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By Elizabeth Evans

With the passage of the CARES Act and other COVID-19 response funding packages there has been a surge in stimulus-sourced grant opportunities, the likes of which have not been seen since 2008-2009 and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). Out of the nearly $2 trillion CARES Act package came a number of direct allocations or entitlements, as well as competitive grant opportunities totaling approximately $234 billion and acting as a means for local and state governments, healthcare and education providers, and other organizations to prepare for- respond to- and maintain continued operations during the global coronavirus pandemic. Of this amount, the US Department of Education alone was granted $30.75 billion in funding to support continued K-12 and higher education efforts.  

While still technically grants, these funding opportunities have their own quirks that grant seekers should be aware of when getting ready to pursue. Even veteran grant professionals may now find themselves in uncharted waters if they came into the profession within the last decade. Following we will highlight some of the major differences between traditional grants and stimulus-funded, emergency grants and what this means for moving forward on your grantseeking journey. 


These are the typical grant programs that we all know and love. They are opportunities for your organization to leverage partnerships with funders who are looking to make investments in projects or initiatives that may have long-term transformational change within the community or sector in which your organization operates. Most often these funds are offered to either solve a persistent problem or enable testing of new, innovative methods. Stimulus funding, and by extension the emergency response grants they enable, is different from traditional grant programs. These dollars are targeted fiscal investments (and/or policies) aiming to provoke stability for an otherwise floundering economy. No matter the specifics of where the funds are focused, the overarching goal of stimulus or emergency response funding is to buoy a depressed economy through a near-immediate injection of funding to be spent. Therefore, while these monies could often still be classified as “grant-like”, emergency grant programs supported by stimulus packages very in a few key characteristics.  


Many traditional grant programs are cyclical in nature, meaning they reoccur and in predictable manner – quarterly, annually, biennially, etc. Just because you missed the deadline or were denied this timedoes not mean you’re completely out of luck and unable to try again! In fact, by looking at historical data (such as previous deadline dates and application instructions) you can establish a pattern of when applications are due and what the grant funder expects to see from applicants upon submission. As application windows are typically only open for 30 to 90 days out of the year, these patterns can help you use the remaining 335 to 275 days as efficiently as possibleyou can start building out your proposal plans based on educated assumptions about what will be required in the upcoming application window.  

Stimulus-sourced emergency grants, however, are a one-time funding opportunity. These dollars aim to be an immediate injection of money to address the current fiscal crisis. Therefore, applicants have minimal time to prepare for submission nor can they confidently predict what will be required beyond the basics (.e.g. organization name, EIN or federal tax ID, SAMs and DUNS registrations, etc.). If you miss the chance to apply, that is it; there is not a second chance. Further, because these dollars often come from entirely new funding buckets, there is also no historical data to call upon and help you get “your ducks in a row” early on. As such, pursuit of emergency grant funding can often feel like one is still building the airplane even after takeoff. The specific project goals and anticipated benefits, details on grant-funded activities, outlines for the planned use of funds, etc. are usually being determined as the proposal is being written. 


As traditional grant programs offer ample time to prepare for submission the application process can sometimes be rather lengthy. While application complexity tends to correlate to the size of awarded funds, regardless of award size you can still anticipate a traditional grant program to require some level of concerted effort in order to apply. Almost all funders will require a narrative component for submission wherein you explain the problem your project is aiming to address, your plan to address the problem, and why they (the ones with the money to invest) should care. The amount of space the funder will give you to provide this narrative may vary – it could be 5 pages or 50 pages, it could be a long form document that you email or a series of short answer boxes on an online portal – but you can expect that the funder will ask you to provide a highly-detailed account of what you intend to do with their funds. They will then use this information to determine if they feel your organization is a safe pair of hands for their investment and how confident they feel in your ability to deliver on stated objectives.  

Organizations interested in emergency grants, in contrast, must by hyper-vigilant as the timeline for pursuit is truncated. While traditional grant application windows fall within predicable cycles and applicants can spend all year preparing, emergency grants afford no such luxury. Instead these opportunities are available for application as soon as possible and due shortly thereafter. To make up for this condensed timeline, the application process is often abbreviated as well. Rather than being asked to complete lengthy narratives spanning 10 to 15 pages, you instead might see a series of short answer prompts limited to a couple hundred words or characters per question. Further, for publicly sourced emergency grants in particular, there may be additional assurance or agreement documentation that organizational leadership may be required to certify in exchange for use of funds. Applicants can normally expect to see one or two of these documents (e.g. reassurance that the applicant is a non-discriminatory workplace) in a traditional grant application. However, with emergency grants, in exchange for the shorter written narrative you are instead often asked to do more leg work by looking up the meaning of the various federal or state regulations which your organization is being asked to sign off on via these additional certification and agreement attachments.  


Funders of traditional grant programs also tend to take a more leisurely pace in their grantmaking and award decision process. Pending the funding source, it may be several months from when you submit your application materials before you find out if you have been selected for an award. For example, most federal grantmakers take between six and eight months to make award decisions. As such, traditional grantseeking should be viewed as a long-term strategy for funding. Afterall, it may be anywhere from 12 to 16 months from when you first start the grantseeking process for a particular project before you have the awarded funds in hand (especially if you have to wait several months for the grant application window to open from when you first identify it as the best option for your project!).  

Given the inspiration for their existence (i.e. crisis), however, emergency grants happen very quickly. Not just with the timeline from when the funding is first allocated to when it is available for application, nor the abbreviated application window, but also when it comes to decisions for who will be awarded these monies. As the aim is to stimulate fiscal stability as soon as possible, funders move rapidly to decide who is most worth of monetary support. To help expedite the decision-making process, sometimes the decision of who should be prioritized is made for them (i.e. Congress drafts the legislation allocating funding and stipulates it must be spend in XYZ ways to support ABC groups - such was the case with the CARES Act). Other times, funders may decide to pivot their normal grantmaking priorities for a particular set of funds yet released to instead prioritize response to the crisis at hand. Many private foundations, for example, decided to postpone their standard grantmaking priorities and timelines in favor of offering immediate COVID-specific opportunities wherein applications would be reviewed as received. Regardless of source, the goal of emergency funding is to get those dollars into the hands of those “boots on the ground” organizations so that they can do the work to support their communities as soon as possible. 


As Congress now considers additional legislation focused on additional COVID-response stimulus funding, be sure to keep watch for when something heads to the president’s desk for signature. As of the time of this issue’s publication an additional $105 billion for the Department of Education$16 billion for state testing, $26 billion for vaccine research and distribution, $15.5 billion for the National Institutes of Health, and more was being considered by the Senate. Of these, a significant portion of funding is predicted to be used towards additional grant opportunities. Therefore, be sure to keep our above tips in mind for the days, weeks, and months ahead!