Key Hearing Takeaways: Improving Access to Federal Grants for Underserved Communities
On Tuesday, May 2, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hosted an “Improving Access to Federal Grants for Underserved Communities” hearing. There is a growing interest at the federal level in reforming the federal grants space to make it more transparent, efficient, and accessible, particularly for entities that don’t have the resources or capacity to apply but need access the most. Social Current CEO Jody Levison-Johnson and Senior Director of Government Affairs Blair Abelle-Kiser submitted written testimony detailing the challenges and opportunities in the federal grants space. We will continue to gain insights from our network and build upon the increasing attention to this topic from our federal elected officials.
Key Hearing Takeaways
- The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held a hearing on improving access to federal grants for underserved communities.
- Over $1 trillion in federal grant money was awarded last year to over 131,000 recipient organizations by over 50 different federal agencies.
- Witnesses outlined the challenges in the grant-making process, including limited human capital, organizational and financial capacity, and recommended solutions such as technical assistance and streamlining the process.
- Witnesses also suggested enhancing flexibility in federal grants, clarity around grant expectations, and creating a grant Helpdesk for pre- and post-award support.
- Senators on the committee raised questions about the grants.gov portal, underperforming states in federal grant dollars per capita, challenges facing rural and Black communities in accessing federal grants, and the need for greater racial equity in grant awards.
Committee Chairman Gay Peters (D-Mich.) opened the hearing by emphasizing the enormous impact of federal grants. Specifically, over $1 trillion in federal grant money was awarded last year to 131,000 recipient organizations by over 50 different federal agencies. There are over 1,900 grant programs with their own application procedures, portals and technical assistance capabilities, and award processes. He acknowledged that the current system is plagued by complex language, demanding applications, and technical challenges – all of which deter many organizations from applying in the first place. Chairman Peters stated that the purpose of the hearing was to address these barriers and present opportunities to reform the grants system to allow enhanced accessibility.
The first witness, Jeff Arkin, director of strategic issues with the Government Accountability Office, outlined the main challenges in the grant-making process. He said that grant recipients’ human capital, organizational and financial capacity is sometimes limited. He proposed that federal technical assistance at the front end and administrative and oversight assistance during grant implementation could be the answer. He also said that streamlining and creating more transparency in the grant process would reduce redundancies, enable data-driven decision-making, and ensure accountability.
Meagan Elliott, deputy chief financial officer of the City of Detroit, spoke about her office’s comprehensive strategy towards bringing more efficiency and transparency to the grant application process. The city combined all grant staff into one entity, which worked closely with federal, state, and local funders, including charitable and corporate partners. These changes led to an increased success rate for grant applications and more efficient communications through a centralized office. Drawing from her experience, Elliot recommended that federal grants enhance flexibility, allowing local leaders to decide how best to allocate funds based on the community’s pressing needs. She cited the American Rescue Plan Act State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds as a model for this. She also stressed the need for clarity around grant expectations and consistency across federal portals.
Matthew Hanson, associate managing director at Witt O’Brien’s LLC, detailed his experience assisting federal, tribal, state, local, and community-based organizations to access government grants for the past 30 years. In his experience, the federal government has expanded technical and training assistance for grantees, but not uniformly. Moreover, little effort has been invested in helping new entities apply for grants, especially those with limited resources. Hanson recommended, among other things, mandates for technical assistance, more grant management capacity, and the creation of a grant Helpdesk for pre- and post-award support.
The witness statements were followed by an enlightening question period from senators on the committee. In response to a question from Senator James Lankford (R-Ok.) about the ease of search terms on the grants.gov portal, Mr. Arkin said that recommendations had been made to the Office of Budget and Management concerning the simplification of search parameters within the portal. Senator Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) noted that her state continues to underperform in federal dollars per capita. Mr. Arkin testified that the GREAT Act passed in 2019 helped standardize grant language and ease prepopulated information, which should help increase the number of grant applications. However, he also urged that lack of awareness about grants is a continuing issue.
Senator John Ossoff (D-Ga.) discussed the challenges facing rural and Black communities in his state regarding accessing federal grants. Mr. Arkin responded that the new Rural Partners Network, a group of federal agencies and states, was created to overcome barriers to grants and opportunities in rural communities and that some aspects of the American Rescue plan have emphasized racial equity and should be explored in the context of grant awards.