What You’ll Learn

Grant writing has become a significant part of Will O’Donnell’s job. He shares tips for applying for grants and why he thinks communicators — with some help from other teams — can be excellent folks to write the grants.

Guest Speaker

Will O’Donnell

Show Notes

Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.


Intro: A production of Pioneer Utility Resources. StoryConnect, helping communicators discover ideas to shape their stories and connect with their customers.

Andy Johns: What are some tips for communicators taking that scary step into grant writing? That’s what we’ll be talking about on this episode of StoryConnect: The Podcast. My name is Andy Johns, your host with Pioneer Utility Resources, and I’m joined on this episode by Will O’Donnell, who is the broadband and communications director for Jefferson County PUD, way up in the northwest corner of Washington. Will, thanks for joining me.

Will O’Donnell: Hey, thanks for having me. Glad to be here.

Andy Johns: It’s Port Townsend, where you are, correct?

Will O’Donnell: Port Townsend is our central and only township.

Andy Johns: Okay. There you go. Well, Will was nice enough to be willing to join me on this episode. We were talking about some of what he’s been doing. His role has changed a little bit. We were out at the NIC Conference out there in Anchorage, actually got to hike on a glacier with Will out there, which was pretty cool. I don’t get to say that about most people. But we were talking out there about the grant writing roles that you had to take a little bit of – and there are obviously a lot of grant opportunities out there right now. So I guess let’s talk first just a little bit about how your role has changed, Will, and what some of the new skills that you had to pick up along along the way?

Will O’Donnell: Sure. Yeah. Yeah. I started at our utility about five years ago. I had no utility experience coming in. I had worked as an executive director for a couple of nonprofits, and then before that I had run, started my own businesses. So I’d always done a lot of communications, done a lot of marketing, all those kind of things. I was really excited. Our community did a whole campaign to try to take the power public, to take the electric grid public from a private company that owned it. In the early 2000s, the private company that owned our local power grid had outsourced all the employees, laid everybody off in the territory, and then had contractors moving in and just had remote customer service and –.

Andy Johns: Interesting.

Will O’Donnell: Outage response – just every aspect of trying to deal with the company, performance went down, and people noticed and were not happy. And a group of citizens saw in the Washington state law that you can actually condemn the assets of public utility district in the Old Grange rules that were passed in 1938 during Works Project Administration and all that. That’s how a lot of our local public utilities got started in the electric business and co-ops and things like that. Our public utility was formed at that time to be an electric utility, but never, never happened. In fact, we weren’t even a water utility until 1981. We were just a Jefferson County PUD Number One on the books, but not operating anything until 1981.

Andy Johns: And then so, and that’s a good story to tell, certainly. Then along the way, in addition to electricity, broadband, or Internet service, became a thing as well. So how recently did you all make that that jump? And then with that, your role changed as well.

Will O’Donnell: So fast forward to 2017, and I was working in Seattle, but my kids were in Port Townsend. And I was spending four days a week in Seattle, three days a week in Port Townsend. It’s about a two hour commute. And I was getting pretty exhausted. And I had always been, I’ve always spent a lot of time with my kids. I love my kids. I’m a hands on dad, and I didn’t want to be anything else. So this job came open. It was their first dedicated communications position. I had a lot of opinions on how they could do their communications better, and I told them so in the interview. They hired me, and we were off to the races. And our first challenge out the door was convincing the public to accept smart meters. And that went over like a lead balloon.

Andy Johns: Yeah.

Will O’Donnell: And so it was very interesting. All the planning and all of the process had already been started. The contract had been signed to do the install and buy the meters. And about a month after I started, not even a month, just three weeks after I started, we had like a prescheduled town hall meeting. 75 people came, and they cried, shouted, accused us of all kinds of things and effectively stopped the smart meter installation. Well, they didn’t stop it. We debated it for the next six months and just about anything else.

Andy Johns: Stalled it, for sure.

Will O’Donnell: They installed it. Yeah. So that was my intro into the PUD. And it was interesting, you know, a lot of those folks that were really opposed to the smart meters were folks I knew, folks that were involved in the farmer’s market, that shopped at our local food co-op where I’d spend a lot of time. So I was hoping to make more inroads, and I really was not able to. It was an interesting time to join in and kind of fall on my face right out the gate. And it taught me an interesting lesson, and we’ll go back to that with broadband, is just that you got to have more consensus and resolve in your organization to take on any kind of big initiative like that. So with broadband, how that relates is we were in our county, there’s just such terrible Internet access. We’ve got mountains and hills and practically fjords of long salt water valleys coming up. So it’s not easy to move wires around. And most folks in our county are on DSL. A lot of the DSL systems were tapped out. Internet’s becoming more popular. People are like, “Why can’t we get decent Internet?” And they also usually can’t get cell service in these places where they can’t get even decent DSL, or they’re barely getting a megabyte down and not up.

