Earmarks used to be a part of the grants scene – so much so, that the venerable Frank Mandley, GPC and I gave a presentation on pork at the Grant Professionals Association National Conference in 2004. Then Congress closed that door in 2011 and there has not been a lot of talk of earmarks at the national level. As you’ve probably heard in the news, earmarks or “congressionally directed spending items” are back.
1% of total federal discretionary spending or $10 billion will be allocated through congressional earmarks. Each congressperson is allowed 10 earmarks a year. Only non-profit entities are eligible. To date, Senate Democrats will be using earmarks but Republicans still have a rule against them. According to the Wall Street Journal, some Republicans plan to ignore the rule.
Despite its reputation, earmarks tend to go to non-controversial projects because no one wants to be singled out by media for the next bridge to nowhere project. Forbes just published a pretty interesting overview of the earmarks that have been submitted in the House already. I looked at the ones in my region and the vast majority are infrastructure projects – sewer, water, bridges. However, there are a smattering of projects for hospitals, shelters, and higher education institutions. Most of the projects are above $250,000 and many in million-dollar range.
Earmarks can be a path to getting a large project funded outside of the usual grantmaking channels
You may be familiar with how earmarks work because they have continued at the state level. In NYS where I live, 2/3 funding set aside for the Senate, 1/3 for the Assembly and then it is divided up by rank and party. Typically, earmarks for Assembly members are smaller ($25k range) than Senators ($75k range) with larger $500k grants occasionally for construction projects.
I have worked with clients who have successfully received earmarks, and this is how I see the process happens
First, they have an established relationship with the elected official or staffer who is aware of their organization or priorities. An opportunity comes up in the budget process and the elected official calls to say if you can send me a 1-pager about your needs and a request for $50k by 10am tomorrow morning I can submit it.
So, success comes from a) relationship building and b) having a concise thoughtful plan ready to submit.
My guess is that most of the congressionally directed spending items that have been put forward this year have been on the congressperson’s radar for a while. For example, I assume that the Mayor and Fire Chief in the Town of Richford, NY (population 1,172) have had several conversations with Tom Reed (R) about the urgent need for a new firehouse before he submitted $1.5 million earmark request for the project.
If you work for a small, medium or large sized non-profit or governmental agency and do not have a plan in place for being in contact with your elected officials, now is the time to start.
First, ask your board and leadership about pre-existing relationships with elected officials and staffers. They may be ongoing, lapsed, or tentative.
Second, work with your leadership or board to create a list of funding and legislative priorities if one doesn’t already exist or need updating.
If there is no existing relationship, don’t be shy, just pick up the phone and start a conversation. I have found that they are usually very open and want to be of help.
Over the years, I’ve heard of staff and legislators helping in the following ways
• shared about upcoming legislation that would be beneficial for a particular non-profit;
• shared helpful sites about existing grants – some of which I wasn’t aware of;
• helped get information about the status of a grant application;
• put me in touch with other people in the community who can help solve a problem that I was having;
• called an agency about contract that is stalled;
• asked for, or been receptive to, feedback about legislation;
• asked for draft legislative language (check out these guidelines from the Independent Sector about lobbying and advocacy).
So, overall they can be super helpful, they are open to hearing what is needed in the community and they might be able to come up with funding during the appropriations process.
If you’d like more information
Good resources are the Advocacy Institute, https://hi.advocacy-institute.org/ and the Independent Sector https://independentsector.org
Many of the best books about working with legislators are rather out of date but Marcia Avner’s book, The Lobbying and Advocacy Handbook for Nonprofit Organizations, has been updated with a 2013 version focusing on state and local governments. Please feel free to email me with your favorite recent resources for advocacy and lobbying and I’ll happily update this.