Grant program solicitations often provide great detail regarding what is required for an application. But writing it can be a bit like composing an essay for a teacher you've never had before: It’s not clear what communication style may appeal to the reviewer, and what unspoken points are of particular importance. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a copy of an A+ essay as a model to go by?
Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), anyone can obtain a copy of a previously funded grant application from a federal grant program, and thanks to technology, the process has become faster and easier. For starters, eight federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Commerce (DoC), participate in FOIA online, an online system by which users can request documents using a standardized format, and can immediately track and follow up on requests using a tracking number. In addition, most federal agency websites include agency-specific information regarding the process for making a FOIA request, and often the process can be completed via email or an online form. Some agencies will provide FOIA request templates. Frequently, the link to the federal agency’s FOIA information can be found in the webpage footer; otherwise, a search for "FOIA" on the agency’s website is generally effective.
Before you make a request, however, I strongly recommend doing a search the agency’s website to see if any previously funded applications (PFAs) are posted for review. Several agencies, such as the Department of Education (ED) and the Department of Labor (DoL), will make PFAs publicly available. ED will post PFAs for some programs on the individual program pages, whereas DoL has a searchable database wherein one can view both funded and unfunded proposals. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) posts frequently requested materials online, which include the highest-scoring funding grant applications for a few of their programs.
Making a FOIA Grant Application Request
When making a request, it is important to be as specific as possible. The more information you include, the better chance you have of getting your request fulfilled quickly. If available, the CFDA number and funding opportunity number (FON) should be included. Some agencies will ask that you search through lists of grantees on their websites and select a particular proposal. Such is the case with the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and the National Institute of Health (NIH).
By law, federal agencies have 20 business days to respond to a FOIA request. Most agencies will send an acknowledgement fairly quickly, and will provide you with a tracking number. Just like with the post office, this number is your link to the package on the other end, and if you lose it, you will likely have to resubmit your request.
FOIA Fees and Processing
It should be noted that freedom of information doesn’t necessarily mean free. Though most requests are free, federal agencies may charge by the page or by the hour for the processing and review of documents, as well as for the copies. In instances where there is a fee, it can range anywhere from $40-$50 to over $100, depending on the agency and the amount of processing required. Certain types of information, such as staff salaries or unique proprietary information must be redacted. The document may be sent to the grantee for additional review, as is the case with research proposals from the National Institute of Health (NIH) or United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which are sent to the principal investigator (PI). If there is a limit on what you are willing to pay for a requested document, it should be stated in the request.
Processing time can also vary according to the length and type of the document, just like the cost. Processing time may vary by federal agency as well. For example, eCivis' grant researchers have found that the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) and Department of Justice (DoJ) tend to be faster to respond than the Department of Transportation (DoT) or DoC. Speaking directly with FOIA liaisons can often expedite your request, and perhaps even save you money. A follow-up call or email may provide a forum for questions that the FOIA liaison might have regarding your request, and the quicker these questions are answered, the sooner your request can be processed. On more than one occasion, the eCivis Research Department has obtained PFAs quickly and cheaply because a helpful FOIA liaison happened to discover during a phone conversation that our requests overlapped with requests that had already been processed, thus eliminating the need for additional processing. These kinds of connections, coupled with a systematic PFA retrieval process, has helped us build a robust PFA Library within our Grants Network applications.
Last but not Least
Persistence and relationships are key. Federal government personnel, like local and state government personnel, are extremely busy, and if you are the one following up on a request, and the FOIA liaison knows who you are, you are more likely to get your information sooner.
Have PFAs helped your organization effectively apply for grants? Tell us your story in the comment section below.