Sedale Turbovsky made his first Green Bus Summit appearance in 2016 at the STN EXPO Reno, when he discussed his software that helped with fleet maintenance. Five years and four business ideas later, Turbovsky returned virtually to help school transportation professionals with writing and applying for green school bus grants.
Turbovsky, the CEO and co-founder OpenGrants.io, explained to attendees during a Green Bus Summit session on April 21 that his company is focused on helping people connect to grant funding opportunities. He explained that in 2019, there was $750 billion available in grant funding from the federal government that addressed a variety of needs, such as offsetting the costs of green bus initiatives.
But today’s money available is unprecedented. He explained that grant funding allows transportation directors to achieve a greener goal without breaking the bank. But finding grants, applying for them correctly, and managing the post-requirements can be overwhelming.
Turbovsky said step one of the grant process is finding what’s available. He advised attendees to visit websites like grants.gov, their state department of education, or local department of environmental quality sites. The best way to receive the funds, he added, is to build relationships with those that are handing out the money.
He advised attendees to identify agencies that are investing in the same things that school districts are interested in accomplishing. Turbovsky added that policymakers are looking to understand the intricacies of pupil transportation. Odds are, he said, if a transportation director helps to develop a grant, the agency will want to provide value back to that individual when the grant application process opens.
Plus, finding out who’s funding the activities and building relationships with that person will help directors understand the nuances of the program.
Turbovsky said his team usually spends three to six weeks developing a one-to-two-year strategy around public funding. He said they initially collect around 50 state and federal grants and then cut that number to between five and 10 that they will actually apply to, depending on the customer.
He noted that budget and time are at a premium, but with more money than ever available, grants should be a priority. Turbovsky explained that if transportation directors have the opportunity and bandwidth to apply for these grants themselves, that’s great. But he noted that consultants can help move the needle in developing a public funding strategy.
Building a Strategy
“Don’t be reactive,” Turbovsky said. Instead, build a plan to go after grants over the course of one to two years. He advised doing the research, understanding how much money is available and prioritizing projects.
He asked directors to be honest with themselves and consider if they are going to be competitive applicants for a particular grant. Turbovsky advised directors to read the RFP, review the past winners, and understand scoring criteria. Then, they can perform a self-assessment to determine if they are a good candidate.
When building a grant strategy, he asked transportation directors to consider these questions. Do we have grant writers on staff? Do we need to hire some?
Considering a Consultant
When applying for grants, he recommended always following the rules, which may sound like a no-brainer. However, he said with grants there are all kinds of rules that people miss. Turbovsky said his company found that following all the grant requirements can increase the chances of winning an award by 70 percent over other applicants.
He also advised that consultants could come in handy when interpreting RFP requirements. He added if there is something in the grant that disqualifies an applicant, they should partner with someone else, instead of dismissing the opportunity altogether.
“Think outside of the box,” he said.
Once the research is complete, he said the time has come to put the project together. Break down the RFP requirements into tasks, then assign them to members of the team. He advised using task management software. This way, he said, multiple people can collaborate, and tasks can be created and assigned to select members of the team. He also advised having a due date and a budgeted time frame.
Any opportunity to submit comments to the awarding agency should be utilized. He advised transportation directors to force themselves to develop a list of questions. This can help introduce the school district to the agency and result in familiarity once the application comes in.
Being a Good Partner
He also advised participation in the public comment periods. He added that one should think through how they are messaging the agencies involved in the funding and sending them information on current district projects being worked on. This way, the agency can see what transportation directors are focusing on and compare it to what they are attempting to accomplish.
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Once a grant is awarded, he said being a good partner means monitoring the grant with integrity. He noted that sometimes grant monitoring is almost as difficult as applying and receiving the grant. Therefore, Turbovsky advised being honest with the agency so officials remain apprised of any issues. He said sharing with the agency that a project has stalled, for example, helps to ensure directors will be looked upon favorably for future grants.
“Communicating and managing expectations is key,” he said.
He concluded by saying that one should always recognize the agency that paid for the grant when providing any community outreach. He advised coordinating with the agency’s media personnel to better get the word out.