The U.S. Needs Us: An Inside Look at the World of Government Grants

I recently had the privilege to speak at the Seattle chapter of the Association of Government Accountants. As I am a passionate advocate for the role of government in creating and maintaining a just and peaceful society, I am posting my comments here, since they relate to this site’s overall goal.

Overview

Thank you for hosting me. It is a pleasure to speak to this Seattle chapter of the Association of Government Accountants. When I hear how long I’ve worked – and that the time can now be measured in decades – I start to feel old. Of course, the positive way to express that sentiment is that I am well-experienced.

Let me begin by giving a little more detail to my government experience, since that consumes more of my history than just about anything else. In college, I worked in a small administrative role for Los Angeles County’s Department of Health Services. Looking back, I can see that that three-year stint was more or less the foundation for what has become a career in local government. Years later here in Seattle, I accepted the position of Confidential Secretary to the Public Health Department’s Chief Operations Officer, and after a year was approached about stepping into the role of grants and contracts specialist. I like to say that I somewhat fell into the job, since I didn’t really have a background in grants or contracts, but I did have the skill set. That was 2001, and I’ve been in the grant and contract realm ever since, and I’m glad I’ve stayed.

All told, in addition to my local government experience, I have also worked for a small nonprofit, a school district, and two large international nonprofits: AMIDEAST, a leading American nonprofit organization engaged in international education, training and development activities in the Middle East and North Africa; and PATH, a global leader in health innovation. In fact, the only time my real job was at a for-profit business was my very first job doing odd-jobs at a family-run appliance store in my hometown. That was a long time ago…and in a land far, far away. I am a proud member of the government sector, and I hope that you are, too. In fact, my wife, who has worked for various nonprofits over the years, including her current position for a local theatre, proudly states that we are a government/nonprofit family. We see the value of institutions and organizations designed to help the public.

Today, I have a twofold purpose to my presentation: One, I’d like to discuss what government grants are and why they are needed; and two, I would like to offer praise for those who do the unseen work of granting, which undoubtedly probably includes many of you. It seems to me that there is a lot of misunderstanding and confusion about these two issues, and I’d like to offer some thoughts about them as one who has been in the thick of it for 16 years. I am purposely choosing to focus solely on grants, since that has been the major focus in my work.

The Need for Government Grants

If you’re a fan of the TV sitcom Friends, you’ll recall that one of the ongoing jokes of the show was that no one knew what Chandler’s job was. I have had that similar experience over the past 16 years, because every time I tell people that I am a contract specialist, their very next words are, “What does that mean?” Making matters worse is that my job title has changed from Grants & Contracts Specialist to Grants & Contracts Officer to Contract Specialist, even though I have essentially done the same work. I think that the job title is confusing outside the government and nonprofit sectors, because for the most part, people don’t know that every level of government does a great deal of granting funds and why those grants are important.

As usual, the Federal government has led the way in explaining the types of funds they give and distinguishing between two major funding streams: assistance and acquisition. The Federal Grant and Cooperative Agreements Act of 1977 clearly spells out when the government should use a procurement contract and when a grant agreement is appropriate. As I stated, I’m going to focus on the grant portion.

The law states that a grant reflects a relationship between the Federal government and the recipient – such as a state, local government, or other recipient like a nonprofit or educational institution – when the principal purpose of the relationship is to fund the recipient to carry out a public purpose of support or stimulation. In other words, a need exists within the public arena that requires financial assistance to build programs to satisfy that need.

This law is interesting because it’s basically saying that government can’t do everything on its own, but it does have funding available to assist. For all the talk of big government, it’s really not as big as it could be: imagine if the government didn’t just fund but also did the work. What grants say is that we want to partner with another entity to assist those in need. That’s a tremendous statement, because when you think about it, grants empower an agency to empower the public.

Grants exist to help the public. Even at the local level with non-federal dollars, local governments provide assistance to nonprofits and other entities as a means of partnering together to make their corner of the world a more viable place to live. Let me give some examples from my work over the past several years.

