Web Conferencing Helps Applicants Navigate Federal Grant Process

Grants.gov workers use Web conferencing to explain complex funding system.

by / September 8, 2008

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 support@grants.gov. 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

numerous complaints about the complicated federal grant process.

"There are just so many steps you have to take, and there are all these deadlines. Like any good government agency, the site offers tons and tons of verbiage explaining everything," Fischer said, adding that the text often reads like a legislative bill.

Fischer said no good tool previously existed for learning remotely the ropes of Grants.gov.

"Before the WebEx tool, if I had contacted Grants.gov, the best I probably would have gotten would have been a conference call. The conference call would be somewhat limited in that there would be no visuals," she said. " You could do a 'follow along' over the phone, but you wouldn't really know if you were in the right place because the teacher wouldn't be able to see where the person who was lost was looking. Web conferencing adds a visual element to training from a distance."

Opportunity Revealed
Government Technology contacted Sacramento County, Calif., offices for insight on why their Grants.gov users hadn't scheduled Web conferences. Karen Olson, health program coordinator for the county, said she was currently struggling with Grants.gov.

"I'm finding it a little bit challenging to know exactly what forms to fill out. I'm not familiar with all of the numbers and information they're asking for on the forms," Olson said, adding that she also had trouble finding grants on the site's search function, even when she entered the grant identification numbers.

Olson hadn't heard of the WebEx feature but was eager to schedule a meeting after learning about it.

"I will definitely look into it," Olson said. " I do think it sounds helpful."

She had attended a few of the preorganized occasional webcasts open to all Grants.gov users that explain fresh news.

"Those are useful if there is a question-and-answer session," Olson said.

However, the less known private request Web conference gives users the meeting to themselves. The entire conference is devoted to that user's issues, and he or she doesn't have to sit through inapplicable questions.

Potential Improvements
Pellegrino begins the Web conferences with a PowerPoint presentation. Then he goes live into the Web site, shows attendees where to find important information and answers questions. Fischer said she discussed with Pelligrino the possibility of expanding the Web conference to enable breakout discussions for various topics. Users would click into whichever discussion group topic interested them, and Pellegrino would move among groups and aid the discussions. Grants.gov hasn't announced plans to make those changes, but it's a possibility.

Fischer is a trainer herself and prefers in-person training.

"It's still a bit of a sterile environment, but for crying out loud, for an hour, you get the information you need, and to get on with life, it's fine," Fischer said. "I wouldn't do a daylong training program in that sterile environment. I would rather hammer my toes."

"I think this is just the beginning. Pretty soon we're going to have Michael coming in holographic form teaching classes," Fischer joked. "Let's keep supporting the technology because it's going to get there and it will make us virtual people in essence."

Andy Opsahl

Andy Opsahl is a former writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.

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