Will O’Donnell: So people were coming to us. Some of our commissioners, our elected officials, were gung ho, others were – we were pretty much, we have three elected officials at that time. One was against, one was passionately for, and one was not really that interested either way. So what I wanted to do, because it was something that was coming up so much, is I looked around and found a strategic planning grant through the Washington State Department of Commerce. We applied for it. That way, we would just try to have a little process where we meet with the community and try to come to some consensus on where we wanted to go with our broadband plan. We obviously had 20 miles of fiber. We were adding to that for our own SCADA system for the utility. How could we make it so it was feasible for us to add more customers and to engage local ISPs to partner with us? That was the other struggle for us, is we didn’t have many local ISPs, and the ones we had weren’t interested in spending a lot of money to grow in the way that would be necessary to reach those rural customers. So we went out –

Andy Johns: And like you said, I know those are expensive builds and when you’re talking about the topography and natural barriers you all have out there, I’m sure that when you started looking at feasibility, there’s a reason why there wasn’t a lot of availability out there, because it’s hard work.

Will O’Donnell: Yeah. I mean, I was always under the impression that we’re the local utility. We serve the people if they have this need, that’s a utility need that we’re by law allowed to provide, that we should we should provide it. But after seven months of doing a strategic plan, the results were we don’t know what to do. There was clearly demand, but it was unclear if it would pay for itself. And it was unclear if we could even under the open access model, get ISPs to come. I was cold calling them, asking them what it would take, how do we partner with them? And I would get some tepid response of, “Yeah, maybe we should meet in the future,” and nothing would come of it. So, we ended up that with some options, but they weren’t super – it wasn’t a clear green light. It was a yellow light in the fog, which, you know, maybe for some folks would be the reason to say, “Okay, let’s just pause this.” We were able to get a second strategic planning grant, and we really went at the business planning side of it to really look at the numbers in that second strategic planning grant from the Washington State Department of Commerce.

Will O’Donnell: And we wanted to do it, as, I want to say, as harsh as possible to really look at it what would it take, what were all the different ways that we would lose money, and what were the few ways that we might break even? So we had about 20 different ways that we would lose money, and two options for making it break even or better. And the two options were (1) we get retail authority, which the Washington state didn’t allow PUDs to have retail authority to actually provide the Internet service at the time. Municipalities could do it, but PUDs could not. Co-ops could do it; PUDs could not. And then we needed to have it be largely grant funded. So COVID comes along and all of a sudden the government releases the funds, and then Washington state legislature changes the law to allow PUDs to be retail ISPs.

Andy Johns: Sure.

Will O’Donnell: So we’re giving the flashing green light.

Andy Johns: Yeah. All across the country, governments were loosening up everything. And when that demand was there, and everybody was virtual school and working from home and there was that need for it. That’s one positive to come out of all that is there were a lot of laws like that were dropped or changed or regulations made easier for folks like yourself to make it happen.

Will O’Donnell: Yeah. And it just made it clear during the middle of our study that, you know, that all of a sudden half of our employees were working from home. More than half. All of our board meetings were remote, and they were very difficult because people had terrible connections. And then the school issues, obviously we had so many kids who couldn’t access the Internet. We were building the drive-in hotspots around our county, which was a great effort, and it was a statewide effort, and we were glad to be a part of it. But it’s just something sad about kids having to drive somewhere and do their homework in a car in a parking lot. You know, to me it just felt like we had to do more. I think they were a little surprised when we really have been so aggressive about going after all of these grants. And then we started getting all of them, and now it’s, “Oh, my God, we’re really in the business. We have to do that.” And we haven’t started building yet. That happens after the New Year. So that’s going to be, each step is a bigger challenge. You know, be careful, be careful what you wish for. Writing all these grants has been among the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And now I’ve got to help oversee construction and get the whole business off the ground. So it’s going to be harder still. But I’m excited about the challenge, and so is our utility.

Andy Johns: Sure. One of the things that puts those odds more in your favor, as you said, is some of those grants. That’s what they’re out there to do, is to help make it work. So which kind of grants, you mentioned the grants about the strategic planning that you got early on. Which kind of grants have you all applied for and gotten here the last few months?

