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How much money is available? Explaining maximum grant amounts

If you read our e-mail newsletter, the Seliger Funding Report, you’re aware of a number that can mean different quantities depending on the RFP: the maximum grant amount. There are a couple of ways to calculate this number: by the amount available over the total project period (which could be more than a single year) or the yearly total amount. In addition, sometimes a grant announcement provides little or no guidance whatsoever. To better understand what that means, let’s look at a few examples.

Take the Sports, Cultural, and Youth Visitor Program, which was included in the newsletter for the week of February 16. It’s a relatively simple program:

Total available: $1,130,000
Number available: 1
Max size: $1,130,000

In other words, there’ll be one grant made with a funding total of $1,130,000. According to the RFP, the exchanges are supposed to take place in 2009 and 2010, meaning the project period is probably in the neighborhood of eighteen months or two years, so the funder also might have been able to give a maximum grant amount of $565,000, but distribute that amount over two years, and nothing else would’ve changed in the program except how the program is presented.

That’s pretty straightforward. But it’s also possible to find announcements that say $500,000 per year is available, for a project total of, say, $1,500,000. The information about whether the maximum grant amount is per year or per project total is usually contained in the RFP itself, and it’s wise to find the answer before you decide how much to apply for. We’ll deal with this in greater detail below.

Consider another program: Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy System Technology Research and Development (STTR [R41/R42]):

The SF424 (R&R) SBIR/STTR Application Guide indicates the statutory guidelines of funding support and project duration periods for Phase I and Phase II STTR awards. Phase I awards normally may not exceed $100,000 total for a period normally not to exceed 1 year. Phase II awards normally may not exceed $750,000 total for a period normally not to exceed 2 years.

NOTE: These award levels and project periods are statutory guidelines, not ceilings. Therefore, applicants are encouraged to propose a budget and project duration period that is reasonable and appropriate for completion of the research project. Applicants are encouraged to discuss deviations with IC program staff at the awarding component likely to be assigned the application. All budget and time deviations must be justified in the grant application.

Notice the “statutory guidelines” language: the reviewers and ultimate funding oversight person doesn’t have to limit you to $750,000 for phase two grants. Still, it seems wise to stay within their guidelines unless you have an incredible, extraordinary reason not to; so far, we’ve never had a client who we advised to exceed the program funding guidelines, but clients will sometimes have their award amounts adjusted up or down based on funding vagaries, the phases of the moon, and the like.

For yet another variation, consider the Texas Parallel Pathways to Success Grant Program. The RFP says: “It is anticipated that selected projects will be funded in a range of $50,000 – $125,000 per year.” So that means a maximum of $250,000 is available over the project period, or $125,000 per year. In the Seliger Funding Report, I would normally list the maximum as $125,000 because that’s the number the funder has listed, and it would be exceedingly difficult to dig through every RFP in the Federal Register and elsewhere to normalize the maximums. If any Government Accountability Office (GAO) or others involved in standards are reading this, take note.

Sometimes RFPs play hide-the-salami regarding how much money they have or the maximum grant amount. This is particularly irritating because one is liable to guess too low or too high, and most funding agencies that experiment with this game will eventually be more forthright when they get wildly divergent budgets. For example, the National Institute of Health (NIH) does this in its Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD) (R25). The Executive Summary at the link says:

Budget and Project Period. There are no specific budget limitations; however, the requested direct costs must be reasonable, well documented, fully justified and commensurate with the scope of the proposed program. The total project period for an application submitted in response to this funding opportunity may not exceed five years.

Great! But what does reasonable mean in these circumstances? Alas, we apparently don’t get to find out, which actually makes it harder to decide how much to request, not easier. Another example of this comes from the Department of Transportation in the form of the FY 2010 Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program (MCSAP) High Priority Grant Program, which also doesn’t list an award ceiling.

Once you understand how much is available as a grant maximum, you have to decide how much to ask for (which will be the topic of a future post), and whether you want to apply for a particular program. Remember that there doesn’t seem to be much of a correlation between the complexity of an application and the amount of money being offered; for example, we base our fees on the difficulty of the application and the amount of time we have to complete it, so we’d likely charge the same $5,000 – $12,000 for most assignments whether the maximum award $50,000 available or $5,000,000. Therefore, you shouldn’t assume that a proposal for $100,000 will be any easier to complete than one for $1,000,000.

Still, there are a myriad of reasons for organizations to pursue smaller grants anyway: there might be less competition; they might be unusually well-suited for the project; they might need a particular position funded that can be shoe-horned into an application; the applicant might be a new organization that needs to prove it can account for grant funds before it pursues larger applications; or, as Isaac discussed recently in True Believers and Grant Writing: Two Cautionary Tales, you might hit the grant lotto by having funding renewed over and over again for what seems like a small grant, which happened with the Neighborhood Action Program (NAP). When you’re trying to make these decisions, however, you should at least make sure that you know what the numbers you’re looking at mean.

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