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How to Improve your Grant Writing through the Freedom of Information Act

Feb 7

Written by: Grants Office, LLC
Friday, February 7, 2020  RssIcon

By Ashley Schultz

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was created over 35 years ago to “open up the workings of government to public scrutiny” (Fielding v. CIA, 1983). This system allows any US citizen to request information about the daily activities and spending of their government agencies. And while many folks are aware of news organizations leveraging FOIA for investigative journalism, the media makes up less than 8% of all FOIA petitions annually (Schouten 2017). More often, individuals, law firms, and private businesses leverage this system to gain valuable information for their own daily operations at little to no-cost.

 

Here today I want to share a number of reasons as to why grant writers should join these ranks and begin requesting public information about popular state and federal government funding programs. Doing so can provide invaluable insight into the brains of grant reviewers - allowing us to better hone our grant seeking, proposal development, and writing skills moving forward.

 

Popular Grant Use Cases for FOIA Requests:

FOIA requests can benefit your grant-seeking agency before you even begin work on a proposal. Potential applicants have the ability to request information on previous awardees - from quick project abstracts to full proposals. This information can help your organization better determine if a particular grant program is a good fit for your project idea. It illustrates average award sizes and reveals trends in the geographic distribution or general characteristics of applicants. What’s more, access to the full text of a successfully funded application provides excellent insight into what a successful proposal actually looks like.

 

But the benefits don’t end with grant-prospecting research! One of the greatest assets provided to grant writers by the FOIA system is the opportunity to read reviewer feedback on a recently denied grant proposal that they submitted. Applicants can request full point breakdowns and reviewer comments for any materials submitted to a state or federal program. Such information can illustrate exactly where your proposal fell short - whether it be 1-2 points lost for neglecting to upload an optional document, or much larger concerns with the substance of your grant project. This clarity is vital in determining if your organization should choose to re-apply for grant funding in future rounds. 

 

Last, but certainly not least, FOIA requests may also be submitted for reviewer feedback on any awarded proposals. These details show the interested party exactly where the funded proposal succeeded in gaining reviewer approval and signals which aspects of the proposal could be replicated for future applications. 

 

How to Submit a FOIA Request: 

So, what does this all look like? Once you’ve identified the subject of your FOIA request, head over to the appropriate State or Federal government website to submit. Most agencies have a webpage completely dedicated to their FOIA process; listing appropriate emails, forms, and other required information for each request. If you have questions, or the process is unclear, contact the agency for clarification. 

 

The content of your FOIA request should be as specific as possible. Be sure to clearly identify the grant program by name and/or ID number, as well as the precise pieces of information desired. Check out a few examples below:

 

Request: Detailed list of previous awardees.

·         Email: This is a request under the Freedom of Information Act. I request a digital file listing all applicants that were awarded funding to the [insert grant program name here] that was due on [insert most recent deadline here]. I request the following summary information on all applications: (1) Applicant name; (2) Applicant state; (3) Funding amount received; (4) Full text of project abstract. 

 

Request: Proposal materials of an awarded applicant.

·         Email: This is a request under the Freedom of Information Act. I request digital copies of the program narrative, budget, and budget narrative for the following awarded proposals under the [insert grant program name here] that was due on [insert most recent deadline here]

(1) [insert applicant name here] 

(2) [insert applicant name here] 

(3) [insert applicant name here] 

 

Request: Reviewer feedback.

·         Email: This is a request under the Freedom of Information Act. I wish to be sent a digital copy of (1) Scoring breakdown; and (2) Reviewer comments/feedback for the grant proposal submitted by [insert organization name here] to the [insert grant program name here]. These materials should consist of point allotments and comments to the entire application - including project narrative, budget, budget narrative, and any attached documents.

 

Before you click submit, consider these additional tips for your FOIA request: 

  1. Submit using your organization’s email and signature. These items signal to the FOIA team that your request falls under their nonprofit funding bracket, resulting in lower fees (if any) for research and delivery.
  2. Request digital copies. This ask will also result in lower fees since the FOIA team will not need to spend money on printing or postage.  
  3. Wait to receive a confirmation email. Most FOIA teams will acknowledge receipt of your request within 1 to 7 business days. This message should include a breakdown of fees (if any) and an anticipated timeline for the return of information. If you do not receive a confirmation email, consider calling the agency to verify their FOIA process has not changed. [AS1] 

Limitations and Alternatives to the FOIA Process: 

 

While FOIA requests can be a great asset to the annual grant-seeking process of many organizations, they do carry certain limitations. Timing, fees, and statute limitations can sometimes impede our quest for information.

 

Let’s say, for example, that you need access to FOIA results quickly. This type of grant research is not an overnight process. FOIA requests may be returned anywhere from 20-days to 6-months after the initial request is submitted and acknowledged. To avoid this limitation, try to plan well in advance of a new grant solicitation so you may properly benefit from the materials. Make it a practice to submit a FOIA request for reviewer comments within one-month of hearing a yes/no from the funder. If you’re in a rush, include a note in the body of your email that says - “If possible, we wish this information be returned by [date].” Clarify if your organization is willing to pay a fee for expedited delivery of the information.  

 

Another barrier to information is the potential for your agency to be charged in order for the government to complete your research request. Current statute maintains that FOIA requests must be provided at no-cost so long as they remain reasonable. The definition of reasonable seems to vary on a case-by-case and agency-to-agency basis. Despite my best efforts to reign in the scope of my own FOIA requests, I’ve been quoted anywhere from $50 to $1500 for public information. Note that in each instance I was offered an opportunity to refine or retract my request before being charged. Your agency will not be irrevocably on-the-hook to pay for information if it’s not in the budget. To reduce the risk of fees for research or delivery, keep your request for documents minimal. Don’t ask for materials from every single applicant. Instead, focus your efforts on 3-5 proposals of most interest to your agency and future proposed grant project. 

 

Last, grant funders are not required by law to share limitless amounts of information with applicants. Emails and phone numbers of program managers, for example, may be exempt from FOIA requests. Grant proposals that involve innovative or untested ideas may also be blocked. This restriction - notably used by the NSF, NIH, and branches of the military - is in place to protect intellectual property included in these grant applications. In still other instances, funders may withhold information on unfunded applicants in order to protect the competitive position of the person or organization who submitted the information. If you run into one of these limitations, try searching the web for news articles or blogs about awarded grant projects. From there, consider contacting the funded organization directly to discuss their project and experience with the program. Awarded agencies love to brag about their successes.

 

The next time you’re trying to crack the nut of a particular grant program, consider leveraging the tools offered by the Freedom of Information Act. This simple process can provide invaluable insight into the grant-making process at the state and federal level. Do you have a different use case for leveraging the FOIA system for grants? We want to hear from you! Find the Grants Office FUNDED team on your favorite social media site to share it with us today.   

 

Sources:

Fielding v. Central Intelligence Agency. 697 F.2d 1095 (D.C. Cir. 1983)

 

Schouten, Corey. (2017) Who files the most FOIA requests? It’s not who you think. Retrieved from: https://www.cjr.org/analysis/foia-report-media-journalists-business-mapper.php.

 

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