As some credit unions around the country gear up to apply for grant money from the U.S. Treasury’s Community Development Financial Institutions Fund, there are indications that credit unions are gradually becoming more sophisticated about navigating the grant writing process.
The CDFI fund announced that credit unions applying for grants this year will need to file their applications no later than the Feb. 28 and suggested that they do so three days in advance of the deadline to allow for any problems with the applications to be dealt with before the deadline. In addition, only credit unions that have been certified or recertified as CDFIs will be eligible to apply for funds this year, the Treasury Department said.
Those new requirements and conditions indicate how the CDFI certification and grant processes have remained challenging, according to specialists that help credit unions overcome the obstacles. But as years have passed and with the help of specialists, credit unions have gotten better at both becoming certified as CDFIs and applying for CDFI grants.
“I think credit unions have become more experienced with it, and that we have managed to help the fund better understand credit unions,” said Pablo DeFilippi, director of membership for the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions.
DeFilippi said the federation’s efforts have focused on improved communication and education of both credit unions and the fund. It has helped credit unions seeking certification as CDFIs and obtaining CDFI grants to better grasp what the fund seeks in both applications and it has helped the fund comprehend the nature of credit unions and how that can fit its program definitions.
Still, the certification and grant process can seem overwhelming to an inexperienced credit union and institutions that have found them so have turned in increasing numbers to consulting firms that specialize in helping credit unions navigate their way through the fund’s requirements.
One that has seen significant success has been CU Strategic Planning, a community development and grant writing consultancy headquartered in Tacoma, Wash. The firm claims, among other things, that it is home to “the best grant writers in the world” and that a at least one of its credit union clients has won a CDFI grant in every round of CDFI grant making since 2008.
This is difficult to verify since the CDFI fund does not identify which grant applicants used consulting firms and which did not, but firm CEO Jamie Chase indicated that some proof of assertion can be seen in the firm’s popularity with credit unions. According to Chase, the 12 employee firm only takes on 30 client credit unions per year and has a waiting list.
“The kind of grant writing we do is highly specialized,” Chase said, “and it’s not easy to find people who specialize in the skills we need. Also, we are perfectionists. We would rather properly serve a smaller number of credit unions than try to expand our client list and cut quality.”
And the firm stands by that commitment to quality. A client credit union will pay 50% of the firm’s fee for it consulting up front but only have to pay the remaining 50% if the application actually results in a grant.
Chase said that many credit unions need to understand that that their CDFI grant application is really a business plan and needs to be understood as such. She also explained that the firm helps credit union applicants document their stories and accomplishments in a professional way, something too few do, she said.
This last factor was especially helpful for the 20,000 member, $88 million Shreveport Federal Credit Union, headquartered in Shreveport, La. The credit union was a recipient of CFDI fund money under a community development initiative. The credit union used CU Strategic Planning for the 2012 grant application.
“I think the way they helped us the most was in helping us better tell our story,” said Shreveport CEO Helen Godfrey-Smith. “We never thought much about documenting what we were doing because we were too busy doing it,” Godfrey-Smith said.