Obtaining External Funding for Research and Creative Activities

Below you will find a general description of how to find and apply for grant funding.  ORSP offers proposal development assistance through our proposal development manager, Kathy Swan.  If you have any questions about how she can work with you throughout the proposal development process, please contact her at x5752 or katherine.swan@umontana.edu.

Where to begin

I. Determine your audience

Who (besides you) would want to see this become a reality? If there are potential collaborators, contact them as soon as possible so that you can maximize resources and work together to ensure that all collaborators are on board with the project from day one.

II. Plan the approach

Do your homework to determine the best fit.

  • Do similar projects exist at other institutions?  Many times you can search the web or even contact a project lead at the institution to determine what sources of funding they were able to tap into.
  • Use the internet!  Search for funding agencies or foundations which support similar projects, starting with the resources listed on the Funding Opportunities page.  In most cases you can find examples of previously funded projects, including abstracts, funding amounts, project lengths, and other relevant information.  
  • Email/call for the agency’s latest annual report and funding guidelines; be tenacious (AKA "pleasantly persistent").
  • Make the program contact at the agency your friend.  Have a question about how your project fits within the guidelines? About which funding opportunity or mechanism is the best fit? Call or email the program contact; they are a great resource and in most cases are quite helpful.

III. Begin the process of developing a proposal

Identifying Potential Sources of Funding

I. Types of funding sources

  • Federal: U.S. government agencies or organizations which offer federal domestic assistance programs.  
  • State: Montana State agencies that participate in grant-giving activities.
  • Private: Includes foundations -- non-profit, non-governmental organizations with a principal fund or endowment of its own that maintains or aids charitable, educational, religious, or other activities serving the public good, primarily by making grants to other non-profit organizations.

II. Use the Internet

Preparing Proposal Budgets

I. Include budget details

Include a rounded total direct cost estimate.

  • Budgets are divided into direct and indirect costs.
    • Direct costs are costs that can be directly attributed to the grant-funded activity.
    • Indirect costs (facilities & administration) are costs that the institution recovers in conducting externally sponsored projects, that cannot be directly attributed to a particular project. Examples of F&A are the University space used by project personnel, utilities, the costs to maintain the functions of the research office, purchasing, accounts payable. These costs are not easily apportioned to specific projects, so the University negotiates rates with the government. These rates are based on actual expenses for a given base year, and are revised every three years. Indirect costs are real costs; the funds recovered from grants are not profit but reimbursement of actual costs.
  • There are separate F&A rates for different types of activities (research, instruction, other) and for on-campus and off-campus activities. Items that are normally treated as indirect costs, such as secretarial time, general office supplies, basic telephone, cannot be charged to grants as direct costs unless they are justified within the parameters of the project and are approved by the funding agency.
    • For example, if your project involves doing a telephone survey with 12 operators calling people over a short period of time, it would be justified to ask the sponsor to pay basic telephone charges because they wouldn’t expect the University to have 12 extra phone lines available.
    • However, an individual investigator could not ask for a basic phone line because it is assumed the university provides each faculty member with a phone, so that charge is part of the basic infrastructure of the university, therefore an indirect cost.
  • Identify matching funds requirements or cost sharing arrangements (i.e., hard dollars or in-kind contributions). When determining how those requirements will be met, hold conversations early on in the process with your chair or dean before approaching the Vice President for Research.

II. Schedule an appointment

At least two weeks prior to the time the proposal must be sent, contact your departmentally-assigned pre-award specialist.

University Routing and Approval

The routing and approval process is done via E-Prop and is electronically routed to your department chair, dean, unit administrator, and ORSP. Your proposal must be administratively reviewed and approved by ORSP before it may be submitted to a potential sponsor.

If there is more than one department involved, all appropriate chairs and deans must sign the Checklist. Work closely with your departmentally-assigned pre-award specialist when preparing an E-Prop Checklist.

Negotiating Awards

In many cases, after your proposal is recommended for funding, you will receive word from an agency grants officer that they would like to negotiate with you concerning the grant award. This generally indicates that the funding agency either wants to alter the award amount from your initial request, or that they desire changes to the proposed work, or both. In most cases where budget changes are involved, the grants officer will be proposing budget reductions, although occasionally budget increases are proposed.  Working with you, ORSP will negotiate directly with the agency staff concerning your budget. 

Establishing Grant Accounts

An award is not official until the University receives an actual award notice from the funding agency. If you receive an award notice, check with the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs to be sure ORSP has also received a copy. If not, provide the office with a copy of the notice. Once ORSP has received the award notice, an account will be established and loaded by expense category according to your proposal budget. You will be notified when an account number for your project is ready.

In most cases, the University is paid on a cost-reimbursement basis. Thus, the institution "advances" the funds and is not reimbursed until the sponsoring agency is billed for costs already incurred. During the course of your project, ORSP will prepare any sponsor-required financial reports. You, however, will need to prepare and submit the technical reports. It is important to note that payment can be delayed if technical reports are delinquent.

Managing Grant Expenditures

It is the University’s responsibility to ensure proper award management so that grant funds are expended in accordance with the budget approved by the sponsor. Generally we have some leeway to rebudget, but some changes require sponsor approval. This doesn’t mean we can’t make the change, it just requires us to request approval from the sponsor and provide adequate justification.

Because grants and contracts are generally awarded on a cost-reimbursement basis, the University is required by federal regulations to have procedures in place to ensure that grant funds are spent appropriately and that costs are treated consistently. Auditors look at these procedures to make sure they are adequate. They also look to make sure they are consistently applied. Failure to maintain adequate fiscal controls can result in the University being denied future awards.

