If you’re planning to apply for a grant, it’s important to keep in mind that all the work you put into your application (and with most broadband programs, it’s no small effort) will eventually get boiled down to a number: the score the proposal receives from the reviewers. And barring some unusual (but not unheard of) bureaucratic maneuvers, like limiting the number of winning projects in one state, for example, awards will be made to the top-scoring applications until the program has committed all the money that it has available.
So it’s important that your proposal not only be compliant with the application requirements of the funder, it should also be as competitive as possible by qualifying for as many additional points as your project can. That may require tweaking your project to make it more competitive or looking for a grant program that fits better with your project parameters.
When a grant opportunity is announced, the funder will publish application guidance to help applicants develop compliant proposals and to describe the intent of the program through a series of absolute priorities and competing priorities. In some cases, the funder will even publish the entire scoring rubric that will be used by reviewers to evaluate each proposal. Every tidbit of information on how applications will be evaluated is useful in positioning your proposal as competitively as possible.
The absolute priorities are those that must be met for an award to be made to any applicant. These priorities are usually not associated with any scoring, because they are binary – if you meet (usually at least one) of them you may proceed to score, and if you don’t, your proposal will not be funded.
Fortunately, the absolute priorities are generally a fairly low-bar and may just describe who will get funded. The Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education’s CRRSAA (Cares 2.0) program has seven absolute priorities, the first of which is: “Minority Serving Institutions (MSI) and Strengthening Institutions Program (SIP) Institutions That Did Not Receive CRRSAA Section 314(a)(2) (formula) Award.”
If your project doesn’t meet the required number of absolute priorities, you’re probably applying to the wrong program and should look elsewhere for funding.
Competitive priorities are where the competition for funding really gets interesting, and where you have the maximum opportunity to enhance your application’s competitiveness. These are articulated differently in different application guidance documents, but they are easy to spot because they usually have points associated with them in the guidance.
The USDA’s Rural eConnectivity (ReConnect) Pilot Program has nine competitive priorities on which all applications will be scored. Here are five examples:
- Rurality of Proposed Funded Service Area (25 points). Points will be awarded for serving the least dense rural areas measured by the population of the proposed funded service area per square mile. If multiple service areas are proposed, the density calculation will be made on the combined areas as if they were a single area. For population densities of six or less, 25 points will be awarded. For population densities greater than six, zero points will be awarded. The density calculation is as follows: Total Population of Proposed Funded Service Area / Total Square Miles of Proposed Funded Service Area.
- Farms Served (20 points). Applicants will receive one point for each farm that pre-subscribes for broadband service up to a maximum of 20 points. Applicants proposing to serve farms and ranches must have the executive head of the farm or ranch sign the pre-subscription form, available under Forms & Resources, and must submit the pre-subscription forms as part of the application.
- Performance of the Offered Service (20 points). For projects that are proposing to build a network capable of providing 100 megabits per second (Mbps) symmetrical service (same speeds for download and upload) to all premises, 20 points will be awarded. A certification from a licensed Professional Engineer must certify that the proposed system can deliver these speeds to every premises in the proposed funded service area.
- Healthcare Centers (15 points). For every healthcare center served, one point will be awarded up to a maximum of 15 points. Healthcare centers, such as hospitals, clinics, and pharmacies, will be counted using the GIS layer provided in the USDA Rural Utilities Service’s (RUS) Mapping Tool.
- State Broadband Activity (20 points). For projects that are in a state that has a broadband plan that has been updated within the previous five years of the date of publication of this Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA), ten points will be awarded. An additional five points will be awarded for projects located in states that allow any utilities service provider to deliver broadband service. An additional five points will be awarded for projects located in states that commit to expediting right-of-way environmental permitting.
Clearly, you won’t be able to go back in time and encourage your state to adopt a broadband plan if it hasn’t developed one already. But if you don’t have 20 pre-subscribed farms and 15 healthcare centers on board, that would be the first order of business.
The rurality and performance criteria are a little more nuanced, as maximizing the scoring there might require you to reduce your planned coverage area to those areas that have population densities of six or less and where you can reasonably commit to offering symmetrical 100 Mbps service. Alternatively, you might add more rural service areas to get the average population density for the entire proposed service area down to six. This wouldn’t mean you couldn’t offer services nearby, but the cost to extend those services wouldn’t be covered under the grant.
A plan to maximize your competitive preference points is one of the most valuable tools in a grants-seeker’s toolbox, and the exercise of calculating how to get the most points within the constraints of a given project frequently makes the difference between a proposal being funded or rejected.
Certain costs or activities may be prohibited (also known as “ineligible”) by a program, and you’ll want to avoid these in your application. The Broadband Infrastructure Deployment grants, for example, have the following prohibitions:
- Using grant funds to repay, or make any other payment relating to, a loan made by any public or private lender.
- Using grant funds as collateral for a loan made by any public or private lender.
- Using more than $50,000 of the grant amounts to pay for the preparation of the grant.
Prohibitions can be as instructive as priorities; in that they indicate what can’t be done with the funding. Based on the prohibitions above, for example, leased equipment may be hard to justify and – if leased equipment appeared in the budget of an application – would likely result in the application being rejected. Leasing is allowed in some other programs, so this is not a blanket prohibition. It applies for this grant program and is stated as such.
Along the lines of prohibitions, page limitations, margins, and font size have tripped up many a grants-seeker. It pays to review the guidance carefully for these types of guidelines as well as requirements for specific forms, certifications, and appendices. In short, making your proposal both compliant and competitive starts with your first-grade teacher’s admonition: follow direction
For more information on broadband funding opportunities, check out the whitepaper The New Landscape of Broadband Funding available on the Cisco Rural Broadband Networking Solutions page.