Public safety grants year in review: Trends and lessons learned

Lexipol’s grant experts weigh in on the biggest grant trends, the most common mistakes applicants make and how 2021 changed the grant world


How do we possibly summarize a year that delivered a whirlwind of grants—including billions in funding to public safety and local government—all under a new federal administration? We turn to the experts! Here are the lessons learned from police, fire, EMS, local government and education grant writers at Lexipol.

What was 2021’s biggest grant trend?

The availability and flexibility of funding, due in large part to the extension of CARES funding and the introduction of American Rescue Plan funding, created the year’s biggest trend. Government entities relied heavily on resources from the previous CARES Act to address COVID-related issues, while trying to navigate how decisions would be made on the use of funds from the American Rescue Plan. Several grantors relaxed restrictions on grants and increased the number of awards or amounts of funding available.

Public safety grants year in review: What did we learn from 2021?
Public safety grants year in review: What did we learn from 2021? (Getty Images)

Volunteer organizations continued to experience trouble fundraising due to restrictions on in-person events and the fact that residents had less disposable cash than they have had in recent years. This meant many more organizations needed funding help. But the actual volume of submitted applications went down. Restrictions made planning and piloting in-person, direct-service programs difficult. 

On the bright side, 2021 saw much more support of public safety initiatives from community and corporate foundations. There was also flexibility in existing grant programs that allowed for budget modification to focus on emerging needs. 

How was 2021 different for grants?

2021 saw three firsts for fire service grants:

  1. It was the first time we experienced anything like the AFG-S grant program (Assistance to Firefighters Grant COVID-19 Supplemental), an immediate monetary response to the new risk that fire and EMS organizations were encountering as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  2. A massive infusion of $100 million into the AFG program and $200 million into the SAFER program for 2021.
  3. We are on the verge of finally synchronizing our application year with the current fiscal year. 

On the law enforcement side, the Department of Justice ushered in a new online grants portal to streamline funding at the federal level. The conversion of existing systems did not go as smoothly as end-users would have expected. Technical issues caused delays in both application submission and award announcements. Heading into FY22, applications will continue to be submitted to the Department of Justice in a two-step process: Applicants will submit a SF-424 and a SF-LLL in Grants.gov and will then be invited to submit the full application including attachments in JustGrants

Mental health continues to be receive a lot of focus—both the mental wellness of first responders as well as how law enforcement can improve response to citizens dealing with mental health issues or emotional crises. We are beginning to see creative methods from all first responders (police, fire service, and EMS) in how to integrate mental health into different aspects of their jobs. This is a critical area to watch for grant funding, as it could start to involve medical and healthcare grants instead of just criminal justice grants.

Toward the end of the year, we saw local and regional foundations start to move away from COVID-only funding and back toward their “normal” funding priorities. However, we expect a continued strong emphasis on COVID-related funding. These same funders are also moving away from only funding existing grantees and back to open solicitations—which is great news for new applicants.

What was the biggest mistake grant applicants made in 2021?

The biggest mistake we saw was a focus on wants vs. needs. This isn’t a new trend, but it was exacerbated as agencies flocked to request funding in the wake of COVID. Many applicants regard grants as an opportunity to get everything that they want: “Why not ask big and see if they give us anything?” This is not at all the right mantra. Grantors want to see there is a need and that the applicant is not looking to get money for just anything. An applicant should never build a project around a grant—there should be an immediate need or project and then funds found for that need.

Another common mistake was not having federal grant registrations in place. Applicants were not prepared with their federal portals like FEMA GO, Grants.gov and JustGrants, and common preregistrations like SAM.GOV, DUNS and EIN information. Pre-registration requirements for federal grants include:

Three other mistakes stand out:

  1. Applicants continue to downplay the significance of the financial need narrative in their applications. They do not provide enough information about their need and why they are experiencing this need. Applicants do not tie economic data from their coverage area into their financial need. Far too many applications give no hard facts—budget detail, sources of funding and fiscal challenges—to make a competitive application. If you’re going to spend the time to apply for a grant, be sure to prioritize the crafting of your financial need narrative.
  2. When budgeting, look at both the one-time capital purchase or implementation costs and the supplemental recurring costs. For example, if an applicant is buying computer equipment, maintenance and operational costs (e.g., monthly internet charge) might go along with the project and should be included in the funding request.  
  3. Working in silos continues to jeopardize agency grant applications. Many common problems needed to be addressed at the community level, such as communications upgrades, access to broadband and personal protective equipment availability. Now is a great time to work with other public safety agencies, public works, schools and other community stakeholders to fill in the gaps.  

If you could give grant applicants one piece of advice, what would it be?  

  • Departments need to learn more about grants and work toward getting their departments more grant-ready. Don’t assume need will guarantee grant awards.
  • It is the beginning of a new year. Decide what your grant strategy is going to be for 2022. Will you be applying for new gear? New SCBA? A new vehicle? Start your planning process now.
  • Look at the bigger problem. When applying for grants, oftentimes applicants are short-sighted. What is the larger community-based issue the grant is going to address?
  • Be strategic in your approach. There is a significant amount of money circulating from various sources. Take the time to review the terms of each funding opportunity to make sure it’s the best option for your department. 
  • Know what your department needs and when it’s going to need it. If you’re a fire department that will need new SCBA in two years, start planning your grant funding around that need now. Keep a “list of needs” ordered by priorities and structure your applications to reflect this list. Of course, this list can change at a moment’s notice, as we saw with COVID, but new funding opportunities can crop up just as fast. Be ready, both short and long term.

What is your holiday wish for grants in 2022?

The list is long, but our team narrowed it down to three: 1) For departments to become proactive in their grant seeking, 2) for more funding to help volunteer and rural organizations, and 3) for the bugs to be worked out on the federal grant portals (JustGrants and FEMA GO), resulting in better communication from funding agencies.

Most importantly, all of us with Lexipol’s Grant Services team wish public safety agencies and local government organizations successful funding all around!

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