September 8, 2008 By Andy Opsahl
State and local governments seeking federal grants could be missing an opportunity. Grants.gov is the central access point for finding and applying for grants from all 26 federal grant-making agencies. Most grant seekers in state and local government likely know that. However, as of this writing, none of them utilize the Web conferencing function offered by Grants.gov, which is designed to make the bureaucracy-laden process more accessible.
The site was established as part of President George W. Bush's fiscal 2002 Management Agenda designed to improve government services. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services assumed control of the site's management. Federal grant seekers began requesting Grants.gov representatives to speak nationwide at seminars about navigating the complicated site. The staff attended events near Washington, D.C., but regularly traveling across the country wasn't in the budget.
To satisfy the demand for clarity, Grants.gov implemented a WebEx conferencing tool in 2007. Nonprofits and governments, if they accept the invitation, can set up meetings with Michael Pellegrino, management analyst officer of Grants.gov, for guidance in plain language on using the site.
"It has a camera so the audience can see me. We walk through a standard presentation, and then we go live into the Web site. The sessions are interactive; we answer any questions the audience may have," Pellegrino said. "They can submit questions in the chat area. There is also a conference number where they call in. I prefer, for the most part, we answer them verbally. I've done a small session with two people. I've done [sessions with] upward of 225."
Grants.gov users participate in the Web conferences from their desktops or watch in classroom settings with other grant seekers. The Web conferencing feature isn't clearly advertised on the site, which could explain the lack of state and local government participation. To schedule a Web conference, click the "Applicant Resources" link on the Grants.gov home page. Then click "Outreach Request Form." Fill out the form and e-mail it to firstname.lastname@example.org. According to the site, someone from Grants.gov will contact you.
Grants.gov has seen a 25 percent increase in grant applications since deploying the WebEx function last year. Pellegrino said he couldn't necessarily attribute the increase to the Web conferencing, but it has helped. He has conducted 16 Web conferences so far in 2008.
Demystifying the Process
Applying for federal grants is complicated. For example, the federal government is currently switching to a new application format. Some agencies use the new format, while some use the old format. Sometimes one department within an agency uses the new format, while another department in the same agency still uses the old one. You also need to be careful when reading the deadlines on Grants.gov. For example, the site might say your grant application is due Feb. 5. But in another spot, it could mention that you must first go through the separate process of "preauthorizing" an application a week before submitting it. If you waited until the deadline to submit your application without the preauthorization requirement, you'd be out of luck.
Grant seekers who have accepted the Web conferencing offer contend that absorbing the details is easier when Pellegrino explains them in plain English via WebEx.
"The information is all [published] on the Web page, sure, but most people don't read that closely, and I think the Web conference would save people some time," said Davis Fischer, training coordinator for the Foundation Center, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that teaches other nonprofits how to find funding.
Pellegrino recently conducted a Web conference with the Foundation Center. The organization's expertise is teaching nonprofits how to find grants offered by other nonprofits, not government agencies. The Foundation Center has received
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