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9 Worst Campus Safety Grant-Writing Mistakes

With competition for grant funds fiercer than ever, institutions can't afford to make a single blunder in pursuit of funds for campus-safety initiatives.

Colleges and universities that hope to obtain grant funding to pay for campus-safety features face an uphill battle in the current economic climate. According to Kurt Bradley, a senior consultant for First Responder Grants, a firm that specializes in helping public safety offices obtain grant funding, government cutbacks are forcing hard choices everywhere. For example, in 2000, the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program (AFG), which dispenses money to fire departments from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was handing out a billion dollars a year. Now there's only $330 million in the program.

As funds have declined, requests from educational institutions have also fallen in priority. "AFG will give priority to actual fire departments," explained Bradley, "and the money available for schools will drop in relationship to how much money is available overall."

But that doesn't mean grant money can't be found. A secondary program within AFG has set aside $35 million specifically for fire prevention and safety projects. Last year, Bradley worked with a university in Massachusetts on a grant to replace fire doors and alarm systems in all the dorms and sorority houses off campus. "That $170,000 project cost the university in essence nothing," said Bradley.

In the Campus Technology feature "Bracing for Disaster," Dian Schaffhauser examines the three keys components of a successful campus-safety program.

In another project, he helped a Michigan institution tap money from the same program to put a fire blanket into every dorm room, as well as in chemical labs, hazardous-materials closets, and kitchens. "The college was having a problem with students using the carbon dioxide extinguishers to chill their beer and then putting the empty canisters back into their holders," Bradley said. "So what happens when there's a fire?"

The fire blanket, on the other hand, "can't be expended; it can't be recharged," explained Bradley. "It's a one-time expense. If a student doesn't turn it back in, you can charge the student for replacing it at the end of the term. You can't do that with a fire extinguisher."

So, even as institutional money dries up, grant programs are still funding campus-safety initiatives. For those confident in the state of their emergency-response plans--a must-have for pursuing grant money--Bradley encouraged schools to go after a slice of the pie.

Before you do, though, remember this: Competition is fierce, so you can't afford to make even the smallest blunder in your grant write-up. Bradley, who spent 25 years as a public-safety administrator before joining First Responders, said he has witnessed every mistake in the book when it comes to pursuing grants.

Here are the biggest no-nos:

How To Read a Grant Guide

Kurt Bradley, a grant consultant with First Responder Grants, advised grant applicants to read through any program guidance three times. "First, read through it to get a general feel for the program," he said. "Second, go through it with colored markers and highlight things. I use red for anything ineligible that is going to hurt my application; I use green to mark anything that is going to help my application; and I use blue to mark up anything that will get me points."

The third read-through is simply to let that color coding sink in, "so when I put pen to paper, those things come out," Bradley said. "It forces me to look for things. I've seen grant programs decided by as little as a quarter of a percentage point. You have to fight for every quarter point. The competition for grants has never been heavier. Programs can be picky about whom they fund."

Mistake 1: Not Conducting a Proper Needs Assessment
Granting agencies want to know if an independent assessment has been done on campus to identify and prioritize risks and needs correctly. Explained Bradley: "This means looking at records of public-safety issues, analyzing visibility problems on the physical campus, figuring out hazardous-materials usage, and [assessing] how the university is controlling access to [high-risk] labs."

Mistake 2: Not Working with Local Authorities
When specialized chemicals are headed to a research university, they first have to travel through the surrounding community. Yet grant money is typically awarded to only one side or the other--the university or the local government. Agencies on both sides may need to work together to develop a solution, even as they pursue separate funding. "You have to express that there's a need here," Bradley said.

Mistake 3: Not Communicating Safety or Security Needs to Other Agencies
"You have to demand your place at the table, so that other agencies know your needs," Bradley said. For example, a university in Florida might be able to get Homeland Security Grant money from the state to put in a mass-notification system. In order for that to happen, though, "the university needs to come forward and ask for it or make that need known."

Mistake 4: Writing a Public Safety or Security Grant Like a Research Grant
Avoid having your brightest academics write these types of grant because the writing "may go over the head of the guy who's reading it," Bradley said. He recommended that the staff in charge of public safety work do the writing or at least be able to give plenty of input.

Mistake 5: Not Reading the Program Guidance or Heeding the Scoring Process
People gloss over the details, Bradley pointed out. "The second they see what they want to see, they stop reading. It might say, 'Universities are eligible for this program.' Further down, it might say, 'You must be a state institution, not a private college.' You might put in unnecessary work applying for something you'll never get, if you don't read the grant documentation thoroughly."

Mistake 6: Failure To Follow Instructions
"If the grant guide says to put all text into Arial 12 point and you do it in Arial 10, if they want double spacing and you single space it, if they want 1.5-inch margins at the top and bottom, and you use 1-inch margins, you just gave them a reason to throw your grant in the circular file," Bradley warned.

Mistake 7: Not Including Sufficient Explanation
"In most cases, you have less than 20 minutes in a written document to prove that you're worthy of funding," Bradley said. "Nobody will pick up the phone and ask you to explain something. If you make a statement that raises a question in the reviewers' minds, the next statement you make ought to answer that question. You have to anticipate what they're going to ask."

Mistake 8: Not Paying Attention to What Grant Programs Are Funding
"Programs don't change much year to year," Bradley said. He advised researching what the program funded the last time to understand what it's likely to fund in this go-around.

Mistake 9: Forgetting That the Funding Source's Priorities Come First
"If your program doesn't form a proper nexus between your need and the funding source's need, you're not going to get funded," Bradley explained. As an example, he cited a public-safety office that applied for money to buy uniforms so that the campus community could recognize its officers easily. "That's a safety issue," he allowed, but if the grant program says the money must benefit the student population, it's a stretch to present new uniforms as a student benefit. "You have a much better chance of being funded if you first satisfy their priority and then yours."

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