Sharing lessons learned across state lines is becoming increasingly important as states across the country begin implementing new federal climate dollars in their communities. Building capacity and providing technical assistance is essential to ensure state governments and their partners can effectively and equitably utilize their federal funds to advance meaningful climate action.
One such technical assistance provider is the State Funding Readiness Project (SFRP), an initiative led by Hua Nani Partners and the U.S. Climate Alliance that provides free assistance and capacity support to help states unlock the full potential of federal climate investments.
For this webinar, we invited a panel of SFRP experts to share what they’ve learned from the early stages of this program:
- Chris Bast, Principal at Hua Nani Partners
- Melissa Hampe, SFRP Federal Grant Writing Expert
- Jasmine McAdams, SFRP Equity and Environmental Justice Lead
- Cory Connolly, Head of the Office of Climate and Energy at the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy
In this recap article, we’ll provide highlights from our expert panel’s presentations and Q&A, including how the SFRP works with state actors, best practices for successful federal grant applications, insights into the role of equity and Justice40 in this work, and lessons learned from one of their state partners in Michigan.
Chris Bast, Hua Nani Partners
Chris Bast is a climate policy and decarbonization expert with nearly two decades of deep experience at the intersection of politics, policymaking, and power building. As Principal at Hua Nani Partners, Chris manages the Hua Nani advisory practice where he leverages his government, political, and advocacy experience to support clients in advancing bold and ambitious opportunities to bring climate solutions to scale.
Introduction to the State Funding Readiness Project (SFRP)
The State Funding Readiness Project (SFRP) is led by Hua Nani Partners, in partnership with the U.S. Climate Alliance. Hua Nani Partners is a Native Hawaiian, woman-owned small business that provides purpose-built policy, strategy, and advisory services for global change.
States are faced with significant challenges when implementing federal funding, including:
- being understaffed and under-resourced
- lacking program-specific technical expertise
- being underprepared to apply equity-centered frameworks or ensure projects comply with Justice40 requirements
- meeting tight application deadlines and aggressive federal timeframes
- overcoming bureaucratic hurdles and jurisdictional fragmentation
- navigating program complexity and eligibility
- collaborating across different jurisdictions and agencies
SFRP addresses these challenges by providing free technical support to states implementing funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) for climate-positive, equitable projects. SFRP helps states, cities, counties, and tribal governments identify specific investment opportunities, inform budget planning, successfully apply for funding, clarify program guidance, and understand Justice40 considerations. They also help states overcome capacity constraints that would otherwise inhibit their ability to maximize opportunities possible through IIJA and IRA funding.
The three main areas of SFRP support include:
- Direct technical assistance: identifying investment opportunities with outsized climate and equity benefits and delivering individualized, tailored support to states.
- Surge capacity: offering guidance on how states can use new federal funding alongside existing funding to scale up benefits.
- Implementation support: ensuring federal investment implementation is aligned — and complementary — to existing state climate policies.
Melissa Hampe, SFRP and Skog Rasmussen LLC
Melissa Unemori Hampe, SFRP team member and Partner at Skog Rasmussen LLC, brings to clients the benefit of decades of public, private, and nonprofit experience, working with entities in Hawai‘i, across the country, and internationally, with 11 years of experience on Capitol Hill. She designed, launched, and is continuing to implement national and statewide grants technical assistance programs with SFRP and the Urban Sustainability Directors Network.
Lessons Learned from State Case Studies
SFRP has worked with a diverse group of state and local actors to unlock federal climate funding, and its team has learned about common challenges and barriers from their projects. SFRP supports applicants’ efforts to pursue both formula and competitive grants. Formula grants provide set amounts of funding and competitive grants are awarded on the strength of applications.
Across formula and competitive grants, common issues states face in their applications include:
- Project goals lack specificity and alignment with federal goals, though both of these are essential for IIJA and IRA funding.
- Project narratives lack cohesive structure because states also often divide application sections across different staffers.
- Applicants often lack a clear prioritization of funding items, which is needed in case the funding body is unable to fund the entire project, but would like to fund part of it.
Often, because formula grants provide predetermined funding that is mostly assured for recipients, states might put less effort into these applications. SFRP stresses the importance of dedicating effort to making formula grant applications robust. For the very reason that a state is guaranteed this funding, applicants must ensure that their project will have the most meaningful impacts for climate and equity. The same impacts must be emphasized in competitive grants as well, given that current evaluation criteria for a wide range of grants prioritize both.
Lessons Learned from Local Case Studies
SFRP sometimes works with localities if they are in coordination with the state. Many of these are serving communities that are new to the federal grants process, are underserved and under-resourced, or both.