If costs incurred are either not allowable and/or inappropriate under the terms of the award, the University cannot obtain reimbursement. Also, if federal regulations are not followed and inappropriate charges are billed to the government, University staff involved can face criminal penalties under the False Claims Act. Ignorance of the regulations is no excuse – if the government determines you should have known (based on your position) that the claim was false, you can be prosecuted and face a possible prison sentence. Therefore, it is essential that University procedures be followed to make sure costs are allowable and appropriate.

The methods used to accomplish the goals of the grant must fall within federal and University guidelines concerning allowability. Some things cannot be purchased with grant funds but can be done with course fees, membership fees, or foundation funds. It’s important to determine the appropriate pot of money to cover various costs. Some of the accounts are more restrictive than others and some require more documentation than others. Also, be sure to ask first before the cost is incurred. It may not be possible to do what you want in the way you want, but there may be another way of doing it that falls within the federal regulations. For example, paying for an outfitting expedition for a speaker is not allowable on a grant, since it is entertainment. However, paying the speaker an honorarium may be allowable. The fact that the outfitter cost may be less than the honorarium doesn’t matter: one is allowable, the other is not. If you ask first, ORSP can make sure that it is allowable before you have incurred the cost, or can suggest another way of accomplishing your goal that is allowable. This is much easier than figuring out what to do about an expense you have already incurred that is not allowable.

I. Regulations that apply to externally sponsored activities

  • University regulations: We are required to apply these regulations consistently
  • State regulations: Generally these are the same as university regulations, since as a state institution our regulations need to comply with the state’s
  • Federal regulations: These are outlined in 2 CFR 200 Uniform Guidance and apply to all federal awards unless superceded by agency- or grant-specific requirements. Example: purchase of alcoholic beverages not allowed with federal funds. Federal regulations require that expenses charged to grants be reasonable, allowable, and appropriate to the grant.
  • Grant-specific requirements: Each federal agency can have their own restrictions that apply to all of their awards or they may place special restrictions on a specific grant. For example, the grant may not allow the purchase of equipment, which is normally an allowable cost.

These four sets of regulations form a hierarchy – state regulations supercede university regulations, federal supercede state, and grant-specific regulations supercede all of the others. So if you need to do something that is allowed by the grant but not by normal University procedures, generally you can get approval to waive the University requirement. However, federal agencies generally assume we will follow normal University practice and we must maintain the federal requirement for consistency in how funds are used. So if you are going to deviate from normal University practice, you must be able to provide adequate justification that it is appropriate and that we are being consistent. 

 II. Written documentation

Having written documentation is essential so that you can show that costs incurred meet the requirements of reasonableness, allowability, and appropriateness. If you submit a travel reimbursement form with a $500 hotel bill for a one night stay, it will be questioned because that does not seem reasonable. If you paid for rooms for 10 people, that sounds more reasonable, but ORSP won’t know that unless it's documented. So ORSP will ask you to provide written documentation for the file that explains why this is a reasonable cost. The travel form asks the purpose of the trip – this helps assist in determining that the expense is appropriate to the grant. Looking at the grant budget tells us if the charge is allowable under the terms of the award.

Detailed receipts from restaurants are needed so ORSP can determine if alcohol was included in the bill. Since alcohol is not an allowable cost, ORSP needs to know for each meal receipt whether or not it is included. You should try if at all possible to get an itemized receipt that indicates the nature of the items paid for, but if this impossible, you should indicate how much, if any, of the cost was for alcohol. That part of the bill cannot be paid from the grant, but may be paid from foundation funds.

 Generally when ORSP requests more documentation or explanation of charges, it is being done to determine that the charges are reasonable, appropriate and allowable. Written documentation is also needed for audit purposes – an auditor can come in and question expenses charged to the grant at any time during the grant period and for three or more years afterward.

 III. Hot buttons: Costs likely to be questioned

Alcohol: Federal funds cannot be used for the purchase of alcohol. Generally university funds also cannot be used for this, but exceptions can be made under unusual circumstances. Alcohol is generally purchased with foundation funds.

Advertising: The use of federal funds for advertising is restricted to certain circumstances, so this expense must be well-justified.

Entertainment: Federal funds cannot be used for entertainment. However, some expenses related to business meetings may be allowable if approved by the sponsor. Food and room rental costs may be allowable; flowers and artistic entertainment are not, and must be paid for from other funds.

Fixed costs such as basic telephone, copier maintenance, network port charges: These are generally treated as indirect costs, and can only be charged to federal grants if justified and approved by the sponsor. Such costs must be consistently treated costs as direct or indirect.

Equipment: Federal sponsors may not allow the purchase of equipment at all, depending on the program. If equipment is allowed, it must be dedicated to the project and be justifiable as being beyond what the University would be expected to provide to its employees. Example: a general-purpose office computer generally would not be allowed, since it is not solely dedicated to the project and the sponsor assumes the University provides staff with computers. However, if the project requires a high-end computer that will be tied up all day doing simulations, it may be justifiable.

Preparing Sponsor-Required Reports

The principal investigator is responsible for writing and submitting the technical reports in a timely manner. If reporting is delinquent, ramifications can be severe. Most sponsoring agencies will not pay the institution until all delinquent reports have been received. Some sponsors will not fund any future projects submitted by that particular investigator until reporting is up-to-date, while some will not fund any additional research at the institution.

Managing Compliance

Additional procedures and reporting requirements apply to projects that involve compliance isssues such as the use of animals, human subjects, hazardous materials, organisms, and/or substances regulated by the state or federal government:

Protecting Intellectual Property

The University of Montana's Office of Technology Transfer provides assistance and advice to UM faculty, staff, and students on matters relating to: 

  • copyright and patent protection;
  • appropriate relationships between UM and businesses;
  • exploitation of discoveries and innovations made at UM for the public good;
  • uncovering and managing the University's entrepreneurial assets; and,
  • avoiding "conflict of interest"