At Public Health–Seattle and King County, we collaborated with a community-based provider of domestic violence services to conduct a pilot project to intervene in domestic violence among refugee and immigrant communities in Seattle.  The domestic violence social support intervention developed first-language, educational support groups for Cambodian, Russian, Somali, and Vietnamese women. The project was unique in its focus on developing culturally appropriate social support for domestic violence victims from these particular cultural backgrounds. We identified a need in the community and provided funds to an agency to satisfy that need.

Another project at Public Health annually provides a program to train 6th Grade, Junior and Senior High School students in cardiopulmonary resuscitation, because helping more people learn CPR increases the potential to save lives.

We also are the government agency that leads the Seattle school-based health centers, with funds from the City of Seattle. These health centers, in partnership with community-based organizations, provide the following primary care services:

  • Preventive healthcare
  • Primary and acute health care assessment, diagnosis, treatment and referral
  • Comprehensive reproductive health services including long acting reversible contraception
  • Screening and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases
  • Management of chronic conditions
  • Referral to dental care
  • Mental health screening, counseling, case management, and referral
  • Health education and health promotion
  • Care coordination
  • Referral to drug and alcohol services

I could go on and on talking about more of the services offered by your local health department, like health care for homeless individuals and services for those diagnosed with HIV. These last two examples – homeless and HIV care – represent two of our programs which derive from federal funds. Let me give two examples of federally funded programs from my time working at AMIDEAST and PATH.

AMIDEAST, the education-based NGO, receives most of its federal funding from the Department of State and USAID, with goals that include building cross-cultural understanding and expanding educational opportunities. While I was a part of the organization as a grants officer, I oversaw two large USAID-funded programs in the West Bank and Gaza. One of the projects – the Model Schools Network Program – successfully built a holistic model of institutional capacity-building that improved schools. The program operated in 40 public schools in the West Bank and included enhancing the quality of school leadership and introducing innovative approaches to education technology.

At PATH, I had the opportunity to work on the DRC Integrated HIV/AIDS Project, or ProVIC for short. Based in the Democratic Republic of Congo, ProVIC was funded by PEPFAR dollars (the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) through USAID and brought together a consortium of NGOs to engage communities in five of the DRC’s provinces with the goal to link people with the health and social services they need to survive.

The funds that the government provides through grants are not wasted and are successfully accomplishing much to make the world a better place, a healthier place, and a safer place.

The Unseen Work of Granting

It is evident from these examples that the need for government grants is great, and that they do great work. But in order to make these grants happen, there needs to be solid behind-the-scenes support. I say behind-the-scenes because like me, these are the people that aren’t program managers out on the front lines. We’re what I call the ‘indirect group’ or ‘overhead gang’, a reference to where our budgets are often charged. To help explain my admiration for this group, I’d like to draw from an analogy.

A few years ago I planted an apple tree. For those who don’t know, the City of Seattle operates a program each year in which residents can apply for one or more trees of various species and sizes. They run this program in order expand the City’s canopy in our already lush landscape to aid with cleaning our air and water and make neighborhoods healthier. Typically, one species of fruit tree is offered per year, and my wife and I decided that we wanted a honeycrisp apple tree that they were giving away. It was our first time planting a tree, and I have enjoyed learning how to care for it and watching it grow.

Usually, when people hear that we have an apple tree, they immediately think of the fruit, the end product that we can pick and eat in various ways. Or, they imagine the beautiful blossoms that announce spring and invite bees to pollinate. Perhaps they think of an older tree that has grown large and provides a shady respite from the summer sun. I guarantee that no one immediately pictures the state it is in now: wintry starkness, bare branches, alone—no bees, no birds, nothing. Yet, while we see nothing on the tree, wonderful things are happening inside.

Nutrients are being taken from the soil and are passing from the roots through the trunk to the branches, in anticipation of the coming spring. The trunk is growing taller and more solid. The branches are pushing out just a little bit more.

What does my apple tree have to do with this indirect group who does granting? When you think about it, people often talk about the grant programs, the work being conducted and the results of the grants. I did it just a few minutes ago. Those efforts are like the blossoms and the apples: they are what people see and what gets evaluated.