Will O’Donnell: Yeah. So we were prepping to do an application to the NTIA for their broadband. It was the VIP program, I can’t remember what the acronym stands for, infrastructure projects. And our state then stepped in, and they became the lead applicant, and we were a sub applicant. We received that award. And then we had another round of state grants that was administered with the ARPA funding. We received those grants. We have a local public works board. We got two grants from them. One won $1,000,000 to connect a very small rural area, and another 2 million to build fiber to our business district. That one is a loan, but it’s 0.4% interest over 30 years, so it’s pretty hard to beat.

Andy Johns: Yeah.

Will O’Donnell: And unbelievably, we were the only ones in the state to apply. Just our utility. Nobody else. No other municipalities. I mean, I couldn’t believe it when I read the initial announcement of the grant. They had the definition of unserved for a business area was one gigabyte down and 50 megabytes up. In Jefferson County, nobody provides that. We have sort of one gigabyte down from our local cable companies, but they don’t provide 50 megabytes up. And in fact, I wrote them to inform them, we were going to apply so that they could challenge if they wanted to. And they wrote me a letter saying, we serve that area. We provide one gigabyte down and 20 megabytes up. We consider that area served. And I was like, “Thank you very much, just prove my case for me.”

Andy Johns: Yeah, because 30 up was the threshold, right?

Will O’Donnell: 50 up.

Andy Johns: 50

Will O’Donnell: 50 up, which they can’t do. Yeah.

Andy Johns: They can’t do. Interesting.

Will O’Donnell: So we got that. So we’ll be building to our local businesses as well, which some folks are a little upset about because the first goal was to get the unserved customers. Why are you also focusing on the business customers? Well, our business customers can’t get better Internet. I mean, they want to have symmetrical gigabit Internet. They can’t get it. It’s kind of ridiculous that they can’t. And with that kind of opportunity, I just didn’t feel like I could pass it up.

Andy Johns: Yeah, definitely so. So let’s talk about the communications side of things. So that’s what you had been doing before. But then the grant writing is, I don’t know, as somebody who has been a writer for a long time, grant writing always seemed like this mystical, scary other form of writing that was always kind of intimidating. But as you get in, and as I understand it, you had to be the one to do a lot of the writing and gathering stuff together for those grants. Is that correct? What were some of the things that you learned when you had to shift gears and do some of that grant writing?

Will O’Donnell: I think we talked about this at dinner one night in Anchorage. My first metaphor for grant writing would be it’s like investigative journalism and doing your taxes. So if you’ve been a reporter and you’ve had to research a story and you’ve had to really research it, like if you’re going to try to figure out the the inner workings of some local law or something like that or some sort of corporate espionage, then you’ve got to immerse yourself in how the whole system works. That’s a little bit what like grant writing is. You’ve got to read these ridiculous rules and kind of cut through to the heart of what it means. And then, you don’t have to provide any narrative or emotion, but if you do and you can kind of see through to the heart of what you’re offering – because it’s generally for a public good – you’re just going to have that little bit of shine on your application that other folks are not going to be able to bring when it’s just being prepared by an engineering firm or the engineering department. The engineering department is great, but they look at things a little bit differently. In fact, I would say the best thing is you need a partner like the engineering department, or you need an engineering consultant to make the best kind of application because you need to have both the technical side and a little bit of the narrative side. What I have found is that you have to like that reading between the lines, you have to know what the grant makers are wanting, which is not always what exactly what you’re wanting to do with your project. They have a certain set of goals that they’re trying to pass on to the legislature that they’re trying to enact based on other things like that and you have your own departmental goals. You’ve got to figure out a way to make the case that you’re serving them as well as you’re serving your own needs, if that makes sense.

Andy Johns: Okay. So those are some of the tips there. And you had some success with those. Sometimes you can learn from the grants that you don’t get. So what are some of the things that you learned along the way from maybe some of the grants that you weren’t fortunate to receive? If we can talk about a painful topic here.

Will O’Donnell: No, not painful at all. I mean, that’s how you learn. I’ve been lucky that most of the grants I’ve applied for, I’ve received. But a couple that I applied for, two of them, twice, that I thought were no brainers, and both times we came up so short. And it’s again that what I applied for was not at all what – and what was advertised – was not at all what the funders wanted. So we applied for the Defense Community Infrastructure Program, the DCIP. It’s a federal program. They give out a lot of money to improve infrastructure serving local military bases. We have a strange island in Jefferson County, which is an ammunition depot, including like depleted uranium and stuff like that, and defense destroyers and even small aircraft carriers pull in, and they load them up with all the weapons, and then they go out.

Andy Johns: Interesting.

