Don’t confuse Uncle Sam with Santa Claus when applying for grants

Perform market research to identify the potential costs of the equipment you hope to purchase with firefighting grants

The song lyrics say, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” So maybe it’s an appropriate time to talk about grant seekers that confuse Uncle Sam, the personification of the American government, with Santa Claus. That jolly old guy in a red suit, with a big belly, white hair, who knows all and sees all – no, that’s not your chief – that’s Santa Claus. He gives presents and fulfils requests for those who deserve them.

Where the confusion can start

How many times have we heard someone say, “Oh don’t worry about how much it costs it’s a grant application.” Or, “ask for everything you can because it’s a grant.” We in the grant field like to refer to this practice as confusing Santa with Uncle Sam, and it could doom your application. This philosophy holds true for both federal grant applications as well as private foundation requests.

When your grant is received by the funding agency, it is scored by a panel of reviewers. Individuals chosen for these panels are representatives of the fire service or personnel familiar with its operations. Reviewers work using a score sheet that breaks out the program priorities. They assess each application’s merits based on the narrative statements for the requested activity.  Panelists independently score each requested activity within the application, discuss the merits and/or shortcomings of the application with their peers and document the findings.

One particular area they focus on is the budget for the proposed project and the cost/benefit of the request. This is where confusing Santa and Uncle Sam can cause problems. Funding agencies have a limited budget for grant activities. They also have peer reviewers and professional staff that know how much items normally cost. Applying for items and inflating their cost (or not doing market research) will set up a red flag with reviewers. Reviewers know the average cost of SCBA, portable radios or a section of hose. They also know what makes up a compliant set of rescue tools. You are only fooling yourself if you think you can pull one over on the reviewers.  

If your application lacks solid cost estimates, you could also get caught in a situation where you are awarded funding but it isn’t sufficient to complete your project. In this case, you may have to turn down your award, which could impact any future applications with a foundation or private funder.

Stay compliant with 2 CFR with a written procurement policy

In recent years, departments and vendors have been overly cautious when dealing with cost estimates because of a fear of violating 2 CFR. This has caused departments to play guessing games with their project budgets.

To avoid potential conflicts with 2 CFR, the first item your department needs to develop is a written procurement policy. This policy can be no less restrictive then the federal policy. If you don't already have a policy that meets this requirement, the simplest thing to do is adopt the federal policy by resolution at your next meeting.

Next, to get a price estimate to use for your grant application, contact a vendor and ask for a price on the item. Ask for nothing more and nothing less. The vendor can supply you with a price and remain eligible to compete in your procurement process if you are awarded funding.

You can also get prices from vendor catalogues or websites. You can pick up literature and price lists at trade shows. You can also speak with other departments that have purchased similar items recently. All of these are eligible ways to get prices for your project and stay compliant with 2 CFR.

This article, originally published December 11, 2018, has been updated.


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