But this work would not be successful or even happen if there weren’t unseen factors at play: the development associate who puts together the grant application budget, the grants officer who reviews the grant and makes sure it meets certain standards, the accounting and payroll staffs who pay invoices and track time. The internal controls of an organization are what give it strength and sustain it. Programs – like blossoms, leaves, and apples – come and go; trees remain.

My point is not to disparage the program staff. I like apples and the beauty of the blossoms. But as a proud member of the indirect group, I applaud our unseen efforts because I know how important we are. That’s why I get so frustrated when I see an organization get dinged by an audit or get suspended because their internal controls failed. If you are a member of this indirect group and no one tells you how much you’re appreciated, I’m here to tell you that I appreciate you and your work. You may not get the applause or recognition, but what you do is vital to an organization’s success. Organizations, like trees, will fail without strong and vibrant trunks.

The Future of Government Grants

I have discussed the need for government grants and shown appreciation for those who engage in the unseen world of granting. For a few minutes, I want to touch on the future of government grants. As many of you know, new legislation has gone into effect over the past several years that started us down the path of greater transparency for federal grants. Between FFATA and the implementation of 2 CFR 200, I feel like the federal granting world has carved out a new landscape that hasn’t been seen in years. And they are good and positive changes. I hope that we continue down this path of transparency and accountability, because we have nothing to hide. What we do is good work, and we should not be afraid of reporting that.

Apart from transparency, I don’t know whether the US government will continue its investment in the myriad of programs that exist. Locally at King County, we are moving forward with proven programs and innovative new ones, like Best Starts for Kids. One thing that is true, though, is that the need for grants still exists. The world encounters new challenges seemingly every day, be they related to health, education, or capacity building. I hope that we don’t give up the fight for those who are in need of assistance.

Conclusion

I hope that I have inspired you today to see government grants in a new light and to appreciate the work of those who do this vital service. In 1962, President Kennedy remarked to USAID Mission Directors and Deputy Mission Directors at the White House that “Aid, the concept of foreign assistance, is not a popular program in the United States. That is a well-known fact. And therefore, there will not be farewell parades to you as you leave or parades for you when you come back. But I cannot think of any action which is more important to the effort of which we’re engaged than what you are doing….The presence of the United States as a leading power in the free world is involved in your work directly. The people who are opposed to AID should realize that this is a very powerful source of strength for us.”

The previous year, Congress codified these thoughts in the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. The opening section on policy includes these words.

The Congress declares that the individual liberties, economic prosperity, and security of the people of the United States are best sustained and enhanced in a community of nations which respect individual civil and economic rights and freedoms and which work together to use wisely the world’s limited resources in an open and equitable international economic system. Furthermore, the Congress reaffirms the traditional humanitarian ideals of the American people and renews its commitment to assist people in developing countries to eliminate hunger, poverty, illness….

Therefore, the Congress declares that a principal objective of the foreign policy of the United States is the encouragement and sustained support of the people of developing countries in their efforts to acquire the knowledge and resources essential to development and to build the economic, political, and social institutions which will improve the quality of their lives.

United States development cooperation policy should emphasize five principal goals:

(1)   the alleviation of the worst physical manifestations of poverty among the world’s poor majority;

(2)   the promotion of conditions enabling developing countries to achieve self-sustaining economic growth with equitable distribution of benefits;

(3)   the encouragement of development processes in which individual civil and economic rights are respected and enhanced;

(4)   the integration of the developing countries into an open and equitable international economic system; and

(5)   the promotion of good governance through combating corruption and improving transparency and accountability.

I believe in government grants and their power to change lives. Whether the grant supports development in the farthest reaches of the world or helps a child live a healthy life here in King County, the blossom and the fruit enhance the beauty of government action. But the grant is only effective if it is accompanied and managed by good governance: the people behind the scenes that instill the life-giving nutrients of grant management. These grants need us. The U.S. needs us. The world needs us.

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