One particular challenge, especially relevant to rural and underserved communities, is a lack of the hard data that applications require. Many local applicants also lack proper staffing, technical systems for data collection, or sustainable resources to continue consistent collection over time. Bringing in external support from providers like SFRP allows for advice on what types of data are required and feasible for a project.
Another common issue for local applicants is alignment with local and state requirements and goals. For example, while a local entity may be eligible for funding related to certain transportation projects, it must still ensure that its proposed projects are aligned with the goals of the local and state transportation departments and included in the local and state transportation improvement plans (TIPs).
General Insights and Tips
Having supported many projects unlocking federal funding for states, Hampe can offer tips and tricks across all sorts of programs and applicants. Below are a few of her recommendations:
- Get your team together early and plan out the process — it will take longer than you think, and you may need to bring in new partners.
- Ensure cross-sectoral involvement — robust collaborations with a proven history are more likely to be funded, as funders view collaboration as a proxy for meaningful engagement and as a sign of longevity and sustainability of a project.
- Start before the funding announcement posts — a lot of information is already available from previous funding cycles and existing federal guidance, and requirements often don’t change drastically from year to year.
- Prove the community need — funders want to hear that residents have identified their problems and solutions through outreach and engagement sessions, rather than an argument by assertion alone.
- Align with federal plans and goals — funders need to see you as part of the national team, movement, and effort, and aligning your timetable with federal timelines proves the direct connection between your proposal and delivering on federal goals.
- Be specific in your goals — use SMARTIE: Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Relevant, Timebound, Inclusive, and Equitable goals show that your proposal is clearly organized and can be implemented.
- Connect with underserved, Justice40 communities at the beginning — this is a must, to ensure competitive federal applications across agencies and programs.
Jasmine McAdams, SFRP and Hua Nani Partners
Jasmine McAdams, Equity and Environmental Justice Consultant with SFRP and Hua Nani Partners, has a background in energy justice and climate and energy policy and regulation. She is passionate about tackling the climate crisis by helping decision-makers implement equitable climate and energy policies. Her work at Hua Nani Partners has helped support state efforts to advance transportation electrification and electric grid resilience.
Getting Started with Embedding Equity into your Program
Delivering on the goals of Justice40 means incorporating equity into your program throughout the process, moving beyond just a checkbox. This means working with a justice-oriented framework from the bottom up.
The first step is getting to know the communities you’re working with. Engage early and proactively with residents, leveraging any insights from previous outreach efforts. Make sure to alter your program and project goals to fit the interests of your community; before receiving your funding, you must ensure that your proposal is aligned with community-identified needs and community-identified solutions. Sometimes this looks like conducting a stakeholder mapping exercise or workforce development analysis proactively to ground your work in the on-the-ground community needs. Outside of specific proposal-related outreach, you can also continually attend existing community meetings or events to stay in touch with community perspectives. This is especially useful to reduce capacity restraints on community organizations, which may not have the time to engage on every proposal.
The second step is identifying barriers to engagement and implementation, from both perspectives of your agency and the community. For example, if your agency identifies a newsletter as one method of community engagement, make sure you’re aware of the technological capacity of the residents you’re working with: is online engagement that requires a laptop accessible for your target population? Navigating accessibility might require partnering with a community-based organization that has pre-existing relationships and trust with residents.
The third step in this foundational approach is identifying the tools and measures to achieve your collective goals. There are a number of existing mapping tools at the federal and state levels that focus on identifying underserved communities, like the federal Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool (CEJST), as well as data-driven resources developed by academic institutions and nonprofit research organizations. Utilize these tools to identify equity-based metrics throughout the process to ensure that you’re delivering on and being held accountable for your justice-oriented goals.
Equity and Justice Resources
There are a myriad of existing resources available to help in this process of engaging communities, delivering equitable solutions, and developing equity-centered metrics. Below are a few:
- Community Engagement
- Creating a Community and Stakeholder Engagement Plan — Department of Energy
- Justice40+ Community Benefit Playbook — Emerald Cities Collaborative
- Promising Practices for Meaningful Public Involvement in Transportation Decision-Making — Department of Transportation
- Equitable Solutions
- Just Solutions Collective
- Justice40 Accelerator Resource Hub
- Making Justice40 a Reality for Frontline Communities — UCLA Luskin Innovation Center
- Energy Equity Project Framework Report — Energy Equity Project
- Leading with Equity Initiative — American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy
Cory Connolly, Office of Climate & Energy at Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy
Cory Connolly is climate and energy advisor, leading the Office of Climate and Energy (OCE) within the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE). The office coordinates Michigan’s response to climate change across state departments and agencies and provides guidance on climate change mitigation, adaptation, and resiliency strategies.
