Writing Successful Grant Applications in a Competitive Market

While budgets are tight for communities across the country, infrastructure needs continue to pile up. Agencies, now more than ever, are relying on grants to fund their projects. With the application process often being time-consuming and overwhelming for agencies looking to take advantage of these funds—not to mention the increasing competition for IIJA monies and federal grants—Benesch experts came together to offer their top tips for crafting successful grant applications.

Meet Our Experts

Erik Hammarlund, PE | ehammarlund@benesch.com

Erik is a Senior Project Manager at Benesch with nearly 30 years of experience. He has a diverse design background with an emphasis on roadway, hydraulics and hydrology design.

Brian Ralstin, PE | bralstin@benesch.com

Benesch Project Manager Brian Ralstin has a passion for all aspects of roadway design. He has completed numerous projects ranging from rural interstate interchange modifications to urban intersection and corridor relocation projects, and urban multi-modal corridors.

Elisabeth Schuck, AICP, LEED GA | eschuck@benesch.com

As Transit Group Manager in Benesch’s Florida Division, Elisabeth uses her 20 years of transit planning experience to manage various transit related projects and lends her grant expertise to teams across the country.

Randy Farwell | rfarwell@benesch.com

Randy is a Senior Project Manager at Benesch and has 36 years of experience in transportation and transit planning, operations and management. Randy has also pioneered applications of technology to transit scheduling, planning and on-demand operations.

Tip 1: Improve the Ratio

Erik Hammarlund: A key part of the application is going to be your Benefit Cost Analysis (BCA). A BCA is a process for comparing the anticipated benefits of the project to the expected costs. It’s going to be a major factor in the decision and there are different methodologies that can be utilized for the calculation.

Brian Ralstin: When it comes to the BCA, it really is all about the details and identifying ways to improve the ratio. We were working on the cost side of things for a RAISE grant application in Chattanooga, TN and focused on finding ways to bring down the costs. By looking hard at the design and construction schedules, we figured out how to squeeze that down to the smallest reasonable time frame so that the city would experience the benefits sooner. That’s an example of something that can help the ratio.

EH: We’ve found it’s even worth getting a fresh set of eyes on the BCA before submittal to see if that ratio can be improved at all. For example, in a recent project, a RAISE grant application for Athens-Clark County in Georgia, we took the time to review the BCA that had been completed by our project partner. One of our internal Benesch experts was able to identify an error and apply some additional factors into the calculation which greatly improved the ratio. This was our third submittal for the project, and I think the updated BCA helped it get approved.

Tip 2: Create a Compelling Narrative

Elisabeth Schuck: Grant writing requires a unique combination of skills. You need to be able to communicate both technical information and create a compelling narrative that ties every part of the project back to the community. Grant applications often have very limited space, so you must prioritize the information presented up front versus in the supporting documentation. In the application, every character counts.

Randy Farwell: The application must very succinctly state what the problem is, what the project’s going to do, and what the benefits and costs are. Make it short, clear and convincing.

BR: Going back to that Chattanooga RAISE grant, beyond the improved BCA, we were able to use the narrative sections of the application to explain the community need for this project and tie the benefits directly to the RAISE program’s goals. It’s that combination of analysis and narrative that brings the project to life for the decision makers reviewing the applications.

Tip 3: Don’t Get Discouraged

EH: It’s important to remember that you aren’t always going to be successful on the first try. For some projects, we have to go through two or three submittals to identify what is important to the reviewers.  Debrief meetings are an absolute necessity. At lot of factors go into what projects are selected and the selection criteria can change every year. 

ES: One of those things being political support. Having a political champion for your project is often critical, especially for federally funded projects. While you can’t always have control of that, it is something that can change from one submission to another.

RF: It can also help to step back and objectively look at your project to decide if it’s really a good fit for the grant you’re considering. That’s something our clients have really come to expect from Benesch—that we’ll be able to advise if a project is a good fit for a particular grant. 

BR: Experience helps here too. Having a partner that knows what it’s actually going to take to get a project funded AND off the ground is vital. If you’re looking for assistance with your grant application, make sure your partner has experience and expertise in the area.   

For decades, Benesch has been providing grant writing assistance to clients across the country, and the contributors to this article all play major roles in that work. In 2022 alone, Benesch helped clients secure over $100 million in funding, including $70 million for three projects as a part of the Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity—or RAISE—Discretionary Grant Program. Benesch looks forward to further helping clients navigate the intricacies of IIJA and other competitive state and federal grant programs in 2023.