Will O’Donnell: So and there’s not a lot of folks on that base, but there are a number. And they are on one of our worst feeders. So they’re always going out of power, and they’ve got giant diesel generators to back them up. So it’s not really a big deal, or they’ll just do the power off the ship. But they’ve been wanting to reduce their carbon footprint. They invested in cleaner generators. They want to have more secure firm power from us, and we wanted to upgrade the feeder in the substation that’s serving them. So we put an application for $2 million to add another bay to our substation, and then we would match it with putting in a new feeder out to the island. We were ranked right about at the bottom of applications, and everything that got funded was a daycare center, a park, all of these things that did not sound like infrastructure programs, but they were one of the – at the last minute – one of the high up admirals had put in that he wanted it to improve quality of life for the bases. So that became the highest point total. And we didn’t have a huge number of people there. We were more like about reducing carbon and having more reliable, more resilient power.

Will O’Donnell: So we just didn’t even come close, and we were kind of miffed. I was miffed because I put a lot of energy into it, that wasn’t even what I thought I applied for. So I met with the base again. We applied the next year. They assured me this time it’s really for hard infrastructure. Let’s do it. And then when I was refreshing our same application, I realized, “Oh, what we really should be doing is we should be asking for funding to put in the new feeder. That’s what they really need.” The second bay on the substation for us is great, but it is not as essential towards keeping them reliable. And it was too late. I didn’t have enough time to change it up, but again it was just trying to get at the heart of the matter, what is really important to them. And again, we did not get the money, but it was an interesting process, and it was interesting to go through the motions. Federal grants are really difficult, much more difficult than your local state grants. So I would advise folks to look at being part of their state grants first, looking on a smaller scale. And then also to go into it with a little bit of a different mindset because it’s not just a sales pitch. It’s not just telling the story.

Will O’Donnell: You have to create a business plan. You really have to figure out how much money you need. What are you going to do with that money? What the money is going to be for? How does it meet the rules? All of these things. How does it engage with your procurement manual? And as the communications person, that might not be your role in it. But if you’re going to be heading those things up, you have to know a little bit about that. And in the early 2000s, I started a couple of businesses, and I did those business plans. I hated math growing up, but I love spreadsheets. So it’s always a little bit of fun for me because it’s a creative act to kind of move those columns around, move those rows around, and you’re creating something in real life. You may be creating something more impactful in real life than you’ve ever created. Writing a short story, or that’s the fun part about the about spreadsheets, or that’s my take on it.

Andy Johns: Yeah. So a couple of things to unpack there. First one, I think will be a quicker one, and then we can get into how you get started. But you talked about refreshing a grant application. When you’re doing these and obviously there’s not much I don’t imagine that carries over from a DCIP grant, strictly on the electric side to broadband for different community. But how much of these, this grant writing, how much are you able to kind of borrow or move over? How much are you just refreshing kind of what you had had done before with some more specifics? And how much is just blank paper start from scratch on the grant writing? Is there much carryover between grants? Were you able to use some of the same content?

Will O’Donnell: I’ll say that again. The you’re going to be more successful if you’ve done strategic plans, if you have done department planning, all of those things where you have material to draw on. So you’re not creating everything from scratch because oftentimes the grant is announced, and then you have a month, two months to get it done. And if you’re making it all up as you go along, your case is going to be weaker versus if you’ve done the work ahead of time. For Jefferson County PUD and our broadband grants, we spent two and a half years on strategic planning. Two and a half years in which we had some bitter fights internally about what we were going to do and what mattered to us and and how important it was to our customers. But in the process, we did a lot of the groundwork. We had already had low income rates. We had programs in our community for digital equity. We had formed a local community, what’s called a broadband action team in the process of doing the strategic plans. And it turns out in those early grant applications from the state of Washington for broadband funding, they wanted you to have all those things, and we had them all. And that gave us an advantage. We didn’t have all those things because we knew that they were going to be necessary. They were just byproducts of having gone through the process. You know, and moving into the broadband sphere is a community process. You’re serving your community. You’re growing your utility business. So it’s hard work to do, but engaging that broader utility or broader community is so essential, and that’s really work that the communications department can shine in.

Andy Johns: Definitely. And that answer leads to a couple more questions, but I’m going to stick to the one from earlier. So where do you start? Let’s say tomorrow you hear about a new grant that’s out there that you think might be a good fit. And you have, you know, like you said, a month or two to apply for it. Where do you start? I guess the first step, you’ve kind of evaluating whether or not you’re going to apply for it. But then after that, do you start pulling a team together? Is it you that just starts writing? I mean, how do you even start?

