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Op-Ed: Competing for federal grant funding? It’s complicated…

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As Puerto Rico still dwells on the recovery and the problems with the expected federal programs, there’s still a pervasive interest in having public and private institutions in the island tap into other competitive federal grant funding programs. 

Notwithstanding this approach could help address some of the current ills, it is not a panacea, and the assertion has to be qualified and demystified. 

For example, the Obama report by the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status indicated that “Puerto Rican governmental and nonprofit entities are not applying for, seeking, or competing for Federal funds in a host of areas where resources might be available.” It goes to indicate that the reason might have been the matching costs, but it quickly remands to the need for capacity building.  

What the report fails to include is that preparing any grant proposal and competing for federal grants is an objectively complex process that requires managerial insight and adequate planning.  These are two items that have been historically problematic in our beloved island.

After more than 20 years of practice in Puerto Rico, my reflection is that many organizations are challenged by: 1) misunderstanding of what competitive federal grant programs are, 2) unfamiliarity of the policy that creates the grant program, 3) deficient pre-award planning, and 4) incapacity to engage in the delicate and complex process to prepare a solid grant proposal or application. 

In other words, few organizations and managers in the island comprehend what is called the federal grant-lifecycle.

Under 2 CFR 200.205 federal grant recipients “must demonstrate a satisfactory record of executing programs or activities under federal grants, cooperative agreements, or procurement awards; and integrity and business ethics.”

Furthermore, the aforementioned regulation highlights that “for competitive grants or cooperative agreements, the Federal awarding agency must have in place a framework for evaluating the risks posed by applicants before they receive federal awards.”

The state and municipal governments in Puerto Rico are continually challenged by failing to manage the post award phase of the grants lifecycle, irrespective of the federal awarding agency. Among the most common mishaps are the untimely and incomplete submission of programmatic reporting, lack of internal controls, problems with following internal procurement procedures, absence of clear policies and procedures, return of unspent funding balances, and making unallowable grant expenditures.

A lackluster past performance with awarded programs hinders the capacity of local recipients to compete for future programs. 

Most organizations fail to understand that this is not “free money.” Grants are not made to get you “things.” Federal money is tied to a particular public purpose. Before applying, your organization must understand what policy the grant program seeks to address and what are the terms and conditions for which you will be held accountable. 

Your organization can be awarded a grant and you can still decide you don’t want the federal dollars. Once you sign the award document, you need to comply. 

At the core all federal grant programs are made for the general welfare to commence programs that can address a public purpose, particularly tackling social problems. On many occasions, a competitive grant serves as “seed” money for a project that the organization must devote its own funds to remain a permanent program, without the federal support. Unfortunately, this seldom happens.

Author Gloria Fernández- Estébanez is the president of The Consulting Lead Inc., a San Juan based woman-owned management-consulting firm. She is a Certified Research Administrator with more than 20 years of experience in grant management of sponsored programs in research administration.

As I indicated in a prior piece “state and local governments must prioritize their performance in using the current funds they already have” and “put aside any effort to compete for new programs if you cannot properly manage what you have.” Improving performance can advance the chances of a successful future grant award.

On the road ahead, the government of Puerto Rico should pursue a coordinated strategy by which a plan could be coordinated with the awarding federal agency, followed by capacity building and technical assistance at the state and local level. This approach was suggested back in 2015 by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Competing for grants is complicated and requires careful planning. With good data and evidence of need, organizations can pursue new federal funding if they don’t stay idle at the challenges. 

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3 Comments

  1. Jules del Caribe August 27, 2020

    Absolutely. Federal granting is not a money maker machine to rescue government entities from insolvency.
    It is not exactly free money, it comes with many “strings attached”.

    Recipients must be highly knowledgeable and integrous to work with grant programs.
    Lazy and mediocre individuals in charge of management and fiscal processes don’t fit the mould.

    Training of employees is imperative in every organization. The least qualified, and/or most unscrupulous citizens
    shouldn’t be part of budgetary matters or
    any type of monetary initiative. This is a serious issue in the Puerto Rico local government.

    Most sadly, economic downfall in Puerto Rico is a consequence of decades of incompetent governance. Beautiful and resilient Puerto Rico deserves better.

    Let’s be proactive and start by educating
    about “sense of accountability” to the salvageable professionals in the public sector.

    Reply
  2. GLoria Fernandez August 28, 2020

    Jules: Your comment is spot on. Excellent. I totally agree that capacity building and technical assistance for every entity is critical to turn around the island.

    Reply
  3. Karen Gonzalez August 30, 2020

    The saddest part is that in Puerto Rico there are people with extensive knowledge about federal grants, pre and post award that could support grant management for any public or private entity interested in pursuing federal monies. The issue is when the government will acknowledge the need for federal grant management training.

    Reply

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