for a thermal imager, when the technology is used appropriately, it makes us more efficient during a primary search and can provide important information to help us deal with many other types of fireground challenges. Do not be confused; this is a discussion of the benefit that the product provides to us as firefighters. The customer may not care, or need to care, about the beauty or practice of new technology (thermal imaging) and how we use it. What the company will understand, and care about, is what it provides for it – the competitive advantage thermal imaging brings them. One clear benefit is a better chance for an effective rescue from a burning building. So, while for us a thermal imager improves the quality of service we provide as firefighters, the company is not so much concerned with our quality, but rather with the competitive advantage it can get.

The institution can spend its grant dollars on other alternatives to fulfill its mission. Why should it take your offer? What is your value proposition? Consider yourself a supplier of a product. In this case, that product would be the tangible and intangible benefits thermal imaging provides for both the community and the medical device manufacturer. What makes your product superior to your competitors? (Your competitors are the others who also want the grant dollars). You are in a competition.

Here is an example of a Customer Value Proposition strategy stated by using “feature/benefit†bullets:

“By awarding the Anytown Fire Department the funds for a new thermal imager, the XYZ Medical Device Corporation will provide the community with:

Technology that quickly pinpoints the source of overheated electric motors or light fixtures, for example (this is a feature). This could prevent or reduce the level of an evacuation of the geriatric facility from a light-smoke condition due to overheated or burned-out electrical components. This also prevents or reduces the level of building evacuation and thus the potential exposure of residents to extreme weather elements of hot and cold climates during certain parts of the year (this is a benefit).

In the event of an accidental or incendiary fire in the geriatric facility, the thermal imager will guide firefighters through thick smoke (feature) to more effectively identify and extricate residents and staff who may be overcome and incapacitated due to heat and toxic combustion products, providing a better chance for survival (benefit).

The thermal imager’s use and benefits are not confined to only the geriatric facility. It will provide benefits at other fire responses in the district and enhance the safety of residents (feature). The Anytown Fire Department will place an article in our quarterly newsletter featuring XYZ Medical Device Corporation’s donation of the thermal imager, and its uses and benefits to the residents of our community (this is a benefit for XYZ Medical Device Corporation since it develops goodwill between them and the community).â€

Your goal is a focused Customer Value Proposition that sets you ahead of your competitors – the other fire departments that want the lion’s share of the available grant monies. The benefits of your grant offering – its Customer Value Proposition – must be better than the next best available alternative. The burden is on you to demonstrate customer value in advance. You are the expert. The Customer Value Proposition that you write must be backed up by hard facts and data; for example, if appropriate, use case histories as grant appendix materials on how thermal imagers have helped other fire companies in emergency response situations.

Other Options

What else can a fire department do to improve its chances of a grant award? Here are a few places to start:

Consider buying The Secrets of Successful Grant Writing, a booklet and video by the Idea Bank, marketed by Fire Protection Publications. This is a good, hard-hitting primer on grant writing that covers the bases quickly and is an excellent resource.

Buy a copy of Grant Writing For Dummies by Bev Browning. This 302-page book extensively covers many aspects of writing a grant proposal.

Go to the U.S. Fire Administration’s website and review the list of fire departments that were awarded grants over the past two years. Contact those near you and see if they will share their own success stories. How did they do it? What did they learn in the process that can help you?

It is never too early to start thinking about next year’s grant application: What new fire equipment will you need? Will it be a new fire apparatus or a retrofit of a compressed air foam system? Who will write the grant? What will be the Customer Value Proposition? Brainstorming and thinking through the points of a potential Customer Value Proposition beforehand will help in making better equipment choices and provide clarity while grant-writing.

Dominic Colletti is the author of The Compressed Air Foam Systems Handbook and Class A Foam – Best Practice For Structure Firefighters, He is co-author of Foam Firefighting Operations 1 and The Rural Firefighting Handbook. Colletti is a former assistant fire chief and serves on the technical committee of National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1500, Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program. He is the Global Foam Systems Product Manager for Hale Products and can be reached at [email protected].

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