Category Archives: grant solutions

The Dark Side of Grant Writing

by Neva Fenno, M.S.Ed., MLIS

clock

Happy New Year, gentle reader! My resolution for this blog is to keep it fresh and very useful for fledgling grant writers in schools everywhere.

This article is part of a series of articles about grant writing for teachers and school personnel. I’ve been outlining steps to take in the process, and have provided you with some templates for your narratives, and a budget planning Excel document that will help you make sure you cover all the financial bases. This blog is part of a super Grants Database you can search for appropriate resources.

You’ve decided that grant writing is for you, the discipline required to meet deadlines is in your genetic code, you love the social nature of making relationships with the power brokers in your community, and you love the adulation you receive from the other teachers in your community. This is the pretty picture; most of you who have done this for a while know that there is a dark side to the grants world. We’ll talk a little bit about that today.

We’ll say you now have a couple of successful grant applications under your belt, you’ve made inroads in your community for developing a steady stream of funding from several sources, things are really going well. You were not, however, prepared for the enormous amount of time all of these activities have taken from your schedule. Your husband/wife is now permanently angry with you all the time for missing all those soccer matches that little Poindexter has played. The bags under your eyes are deeper than the Grand Canyon, and the laundry is about a week overdue.

Don’t despair, you will find ways to manage your time so that all can be accomplished, and you will even be graceful doing it. One of the keys is to delegate. Some sections of a grant narrative can be done by people who are eager to help. In an earlier blog I cautioned against writing grants in committee, it rarely produces a coherent application. However, to delegate some of the demographics paragraphs and maybe budget research is acceptable. You’ve made a list of the costs you will incur in your project, but someone else can help you get the three bids you’re going to need to find the lowest costs. This one is sort of fun, you get to work with vendors and learn to sweet talk them to a fair price. Don’t kid yourself, it is always negotiable. Someone accused me of being unfair to corporate America for doing this, come on now folks, think about that for a minute.

Another cast member in the dark side of the grant writing drama is the whiner. There’s a teacher in your building who snipes at you behind your back, suggesting that you don’t know what you are doing, and that your motives are impure. This person is making a career of trashing your work, and it isn’t fun. My solution to this one is to sit down with the whiner to try to find out what the real issues are. Chances are its jealousy; they want some of this limelight you are now basking in. A good solution to this is to find something for the whiner to do. Bring him into the fold, and then be sure to give him lots of credit for being helpful along the way. Amazing how fast the whining will stop.

There are other parts to the dark side, the fact that now that you’ve been successful, people expect this level of success on a regular basis. I can tell you from experience, there will be dry spells along the way, you will develop writer’s block on occasion, and life will intervene to take you away from the tasks of putting together an application. You are not a superhero, you do what you can, and it’s all you can do anyway.

So, grant writer that you are, suck up to the dark side, learn to embrace it, and continue on your path to glory.

It’s all for the kids anyway, right?

Please comment on this post, let me know if there are topics you’d like me to cover. I have a million stories to tell, seven years as a grants manager has taught me a few things and I’d love to share it all with you.

Grant Writing – Your New Career?

by Neva Fenno, M.S.Ed., MLIS

pen writing

You are well on your way to finishing your narrative for your grant application to XYZ Foundation. I’ve been concentrating on the technical aspects of grant writing so you’ll have a template, outline and budget planner to use for any grant application process. Just in time for the holidays, let’s step back and scratch the itch I know you’ve been developing. What’s is like to write grants for a living?

First, I need to help you distinguish between grant writing and grants management. If you’re getting really good at this, and enjoy the process (deadlines and stress included), you may want to explore the wonderful world of a career in grantsmanship. If you are the go-to grants person in your school, you are a grant writer. Your school district most likely has a business manager (many are deputy superintendents) who takes the proceeds of successful grant applications and manages the cash flow and expenditure of those funds. If you haven’t done this yet, make an appointment to sit down with the district business manager to explain your progress and interest in working with him/her to make this process smooth and professional.

If this relationship is already perking along, and you are comfortable with your role and the lines around which you actually experience the money, you’ll also want to make sure your principal is aware of your desires and professional management skills. Your district superintendent will want to be in on these discussions, leaving any one of those people out of your conversation is very bad practice, and your new career will end quickly.

I began my career as a teacher and library media specialist who wanted to bring in some funds to improve my school/s. Sound familiar? Believe me, it is intoxicating when the approval letters start to arrive, and checks are cut. Be sure your foundation managers know to whom they will be sending the funds, and how the checks should be endorsed and deposited. Most likely, you will never see the check, unless it’s a small local grant from a merchant in town who has heard of your project. It is critical that these checks are handled correctly and handed over promptly to the appropriate parties. Make copies of everything, put your paperwork in a binder, and keep it secure. Create a duplicate binder for your business manager and update it for her frequently. Hand deliver checks or send via certified mail.

Pretty soon in my grant writing career, I knew I wanted to do this again, and again, and ….. I had no idea where to take this new found ambition. You have now entered the spooky world of school district politics. The way you approach this, and the manner in which you communicate your intentions is very important. Transparency rocks!

