A colleague who writes research grants recently brought something to my attention that totally surprised me. I have been in the grants field for more than 10 years, and I have to say, this is the first time I have ever seen this on a funder’s web site. I even did a Google search to see if any other funders were doing this, but I couldn’t find any. So, what is this mysterious development? Would you believe…charging an application fee for submitting a grant?

The funder in question is the Prevent Cancer Foundation, a national, nonprofit health foundation whose mission is to prevent a chronic disease through scientific research and education. Through grants and fellowships, the foundation supports research projects, educational programs dealing with prevention, early detection projects, and behavioral intervention projects. Applicants are required to submit a $50 application fee with their proposal, and the web site states that applications without the fee will not be considered for funding.

This fee got me thinking about why a grantor would charge entities for the right to apply–and is it possible that this could be the start of a new, somewhat alarming trend?

I scoured the foundation’s web site to learn the purpose of the application fee, but I could not find any information about the reasoning behind the fee or how the foundation spends this money.

Another colleague in the development field suggested that the fee might be a way for the foundation to receive only "genuine applications." In other words, if you aren’t really serious about applying for funding, you certainly would not send in a fee–nor would you submit an application.

Are these fees used to pay for reviewing the proposals? I can empathize with program officers, as I’m sure they receive many proposals that are poorly written or, worse yet, do not even match the foundation’s funding interests. But charging applicants for the time it takes program officers to review proposals? That seems quite strange to me.

Curious about his development, I called the foundation and asked about the fee. I was told the organization has to recover the cost of every online application, because it costs about $100 to process each one. (Huh? Didn’t funders move to an online application process because it’s cheaper and more cost effective?) The woman I talked with also said the fees cover some of the foundation’s administrative costs.

The foundation did not provide any information about returning the fee if a grant is not awarded, so I assume that it keeps all of the fees it collects. This foundation doles out significant grant dollars each year–nearly $50,000 per year. You’d think it would use part of its endowment to pay these administrative costs, rather than passing them along to applicants. It seems ironic to me that someone who is applying for grant funds to implement a project is expected to pay for his or her request to be considered.

What do you think of this practice? As I stated at the beginning of this column, I have not seen a funder charge a fee for a grant application before–but perhaps you have. If so, please send me an eMail message and tell me a little bit about the funder and the grant program. If there are enough responses, I’ll write a follow-up column to identify this emerging trend in the grants field and to give grant seekers a heads up about this new development.

In the meantime, I hope this practice does not become the norm for all funders–or I’m afraid there will be fewer applicants pursuing grant funding.