The Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government was the first Executive Order signed by President Biden when he took office in January 2021. This historic Executive Order directed the whole of the Federal government to advance an ambitious equity and racial justice agenda. Each agency must examine whether its programs and policies maintain structural obstacles to opportunities and benefits for persons of color and other under-served groups.
Part of the Equity Action Plan that lays out the concrete strategies and commitments to address the systemic barriers in our nation’s policies and programs includes equity in grantmaking. Persistent barriers make it difficult for under-resourced and underserved communities to be aware of, compete for, and effectively deploy Federal grants for everything from infrastructure to medical research. Agencies are addressing these barriers by helping underserved communities learn about and navigate federal funding opportunities, expanding capacity-building efforts, and embedding a focus on equity into decision-making about how to award Federal grants.
At the recent National Grants Management Association (NGMA) Annual Grants Training, Alice Bettencourt, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Grants in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) spoke about the actions HHS is taking to ensure equity in its grants processes. As the largest Federal awarding agency, Alice explained that, for HHS, equity also means reducing administrative burden and maximizing competition by promoting a diverse group of applicants.
HHS initiated an equity assessment to look at their Notice of Funding Opportunities (NOFOs) and examined previous tribal consultations to gather input from tribal entities. They performed an in-depth analysis to see what characteristics of the NOFOs were potentially creating barriers in grant applications.
Ms. Bettencourt explained that NOFOs are important because they are a foundational part of the grant process as they set the tone for the project by laying out everything from administrative requirements to performance and review criteria.
The feedback that HHS received as part of their equity assessment was that they are not giving the applicant community enough time to thoroughly read and understand the NOFO. Applicants did not know where to locate them, and when they did, they were oftentimes too lengthy and difficult to decipher. This placed an unnecessary burden on those who had not received funding yet and created a disadvantage for those who do not have a grant writer on staff.
In response to this, HHS initiated a forecasting policy. HHS now requires awarding agencies to post a forecast to Grants.gov. They also set standards for emergency awards so critical funding can get out the door and those who need it most more efficiently. In addition, HHS added guidance to their policies on how NOFOs can be more equitable.
Ms. Bettencourt mentioned that HHS is doing a lot of listening, especially to external tribal organizations and those who service immigrants and refugees. There is a large movement within HHS to examine the current criteria in the NOFOs and translate it into more equitable policies.
As a national grants services provider managed by HHS, GrantSolutions is also evaluating potential inequities in its policies to provide the grants community with an equitable experience in administering and accessing Federal assistance.
By advancing equity across the Federal Government, we can create opportunities for the improvement of communities that have been historically underserved, which ultimately benefits all of us.