Freedom of Information Act: Your Gateway to Learning from Successful Grant Applications
Freedom of Information Act: Your Gateway to Learning from Successful Grant Applications

With all the talk about transparency in government these days, it seems an opportune time to share how the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) can help you when it comes to preparing a federal grant proposal. As the “law that gives you the right to access information from the federal government,” FOIA is your key to requesting information that’s publicly available but not exactly at your fingertips.

Like what kind of information, you ask? Perhaps the most useful information that can be obtained through a “FOIA request” is copies of successful grant applications. Yes, you can actually read previous top-notch applications from the same funding opportunity you are considering! Without using any special form, you can request any existing federal agency record in the format of your choice (printed or electronic) through a simple email. There is typically no charge for the first two hours of search time by the agency or for the first 100 pages copied. The agency will notify you if it perceives the cost of your request to be more than $25.

To find the appropriate email address to send your FOIA request, use this page to select your agency and office. While it isn’t required, we also recommend including a brief sentence as to why you’re requesting the information. Here’s an example:

To the Attention of the SAMHSA FOIA Officer, Department of Health and Human Services:

Under the Freedom of Information Act, I am requesting two successful grant applications from the SM-15-008 funding opportunity: “Campus Suicide Prevention Grant” program. The information is being requested to educate a prospective FY 2016 applicant for the upcoming opportunity.

Seems easy, right? Almost. This information will only benefit you if you make your request in advance, as it may take the agency as long as three months (or more) to respond with your requested documents.  In addition, keep in mind that the agency can decline your request in full or in part for several reasons, including:

  • Your request wasn’t reasonably described.
  • There is no existing agency record that matches your request. (The agency will not create a new record to meet your demands.)
  • Your request includes information that falls under an exemption, such as being classified or involving trade secrets, information, or the potential to interfere with law enforcement proceedings.
  • There are also flat out exclusions if your requested information pertains to certain categories of law enforcement and national security records.

It’s also important to remember that different cycles of the same funding opportunity may have variations in requirements and even different focus areas. So, resist the temptation to follow a successful proposal too closely and always use the current funding opportunity announcement as the most important guide.