What Is a Grant? [Updated]

A grant is one of the government’s tools for funding ideas and projects to provide public services, stimulate the economy, and benefit the general public. Grants can be awarded for a wide-variety of activities, such as innovative research, recovery initiatives, infrastructure building, or any of the other hundreds of funding programs in the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance (CFDA).

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Examples of U.S. federal grant programs include those that support justice and law enforcement, social services and health research, and research in science and technology.

The process of successfully serving the public through grants, though, can be quite complex. Grant programs originate from laws, and then are administered by the appropriate federal agency. For example:

  • The Agricultural Research, Extension, and Education Reform Act of 1998 was signed into law
  • Per the law, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) must administer the National Food Safety Training, Education, Extension, Outreach, and Technical Assistance Competitive Grants Program, which is CFDA 10.328
  • USDA publishes funding opportunities on Grants.gov
  • Eligible organizations submit applications
  • USDA reviews applications and awards the grant
  • Awardees (i.e., the grant recipients) implement the grant
  • Many more post award activities occur, like reporting and closeout

Definition of a Grant Agreement

Grants are actually just one of many different forms of federal financial assistance. Federal financial assistance is a broad term to refer to the various ways the U.S. government redistributes resources to eligible recipients. Other forms of federal financial assistance that are not grants include direct appropriations, food commodities, loans, insurance, and others.

Basic Definition: A grant is the transfer of anything of value from the Federal Government to a non-federal entity to carry out a public purpose authorized by U.S. law.

A grant does not provide for substantial involvement from the federal awarding agency (unlike a cooperative agreement, which includes substantial involvement). (The official definition of ‘grant agreement’ is on our Grant Terminology page).

Grant Types: There are several different types of grants which affect how the grants are awarded and implemented. Here’s more about the main grant types:

Next Steps—Learning

To learn more basics about the grant lifecycle and process, go the Grants 101 section of our Grants Learning Center.

To learn more about eligibility for grants or other forms of federal financial assistance, check out the Grant Eligibility page or Exploring Eligibility blog series.

To dive deeper into Grant Policies that further define what a grant is and how grants are managed, read the What Is the OMB Uniform Guidance for Grants? blog article. This will launch you further into the world of federal grant policies.

Next Steps—Finding and Applying

If you are ready to get started, your next steps are to search for a funding opportunity and then apply for the grant! For more help along the way, refer to the Grants.gov Online User Guide or Support page.

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Editor’s Note: We updated & expanded this article to create a more complete answer to the question—what is a grant? The original publication on May 4, 2016, was our first entry in the ‘What Is…” series, which makes grants more accessible by discussing the grant lifecycle and grant types.


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