Michigan as a Case Study
Michigan’s approach to implementing IIJA and IRA funding involves the Michigan Infrastructure Office, created within the Governor’s Office to leverage all possible federal funding for projects across the state. This office has five different workgroups, including one focused on climate and energy. This serves to continually identify and prioritize relevant federal funding opportunities, present them to relevant staff across all Michigan agencies, and assist with project management.
Q: Will SFRP publish an annual report or similar document about application successes and lessons learned from the engagement model you’ve developed?
Chris Bast: Our website has a lot of helpful information and resources, as well as a contact form for state actors seeking SFRP support. As for this specific question, right now, our specific focus and what we’re funded to do is to provide these individualized, bespoke, state-by-state services, and we’re trying to scale that up moving forward. One of the things we’d like to do is share some more generalized lessons… Melissa shared from the grant writing side and Jasmine shared from the equity side, and we want to be able to package that together as we go forward. We’re working on putting together the right package of information in a way that increases the number of folks who are able to take advantage of what we do. So, stay tuned and keep abreast on our website and social media for more.
Q: What are other technical assistance providers available to federal funding applicants, especially within federal or regional agency support?
Chris Bast: There are a number of folks who have been longtime technical assistance providers, who are now pivoting to provide some expertise to states. And, technical assistance is this term that we’re really throwing around now, and it means a number of different things. It means direct subject matter expertise, like the technical details about the best ways to deploy a charging station, but it could also mean grant writing, or just adding the capacity to do this work. So, there are a number of folks who are pivoting towards that. The federal government just announced these Thriving Communities Technical Assistance Centers (TCTACs) that they’re setting up for environmental justice, and there are a lot of different ways our networks can work together. I know some of the folks in the philanthropic foundation space are working on bringing together the network of technical assistance providers to make sure that we’re all filling in gaps.
Melissa Hampe: One thing you can do is take advantage of the other free resources. There are a lot of great guides that agencies are posting, a lot around how to put a budget together, what indirect costs mean, and then there’s also webinars. I definitely encourage people to attend the webinars where you can ask questions in real time. And sometimes, they’ll put some things on a Frequently Asked Questions document, so you want to look at those as well, because those continue to change for each funding announcement. So definitely keep track of your agencies and the funding announcement pages.
Q: What have you observed to be the most successful state structures or models for building cross-sectoral involvement in order to obtain federal funding?
Jasmine McAdams: I can speak to ones that I alluded to earlier: it’s just to leverage some of the existing or previous engagement that the state has already participated in. One example of this in Michigan, there’s the MI Healthy Climate initiative, a series of stakeholder engagement meetings that have been taking place over the last few years. And so this is one place where, at least for the Grid Resilience and Innovation Partnerships (GRIP) Program, there was a lot of momentum coming from that, around who are the key stakeholders involved. Michigan had already engaged with them previously, and gotten a sense of what they prioritized, in terms of specific measures or goals. That’s a great starting point. In addition to that, some states also have different advisory committee structures, particularly focused on environmental justice. And so this could be another place where, a lot of times, there are appointed positions for members of the community. So, that would be one place to go and try to get connected with, ask these advisory committees how to get connected with their respective communities.
Melissa Hampe: I can give a shoutout to — and granted, this is in a small state, it might not work in larger states — the state of Hawaii’s Broadband Hui. Broadband is still very connected to climate and getting over the digital divide. One thing that the Hui, essentially group or partnership in Hawaiian language, has been doing is meeting right from the beginning of COVID, every week, more than 140 meetings to date. And they’ve grown to more than 500 members, cross-sector, across every bit of the community, as well as bringing in federal agency and national speakers. Really coming together and knitting together the funding ideas, in a true collaborative sense, across all sectors, walks of life, economic strata, so that they can have a really robust funding submission go in. It does take a lot of time, it takes resources, and it’s something you have to build block by block.
Delivering on the goals of IIJA, IRA, and Justice40 requires building robust, collaborative networks both within and across state lines. Federal funding can be a critical resource for states looking to effectively and equitably implement their climate goals. However, unlocking the full potential of these federal funding sources can be a challenge for state and local governments, requiring staff capacity and expertise to effectively complete applications and distribute awarded funds. Technical assistance providers like SFRP are providing this support to bring the best practices to every state and program, across all sectors. Reach out to SFRP via its website to learn more and request assistance.