The future of competitive grant making – in both public and private spheres – is of considerable interest to grant seekers and to those professionals who work with and/or for them.
This post explores four administrative and political trends impacting the future of public grant making, particularly at the Federal level. Its purpose is descriptive, not normative. Arguably, although the trends’ context is American, their scope and consequences are potentially global.
Targeted funding is not new, but it becomes more popular and more intensive during periods of perceived or actual economic malaise. It reflects a widely held premise that public grant funds in general – and Federal grant funds in particular – should focus narrowly on the needs of certain pre-defined groups. As a question of public policy, it is most often framed in terms of advancing equal access or fairness or equity, least often in terms of resource allocation or even redistribution of wealth. The legislation enabling a grant program may designate its eligible beneficiaries as ‘underrepresented populations’ or as ‘underserved communities’. Statutory definitions amplify what these are. Those communities, subgroups, and individuals who seldom if ever qualify as targets may doubt the need for targeting; those who do qualify may demand more of it.
Creating earmarks is the practice – once rampant, very recently abated – of attaching or embedding provisions in Federal legislation that assign Federal appropriations to benefit one or more of a specific legislator’s local constituencies. The earmark recipients acquire the funding without putting the merits of their plans to any test – no competition, no panels or peer review, no ranking against other proposals. Those organizations and locales that don’t already get one or more earmarks may question why they should bother competing for grants when such shortcuts – and such certainty of outcomes – seem available for the asking.
The formula drift, as I term it, is the discontinuation of discretionary grant programs in new legislation and their replacement with formula-based ones, if any at all. The drift strongly tends to favor larger cities over smaller communities, more urban states over more rural ones. Recipients of such funding no longer need to compete for it, but can acquire it so long as they satisfy certain eligibility criteria, submit a pro forma application, and comply with legislated accountability standards.
Of two main types of accountability – fiscal and programmatic – it is a public grant program’s degree of success in obtaining desired outputs and outcomes across its pool of grantees, which more broadly impacts the future of grant seeking. If too many grantees report too little success, legislators may zero-fund the entire program. Even though grant awards may fund multiyear projects, every grantee must report its progress in achieving its objectives every year. And every year, discontinuation of funding for the entire program in subsequent years is possible.
Later posts will explore other trends imperiling the future of grant making in both the public and private spheres.