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To Win Federal Grants, Have a Community Engagement Strategy: Lessons Learned from the U.S. Conference of Mayors

One thing was clear at last month’s U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington DC: though it’s been two years since this many mayors gathered in one place, mayors are just as thoughtful, passionate, and well-dressed as they were in 2020 before our world shut down.

Zencity has been an enthusiastic Business Council Member of USCM for the past 5 years, and we were blown away by the incredible speakers and facilitators who attended, from Vanita Gupta, former CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and current Associate Attorney General all the way to our 46th President Joe Biden himself. 

With a hard-hitting lineup of speakers, the biggest takeaway from 2022’s USCM was echoed by every federal representative who spoke on stage to the hundreds of listening mayors. Hint: it was all connected to funding, funding, funding! In short, the American Rescue Plan Act and other grant opportunities are here to fund almost every need that city leaders have. Better yet, federal agencies are impatient to get money out the door to support these needs ASAP. With that in mind, we gathered the key grants you should be aware of, and how to help ensure you are a competitive applicant.

Building a community engagement strategy

How can you guarantee that your grant application will win the funding you so need? Federal representatives like Alan Davidson (Assistant Secretary of Commerce and Director of Telecommunications), Christopher Coes (Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary at U.S. Department of Transportation), and Radhika Fox, (Assistant Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency) all consistently gave the same advice: if you want to submit the most attractive grant application and win the available funding, do two things.

  1. Start your community engagement process NOW. ARPA funds and other funding programs are interested in knowing that your programs are both necessary and that they will be successful—this is why the federal government is encouraging all grantees to create a community engagement process around ARPA. Investigate how to get resident feedback and incorporate it into your project plan. Federal granting programs have all said that grantees with community engagement plans in their applications will be more competitive.
  2. Think about equity. Whether you’re thinking about how to meet your community’s broadband goals or where to put electrical car chargers, be strategic about building a plan that supports your entire community equitably–focus on historically under-supported communities, like the Black community, the non-native English-speaking community, or low-income communities.

Grants for local government

What we heard consistently from people like Mitch Landrieu, former mayor of New Orleans and current Senior Infrastructure Advisor, is that local government is where policy meets the road and that local leaders are the critical link to America’s COVID recovery. While we all know about ARPA funding, all of the following federal departments are offering grants and technical assistance to support city leaders in being innovative at home. 

Looking for specific grant opportunities and programs? Check out all of the resources below that address the following challenges:


Workforce development:

  • Get a grant to employ homeless veterans with the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program (HVRP) due February 23rd
  • Check back here for a full list of available grants through the Department of Labor

Climate resilience:


High-speed internet/broadband:

Check back here for the final listening session for the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Broadband Program coming up on February 23rd, from 2:30–4:00 p.m. ET


Need more ideas on how cities are spending down their ARPA funds? Check out the National League of Cities’ ARPA Action Tracker to get ideas to help jumpstart your own applications. Also, check out this Results for America ARPA impact measurement tool. 

Jumpstarting Your Community Engagement Process

Looking for a tool to jumpstart your community engagement and support your federal grant application or program evaluation process? Zencity’s community engagement tools are an ARPA-eligible expense, as defined by the U.S. Treasury Department. We offer a variety of interlocking tools in our Zencity platform that support a full suite of civic engagement needs:

Organic solutions

Get a better understanding of what your residents are already talking about. By using our organic product, you can better understand the conversation already happening across publicly available sources, like social & local media and 311/211 tickets. Zencity analyzes this data, develops reports, provides actionable insights, and helps you visualize your data on an easy-to-view dashboard. 

Proactive solutions

Identify specific issues that you want to gather resident feedback around. By identifying specific priorities, you can use this tool to ask specific questions of your residents, getting a representative sample. Gather feedback on any issue using recurring & one-time scientific surveys.

Collaborative solutions

Shape and discuss ideas over interactive digital forums, together with your community. Use this tool to gather ideas on what is the best use of ARPA funding and invite collaboration from residents with both you and fellow residents. Residents will have the ability to “upvote” and “downvote” their neighbor's ideas on how to address certain problems.


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