Making federal grants more accessible for small communities

Webinar recap: Making federal grants more accessible for small communities

U.S. Digital Response (USDR) hosted a webinar panel examining small communities' obstacles in accessing federal grants and also shared recommendations from USDR’s report, “No Front Door: Barriers to Access for Small Communities Seeking Federal Grants."

US Digital Response

2 min read

The panel discussion included:

  • Chelsea Sadler, Director of Grants & Opportunities at the City of Chattanooga
  • Matthew Harris, Associate Policy Scientist with the Local Government Assistance Program at the University of Delaware
  • Jaimie Lewis, Program Navigator at Justice40 Accelerator
  • Pari Sabety, Sr. Grants Advisor at U.S. Digital Response
  • Moderated by Anjali Fernandes, Manager, Benefits Access Program at Schmidt Futures

Navigating the federal grants process is notoriously challenging for small towns and rural areas with limited resources. But with more applicant-centered policies focused on simplifying applications, enhancing communication, and providing technical assistance, these critical funds could become more accessible. 

Key themes from U.S. Digital Response’s research and webinar panel:

Complex and burdensome application process: The overall process—from identifying opportunities to reporting requirements—is complex, with different agencies having different systems and templates. “It almost feels like we're playing dodgeball. We are going after an opportunity, and then we're getting hit with 5 or 6 more from all different agencies and trying to strategically figure out what would fit our needs and even the application process,” Sadler said. More standardization could dramatically simplify things.

Communication disconnect between funders and applicants: There is often a significant disconnect between federal grantors and local communities seeking funds. As Sadler recommended, having designated liaisons at funding agencies would provide applicants with real contacts to “bridge that gap.”

Limited local capacity and need for technical assistance: Small communities frequently need more staffing and resources to write solid proposals or manage grant awards. “Capacity is the name of the game at the end of the day” Lewis said. Technical assistance from federal agencies and third-party providers is critical to help build local skills and capacity, as “sometimes it’s not just about information,” noted Harris.

Planning for long-term sustainability: Communities need more help proactively planning how to sustain grant-funded projects over the long term once the initial funding period ends. This requires educating local leaders on the lasting benefits and returns on investment from grant-funded efforts. As Sadler asked, “You get that grant award, and it's funding something great and new, and then funding ends. How are you going to keep that sustained?”

Experts recommend ways to improve federal grant access for small communities

To improve federal grant access for small communities, the panel suggested the federal government:

  • Provide more hands-on technical assistance. Harris said, “Sometimes it’s not just about information, you can apply for this grant if you want to build this road. Now, do it. in reality, many of our towns have 3, 4, 5 staff people; they have other jobs."
  • Designate federal liaisons as direct points of contact for applicants. As Sadler said, “It would be great on the federal level to have people in place and liaisons we know we can contact.”
  • Standardize systems and templates across agencies where possible. Per Sadler, “Standardized. Across the board templates or system would be huge.”
  • Offer advanced grant payments to help cash flow. As Lewis suggested, “It would be awesome if you could offer more opportunities for advance payments. Not all small communities have a big general operating fund, and cash flow is a big issue."
  • Develop tiered reporting requirements based on grant size and applicant capacity since one size does not fit all.
  • Create a common federal grant application form. Sabety noted, “Thousands of higher ed institutions can work on one common application. I know we should be able to do that across the federal government."

The panel agreed that more collaboration, education, and applicant-centered policies could make federal grants more accessible for small, resource-constrained towns and rural communities, empowering them to make critical investments that genuinely benefit residents.

As Sabety summarized, "If we improve the federal grants process, we know that will bring outsized benefits, particularly to small communities.” Tackling pain points around complexity, communication, capacity, and sustainability could help open the front door for small jurisdictions seeking federal funds. 

Contact U.S. Digital Response if your community seeks new tools to discover and improve reporting on federal grants.

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About the author

US Digital Response

Content Writer

U.S. Digital Response (USDR) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that helps governments, nonprofits, and public entities respond quickly to critical public needs.