What are Federal Grants?

The first in a series of articles in the basics of Federal Government Grants

Certainly, everyone has heard of federal grants being distributed to particular projects, institutions, and even entire communities or localities, but the definition of what a federal grant can entail is far from clear cut or all-encompassing.

Essentially, a federal grant is an award of money or economic aid provided by the United States Government out of the funds available in the general federal revenue. The money provided can be a loan, a portion of a certain project or organization's cost, or a complete funding of a particular project, research or other undertaking. Grants are available from both the government as well as outside sources, (including foundations, non-profit charities or non-profit corporations), although the government alone offers nearly 1,000 different grant programs to qualified businesses and individuals, distributed by 26 grant-specific agencies, and divided into 21 separate categories.

The categories vary widely and are geared towards a specific need or area of development. Just a sample of categories includes the arts, business and commerce, disaster relief, housing, humanities, science and technology, and education, and individuals or businesses applying for grants will need to identify the category, (or categories), which suit their specific field of need.

When it comes to receiving funds, all grants are divided into two generalized classifications, direct grants and pass-through grants. A direct grant means that the recipient receives the money directly from the federal government, with no intermediary in between. These grants are beneficial as there is no additional red tape to wade through - just a single application and subsequent agreement with the federal government.

A pass-through grant is first given to the state by the federal government, which in turn distributes the funds to local applicants. This essentially means that applicants have fewer competitors for the grants, just the other organizations or possible recipients in their state, and applicants simply have to make a trip to their state capital for in-person clarification, appearances, or any other communications that would benefit from personal contact.

From these general guidelines, federal grants fall into a few specific types which identify their purpose and the ways which they can ultimately be distributed and used.

A Project Grant consists of funds distributed by the government for a specific "project" or area of research. Project grants are often given to members of the science, education and technology communities, provided that the applicants qualify and meet a few prerequisite guidelines. Generally, an applicant must have completed certain criteria or qualifications beforehand, (which is outlined in detail for the specific grant desired), and project grants generally have an end day when the funding discontinues. The average duration period for a project grant is around three years.

A Categorical Grant is slightly more specific, and can only be used for precise and spelled-out purposes. Recipients of these grants must often "match" the funds provided by the government, or at least provide a portion of the overall cost. These are the most common grants provided, and an estimated 90% of grants distributed by the US Government fall into the categorical grant realm.

There are also several grants that are geared more towards specific locales or communities. A Block Grant is generally comprised of smaller, categorical grants, and is therefore a larger grant that is given to recipients to use as they see fit. Block grants are formula grants, and are often distributed to state or local governments for large-scale community projects and maintenance. Formula Grants distribute funds as predefined by the law. A formula grant is determined by pre-existing factors such as population, poverty level, taxes, or even housing density, and where a community or potential recipient falls on this formulaic spectrum indicates the amount of funds they are qualified to receive.

Earmark Grants are the last type of grant that the government doles out, although these grants have come under fire in recent years. The grants are determined by appropriations of the US Congress and are often secured with the help of high paid lobbyists. Recent research into the distribution of Earmark Grants conducted by the Congressional Research Service in the Fiscal Year 2006 found that over 12,852 earmark grants were dispersed for a total cost of $64 billion dollars.

While it can be initially daunting to determine which type of grants an applicant or community can qualify for or should even pursue, the best first step is to narrow down the specific field of interest. Potential applicants can search through the government's extensive database of grants available, and narrow down their criteria by applicant type, assistance type or even subject area.

Having a handle on the basic definitions of federal grants as well as the restrictions or qualifications each grant type carries is a good start to being eligible for federal aid, regardless of an applicant's locale or ambition. With a little bit of research, and a well-written proposal, an applicant can easily take the initial first steps to obtaining federal assistance, and ultimately reaching their final end goal.

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