Leave No Money Behind
Fleishman and Walsh, LLP
Colleges and universities are continually looking for new sources of funds. Naturally, people turn to Washington, D.C. and the federal appropriations process – especially the Fund for Post Secondary Education (FPSE). But, like a field that has been plowed over and over, this source of funds is generating a lower yield because there are too many requests and not enough money. The answer is to target little used federal accounts that can be promising sources for funding. For example, federal money is available for highway and related infrastructure such as garages, sidewalks, overpasses, trails and bikeways, environmental clean up, capital building programs, historic preservation, technology upgrades, and outreach to local communities to name just a few.
The key to success is a well-orchestrated campaign. This begins with identifying the institution’s specific needs including both capital and programmatic needs and then prioritizing the requests. Once this is done a careful triage has to be undertaken to ensure that the requests that are pursued are reasonable given the constraints on federal resources. Fortunately, since money is fungible, it can be moved around. This offers an institution the opportunity to fund a project for which the school has already allocated funds if that project either stands a higher chance of being successful or the normal funding amount is more significant than those on the priority list. Any money obtained for this project allows current funding to be freed up for another project.
Success is not guaranteed. The requesting institution needs some luck, but more importantly a Member of Congress or Senator who has the “juice” to get the request funded. This is not a question of being a Republican or a Democrat, but rather, is the Member someone who has the seniority, respect, committee assignment, or the “need” to generate the attention from the appropriations Committee Staff to fund the project. Need, in this context, is defined as the belief that funding the project will help the Member’s popularity back home. Republican and Democratic leadership frequently fund projects in vulnerable or junior Members’ districts to arm them with a quiver of projects to demonstrate that they are effective in helping their constituents.
Beyond finding a Congressional champion, the project must be well thought out and be presented in a user-friendly manner. Too often, schools send in a list of requests to their Members of Congress that are not well defined. This problem can be easily avoided by undertaking a dialogue with the Member of Congress and his staff. By developing a priority list early, usually in the fall, it is possible to meet with Staff and Member to obtain their thoughts on each project.
New entrants into the process need to introduce themselves by visiting Washington and meeting with the Member and Staff. Face to face meetings with top school representatives signal to the Member that the project is indeed a priority. It is an opportunity to clearly lay out why a particular project will help their constituents and ask for the Members support. Members do not like to say no. If the project helps an institution in the district and has the backing of the community, it makes it easier to say yes.
It is critical that the projects be shepherded through the process. This is both a procedural and substantive process. Procedurally, it is critical to meet the deadlines established by each office and the relevant Committees. Requests are often adjusted on short notice or even switched from one account to another at the last minute to increase the chance of success. One must be able to react quickly.
The foregoing is a basic plan, but, like building a home, it is a daunting process for those who want to do it themselves. Many institutions attempt it themselves and achieve limited success. It is relatively easy to get a grant of $100,000 to $250,000. The real money is obtaining total grants year after year of $1 million or more.
A lobbyist who knows the process and has worked with colleges and universities is invaluable. They know the Members and their staff and can help refine the requests.
They can help to “game” the requests to make it much harder for a Member to say no by placing them in categories that have both the highest chance of being funded as well as obtaining the largest amount possible. Their goal is to leave no money behind. They know the hidden paths to success and how to put the project back on track if it has gotten lost in the sea of requests each office gets each year. Indeed, each member of Congress receives hundreds of requests each year and is only able to fund a small number of them. The lobbyist is particularly helpful with smaller institutions that are just starting to build relationships in Washington. Their experience and knowledge of the staffs and direct relationships with Members facilitates and expedites the relationship building process.
A good lobbyist will have a track record of success. Since their clients are a matter of public record, you can see for whom they have worked and you should ask for their track record. The best way to do this is to carefully examine their references and ask how they have fared over a series of years. Are they keeping clients for a number of years or simply flipping them from one year to the next, not providing quality service to any of them?
Washington is an important source of funding. It should not be overlooked; but it needs to be addressed by a systematic and well-organized campaign designed to yield maximum revenue over multiple years ensuring that no money is left behind.