Four Mistakes Hurting Safety Grant Applications in 2020

In order to win any safety grant, it’s important to understand how your application will be evaluated. Every security and safety grant program is different, and it may take some digging to fully grasp how they are setting priorities. But, speaking broadly, we’re seeing four key stumbling blocks tripping up organizations seeking safety grants in 2020:

  1. Leaving blanks. Never leave a question unanswered (or answered with a simple “NA” or “not applicable”). If the question truly does not apply to your organization, then you won’t get the grant; don’t waste time applying. More often than not, the question does apply to you, but you need to dig in a little to understand how.
  2. Vague or terse answers. You can’t say too much—as long as it’s substantive! If the text box allows for 500 characters, you should fill it.
  3. Off-topic and incomplete answers. Read directions and questions carefully, follow instructions, and answer all parts of the question. Especially look out for “and” vs “or” with multi-part questions.
  4. PROOFREAD! Writing “there” when you mean “their” probably won’t sink your application. But a typo that makes your answer hard to follow or misleading will. It’s surprisingly easy to inadvertently write “sufficient” when you meant to say “insufficient,” or “replace” when your security audit only advised, “augmenting.”

This seems like very rudimentary advice. But experts are telling us that applicants regularly knock themselves out of the running with these four mistakes.

Security grant application frequently asked questions

FEMA’s Nonprofit Security Grant Program

As an exercise in how to approach grant applications, let’s consider the 900-pound gorilla of safety grants: FEMA’s federal Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NPSG).

These are highly sought-after grants that provide nonprofit organizations funds to support physical security enhancements and activities. FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) released the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) for their 2020 grants on February 14, 2020, requiring all applications and supporting documents be submitted within one month.

Scoring a Nonprofit Security Grant

Every NSPG grant application is scored by two independent groups: your State Administrative Agency (SAA) and a set of FEMA reviewers.

Your state’s SAA usually consists of three to 12 people (generally with emergency management, homeland security, or law enforcement experience). They are responsible for scoring applications using an approved worksheet. Provided your SAA deems your application “complete,” it will always pass it on to FEMA for a second evaluation, regardless of how poorly it scores. A federal reviewer will independently evaluate your application using similar criteria.

FEMA then takes the score prepared by the SSA reviewer and adds five bonus points to it if your organization has not previously received NSGP funding. Then FEMA averages the SSA-assigned score (plus bonus, if any) with the federal reviewer’s score. This composite score then receives one of the following multipliers (which reflect current priorities and threat severities, as understood at the federal level):

  • the composite scores for groups that are at a high risk of attack due to their ideology, beliefs, or mission are tripled
  • the scores for medical and educational institutions are doubled
  • all other nonprofit organizations receive no multiplier

Safety Grant Scoring Example

Let’s say you’re an urban women’s health clinic applying for your first FEMA safety grant. You complete your 2020 NSGP application and submit it. The SAA reviewer loves your application and gives it 38 points (out of 40 possible). They then send it to FEMA, whose reviewer is a little dubious of some of your plans; they assign only 33 points. Since you’ve never won an NSGP grant before, FEMA adds 5 points to your SAA score (bringing it to 43), averages the SAA and FEMA scores, for a composite score of 38. Because you are a medical facility, you receive a double modifier. Your final score is 76.

A house of worship in your area also applies for a 2020 NSGP grant. Their application is pretty spotty and only scores a 20 with the SAA. The FEMA reviewer can make more sense of it and scores it a 27. They’ve similarly never won an NPSG in the past, and so get the 5 bonus points added to their SAA score (bringing it to 25). Their composite score is 26. But, since they are deemed an ideological target, they get the triple modifier, bringing their final score to 78.

These final scores are what is used to rank all of the applicants (highest to lowest, without regard for the region, need, or other circumstances not already calculated into the scoring process). So, the house of worship tops the list, and your clinic comes in below them—despite your very strong application.

FEMA starts at the highest-scoring application, funding projects and proceeding down the list until they’re out of money.

