To understand what a federal award is, let’s begin with the plain English definition of award (noun): “something that is conferred or bestowed especially on the basis of merit or need” (Merriam-Webster). For our purposes, we also need to look at definition 2(b) for award (noun): “the document containing the decision of arbitrators.”
In the context of U.S. Federal government financial assistance, the phrase “federal award” has specific meaning. Let’s now examine the authoritative source, the OMB Uniform Guidance for Awards:
“Federal award has the meaning, depending on the context, in either paragraph (a) or (b) of this section:
“a)(1) The Federal financial assistance that a non-Federal entity receives directly from a Federal awarding agency or indirectly from a pass-through entity, as described in §200.101 Applicability; or (2) The cost-reimbursement contract under the Federal Acquisition Regulations that a non-Federal entity receives directly from a Federal awarding agency or indirectly from a pass-through entity, as described in §200.101 Applicability.
(b) The instrument setting forth the terms and conditions. The instrument is the grant agreement, cooperative agreement, other agreement for assistance covered in paragraph (b) of §200.40 Federal financial assistance, or the cost-reimbursement contract awarded under the Federal Acquisition Regulations.”
Okay, if you are starting to scratch your head, stick with me for a few more paragraphs.
First, federal financial assistance is a broad term referring to “the transfer of anything of value, most often money, from a federal agency to a non-federal entity” (What Is Financial Assistance?). Grants and cooperative agreements are two common types of federal financial assistance.
Notice that a “contract” is not a type of federal financial assistance. Without getting too far off track, there are a significant number of rules and regulations governing the use of contracts, and “contract” has a specific, distinct definition that differentiates it from federal financial assistance.
Second, “award”, used as a noun, is the legal instrument (i.e., a document) constituting the official agreement between the federal and non-federal entities. So, a federal award is that legal instrument through which you (i.e., an applicant) are, well, awarded a grant agreement or cooperative agreement by a federal grant-making agency (i.e., a grantor).
When a federal agency awards a grant, they make a decision based on the Application Review Process in the Pre-Award Phase. “Awards” is used as a transitive verb in the previous sentence.