Winter-Spring 2002

Stopping in at TOP
by Phil Shapiro

The Technology Opportunities Program (TOP) at the U. S. Department of Commerce funds inventors. Not technical inventors, but social inventors, people who have ideas for using new technology in ways that create a substantial positive impact on their communities—improving health, safety, housing and job opportunities.

Steve Downs
Steve Downs

TOP grants have been given out for the past nine years to nonprofit organizations as well as state and tribal governments. Stephen Downs, the director of TOP, explains, "Here at TOP we're not excited about the technology itself, but in the ways people have devised to use it that positively impacts their communities. We're on the lookout for innovations that bubble up from local communities."

Thomas Hardy
Thomas Hardy

Admittedly, the TOP grants are one of the most competitive Federal grants. Thomas Hardy, Program Officer at TOP, explains this year they expect to receive about 650 to 700 grant proposals, but will fund only about 30. Hardy and other grant officers read hundreds of grant proposals and are involved in selecting grant reviewers. Hardy explains that community activists are the kinds of people TOP grants are intended to help, visionaries whose sole roadblock to a widely successful project is seed funding.

Losers Become Winners

Despite the competitiveness of the TOP grants, there is much to be gained by submitting a grant proposal to TOP, even if your proposal is not funded. TOP staffers are there to help you during the grant writing process. They'll answer any of your questions. Email contact works well although they willingly take phone calls.

Grant proposals that are not funded have their executive summary published on the TOP web site, allowing the public (and possibly other funders) to examine the ideas in the proposal. Thomas Hardy and the other program officers take time giving feedback to unfunded grant applicants so that their grants can be resubmitted to TOP or to other funding sources.

TOP Web Site
Dr. Bernadette McGuire-Rivera
Dr. Bernadette McGuire-Rivera

TOP is also involved in publishing reports as well as running an annual conference, "Networks for People."  Dr. Bernadette McGuire-Rivera says the TOP web site is a rich source of information for potential grantees and passed along this helpful tip: "Read over the info about the grants that we have previously funded to see the kinds of things we'll be funding in the future. If your idea seems like a logical next step to the progression of ideas that TOP has funded, we want to hear about it."  If nothing else, the TOP web site is a fascinating chronicle of heroes impacting their communities in new ways.

Stephen Downs added the useful caution, "CTCs are well-situated to submit TOP grant proposals since CTCs typically have an existing network of contacts in the community. However, TOP does not fund 'access' projects. We're looking for innovative ideas more than worthy causes. If you feel your CTC has an exciting new way of doing something, that's when we'd like to hear from you."

In past years TOP has funded some CTCNet affiliates including Plugged In, the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks, and TINCAN.  Plugged In received an initial grant in 1995 and this year a second grant, this time for $850,000. Details of these and other grants are available through the searchable TOP database.

Downs says that TOP is especially on the lookout for community-building solutions using broadband and wireless technologies. Almost all TOP grantees use the Internet in some way, although TOP usually does not fund web site development. TOP grants also have the benefit of being broadly focused. While other Federal grants are tailored to a very specific purpose, TOP grants are more open-ended—extending to community arts projects.

Judy Sparrow
Judith Sparrow

Judith Sparrow, another program officer at TOP, says she's very happy to give advice to folks who want to know whether they're on the right track with their grant proposal. Sparrow was involved in Plugged In's first TOP grant and has watched that program grow to gain national attention and sponsors. Phone numbers and email addresses for all staff are readily available at the web site.

The Future of TOP

TOP's continued success depends on innovative, hard-working community activists coming up with fresh new ideas. Stephen Downs urges people to "dream big," to conjure up ideas of what could be possible while at the same time staying realistic. Interestingly enough, we in the CTC movement can support TOP by submitting grant proposals—and executing well on those that are funded.

You can stay in the loop about TOP news by signing up for their low-volume one-way announcements email list. Due dates for proposals are traditionally in March, this year on the 21st. Got a great idea? Go for it!

Phil Shapiro worked as the Washington DC Regional Coordinator for CTCNet between 1997 and 1999. He currently works as an Instructional Technology Coordinator in the Arlington, Virginia public schools, and is known for his multimedia as well as personal online resources.

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