(More questions about scoring? FEMA’s 23-page 2020 NSGP notice of funding opportunity lays out the process in excruciating detail.)

Maximize Your Chance at Winning a Safety Grant

Many factors beyond your control—including the type of work you are committed to and who else applies for grants in a given year—have a massive impact on whether or not your project will see funding. You need to do everything you can to win every point you can. But far too many organizations make simple mistakes that destroy their chances.

A deeper dive into the scoring process will help you understand where applicants effectively knock themselves out of the running. Here’s a 2017 NPSG scoring sheet from FEMA (these change very little from year to year. Page 15 from the 2020 Vermont Nonprofit Security Grant Program packet shows a basically identical scoring worksheet from 2019.)

The reviewer assigns each section of the application a numerical score (varying possible points per section). They also give each section one of the following evaluations:

  • Did Not: The applicant left the space blank or went off-topic.
  • Poor: The response is incomplete, vague, so poorly written that it’s unintelligible, or the reviewer doesn’t think what’s described will actually work as described.
  • Partial: The response is complete and intelligible, but minimal. Additionally, the reviewer believes the proposed solution will only produce some of the intended results.
  • Adequate: The response is complete and adequately covers the required criteria. The reviewer concludes that the proposed solution will produce most of the intended results.
  • Thorough: The response is complete, fully addresses the criteria, and appears likely to produce all intended results.

Reviewers emphasize 1) answering the question completely and 2) painting a clear picture of how your planned security enhancement will have the intended results.

Avoid This Grant Application Misstep!

This all seems extremely straight forward. What trips people up? Let’s look at section two of the score sheet. This application section is only worth two points (out of 40 total), and consists of two questions:

“Describe the symbolic value of the site as a highly recognized national or historical institution or significant institution within the community that renders the site as a possible target of terrorism.”


“Describe any previous or existing role in responding to or recovering from terrorist attacks.”

Noting that this section of the application is worth two points and has two boxes, many organizations seem to assume that they earn one point for each box.

This is a huge mistake.

If you look back at the scoring worksheet, you’ll see that skipping either half of this section may result in a score of zero points (“The applicant did not provide a response to all of the required information regarding their nonprofit organization.”)

That might not seem like a big deal—it’s just two points—but when you factor in that these grants are competitive and there are modifiers favoring organizations most at risk, it can ultimately put your organization six points behind. In our above example, had the house of worship with the low-quality application entirely skipped this single box, their final score would have dropped to 72, and your clinic’s project would have been funded before theirs.

According to state-level applicant reviewers (i.e., “SAAs” in FEMA lingo), many organizations are answering questions like “Describe any previous or existing role in responding to or recovering from terrorist attacks” by leaving the box blank (or the equivalent—writing simply “NA” or “not applicable”).

This is the wrong move!

Filling in the All the Blanks

At this point, many organizations feel stuck:

If you (or your community) have never been the target of a “terrorist attack,” then how could you have a “previous or existing role in responding to or recovering” from one? Should they just make something up?


Instead, call your city/county/regional emergency manager (EM) and find out how you could help in the event of a terrorist attack or similar disaster. Such organizations are called VOADs: Volunteer Organizations Active in a Disaster. They’re a vital part of the chain that brings assistance from state and federal governments (who have the money) to the affected individuals in your region (the people who need the money to rebuild following an attack or disaster).

For example, a small-town community center is probably a low-likelihood target for a terrorist attack. (It’s already a low priority for a FEMA grant; no multiplier for non-religiously affiliated community centers). But, does that community center have locker rooms and a gymnasium? Is the building centrally located? If so, that facility could prove to be a life-saving linchpin, sheltering a local community targeted in a terrorist attack. A quick conversation with your regional EM will put those wheels in motion—and give you something substantive to fill that blank in the safety grant application.

Need more support as you continue applying for security grants? Check out our comprehensive security grant application guide for non-profits (start with this non-profit security grant FAQ for quick answers to the most common questions).

Security grant application frequently asked questions

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