Will O’Donnell: Yeah, at this point, I’m the project manager. We’ve been lucky that we’ve got a consulting firm that we’ve worked through that does a lot of the number crunching because they’ve been in this game for over 20 years, and they’ve helped lots of utilities apply for grants. So we designate an area. They crunch the numbers. They do the preliminary engineering. They spit that out. They give it back to me, and then I start pulling in all the supporting information, and then punching the numbers into the format that the state agency or the federal agency wants to do the application. But the big thing that I would say is you’ve got to know your odds of getting that grant. In the last round, we just applied for an $18 million ReConnect grant. We were prepping an application last, I started this work in the fall of 2021 to prepare for ReConnect 3, which was in February/March timeframe. We didn’t make it. We were just too busy. I was overwhelmed. I couldn’t get that in time. We put that one on hold to go to the next round, and I’m glad we did for a couple of reasons. If we had gone for ReConnect 3, we’d have gone for 100% grant. When I saw the areas that were awarded the 100% grant (1) there wasn’t a lot of them. (2) They were so remote and isolated. We would never have competed.

Will O’Donnell: We did not have the poverty levels. We’re considered a distressed county in our state. But compared to areas of rural Alaska, rural Arizona, and rural Mississippi, we might as well be a wealthy urban area. So we would not have, we would not have won that, and that would have been a ton of work because those are huge grants.

Andy Johns: For sure.

Will O’Donnell: Huge applications. So what we did is we actually we talked it through, and we decided to go for a grant/loan combination 50-50 grant-loan. Because it’s months of work to prep everything and put it together. We want to have a better shot of winning. Now, a loan is not obviously as good as having a grant, but if you can’t get a grant at all because you can’t be competitive, but you can be competitive if you’re in this category, then I would go for it. And the same with like with the state grants. If it’s a $30 million pot of money total that they have to give out, don’t put in a $20 million application. Don’t do it unless you are really, you really have your game worked, out and you know that you meet everything to a tee, and you’ve probably know the funders. And you’ve got the inside track. You’re just not going to get it, especially if you’ve never gotten a grant before.

Will O’Donnell: Put in something smaller. Keep your scope more manageable. And you know what? We did that for one of our grants where I was wanting to be very careful. We put in $1,000,000 application, and then one of our neighboring PUDs got $20 million bucks. And I was like, “Damn! We should have been more aggressive.” But the next grant that came available, I went for $12 million, and we got it. So it was a good lesson. But the main thing is I wanted to get the money. I wanted to put in all the work and have it pay off. Because it’s so discouraging to put in all that work and a lot of staff time and maybe consulting time, and then not get it. So be very careful with your scope, and read the rules really carefully. Because so many folks, no matter how compelling of a case, no matter how many unserved or low income people, you’re going to help out, if you miss a couple of things – like not notifying the existing local ISP’s or not having your audited financial statements turned in – just little details like that. I mean, those are pretty big ones, but there’s some little details. If you just miss those, you’re out of the running. So that’s where that, you know, approach to looking at it like a tax return comes in handy.

Andy Johns: I was about to say you said investigative reporting and filling out tax returns and sounds like both are equally important. In closing here, last thing that I’ll ask you, that may have been the third or fourth time that I’ve said last question, but this is the real last question. What advice do you have for somebody like me who has seen grants out there, and just said, “You know, grant writing is too hard. You have to be a special grant writing person. You have to have experience to do that.” What advice would you have for somebody who may be looking at it and thinking, “Hey, there’s a grant out there that would really help my community, but I just don’t know what to do.”

Will O’Donnell: I would say get a coalition together and be part of a team to do it. And don’t be afraid. You know, also I would say, don’t apply for it. If it doesn’t – get your coalition together, read everything, get yourself a draft plan or a draft scope of work for how you’re going to address it. But if it looks like it’s not going to really work out or if what you need is not what the grant organization really wants to fund, don’t do it. It’s a lot of work. You know, it’s a lot of work for something if it’s a low shot of actually getting it. So you would be just as wise to not apply for things as you are to apply for it.

Andy Johns: So don’t be scared, but do be selective. Sounds like what I hear.

Will O’Donnell: I like that. Yeah. There you go. Thanks for putting those communications skills to work and summarizing that eloquently.

Andy Johns: Perfect. He is Will O’Donnell. He’s with the Jefferson PUD up there in Washington. Will, thanks for joining me.

Will O’Donnell: Hey, thanks, Andy.

Andy Johns: I’m Andy Johns, your host with Pioneer. And until we talk again, keep telling your story.

Outro: StoryConnect is produced by Pioneer Utility Resources, a communications cooperative that is built to share your story. StoryConnect is engineered by Lucas Smith of Lucky Sound Studio.