I knew I wanted to broaden my education, so I went back to school to finish a master’s degree in educational administration. Good education junkie that I am, this degree program was heady and full of promise, and I happily completed it for many reasons having nothing to do with grants. The possibilities are endless for advancement in public (or private) education. School districts need great leaders. Keep in mind your school year will lengthen, summer vacations will vanish, and your colleagues will look at you in a whole new light. Don’t get bogged down by faculty room nattering about “those idiots downtown” even if you’ve jumped right in to those conversations in the past. If your plans pan out, you’re about to become an idiot.

My first administrative job in a large urban district was in the curriculum office. This was ideal for me, coming from special education and library media, I could now broaden my outlook to curriculum k-12, a great vantage from which to view the needs of your learning community. If you remember you are creating with standards as your guide (Common Core State Standards), and all subjects as your palette, you can start painting pictures that illustrate the road to the improvement of academic achievement for your students. Remember, it’s not about the money; it’s really about children and their path to learning. You can become well rounded in the curriculum office, or as a principal.

Then as time went by and a position opened up in the grants office, I saw the opportunity and went to work. My responsibilities were for acquiring and managing state, federal, private and corporate grant resources for schools. There were times when I felt I was ill-suited for the job, bean counting and attention to meticulous detail were really not my forte, but I had a great staff of accounting clerks to help me keep it all straight.

I had big wipe off calendars on the wall to keep me on track, and with help from some professionals in the field, it has become a great career. I have now moved on to consulting, blogging and grant making, another avenue with promising career possibilities. For your perusal, I present you with some organizations that may help you decide if this is for you, and help you scratch your itch:

Networking: LinkedIn, Grant Manager Profiles

Education and Training: Lists of degree programs. Professional OrganizationsHow-to sites. and Blogs.

You’ll work long hours, have stressful days, and think you’ve lost your mind on several occasions, but you will join a group of professionals who are in it for the kids in a very big way. If it’s not about the kids, you’re in it for the wrong reason.

Let me know what you think!

Tone and Voice in Grant Narrative

by Neva Fenno, M.S.Ed., MLIS

steno and pen

Writer’s block is a common problem among grant writers. You work hard to collect useful and relevant information for your narrative, create an outline, get organized, and try to figure out what to cut or leave in a narrative paragraph so it passes word count or page restrictions put in place by the grantor.

It never fails! I get to the point of taking the narrative outline and filling it out to make a pleasing and convincing narrative for the grant readers to evaluate and I freeze. The stakes are high, you want this application to be successful, you know you have competition coming from grant writing professionals from disparate organizations, schools, and social service agencies.

You know you are eligible because you’ve checked with the foundation to make sure it provides funds to public schools (or whatever entity you are writing for). You can’t stall any longer. So, you start to write.

Often, what comes out, at least at first, is a stiff, formal recitation of facts: your test and demographic data to support your need, a list of activities you will pursue to solve the problem, your goals and objectives, and data to support your assessment strategy.

On your first read through a common reaction to your own writing is “Ughrrrgh, that’s just awful”. Your spelling of “ughrrrgh” will vary depending on your general feelings of self-worth, but it’s always the same. It’s ok, it’s supposed to be awful at this stage, you will write and rewrite many times before you submit your application. It’s one of the reasons you have assembled your stakeholders in the first place. They will act as proofreaders and provide commentary when the tortuous task of writing is complete. Thank goodness you have friends!

One tip to hold on to: Every foundation, corporation, or government agency that provides grants has grant readers. These folks are experienced; they’ve been reading grant applications for a long time. They know what the foundation is trying to achieve by the careful application of funds in the community. In the first round of reading applications, they may read hundreds of narratives. You want your application to stand out, be readable and be persuasive. You may draw the line at entertaining, but an injection of humor is not out of the question, especially if you’ve met the readers and have a standing relationship with the organization. An excellent, thorough article on grant writing style can be found at the Purdue University OWL (Online Writing Lab) site.

Whatever you do, keep your voice professional. These readers wade through some of the most egregious assaults on the English language you have ever seen. I know this because I have been a reader for a number of private foundations. You would not believe the misspelled, grammatically sinful drivel people submit. Keep your voice professional, your tone serious (but not deadening) and above all, your grammar and spelling impeccable. If you have added footnotes (this is often a good idea if you are providing a review of research literature), use MLA (Modern Language Association) or APA (American Psychological Association) rules of style.

To remind yourself of the best writing you have done, go through old college papers, select the ones that garnered an A, and see for yourself. You’re pretty good at this, but you just need encouragement and support. Your goal is to persuade, so a review of guidelines for persuasive essays might help.

Another tip, when you’ve finished your first draft, go back and eliminate redundancies, shorten your sentences (more like Hemingway than Faulkner). Save your long, winding, lyrical prose for the great American novel you know will write one day.

Tips and tricks for a great grant narrative:

  • Be kind to the beloved grant reader.
  • Keep your sentences short.
  • Use a professional tone and voice.
  • Perform positive, self-affirming exercises in the mirror each day.
  • Support your application with strong demographic information.
  • Used an organized approach (outline, footnotes).
  • Avoid the “aaarrrggghhh” by taking breaks and deep breaths.

Remember, you may fail the first time around, but you WILL get better at this.

If you fail the first time, be sure to contact the grantor and ask for an evaluation rubric so you can find out why your attempt wasn’t successful. They will be helpful and will share their thoughts freely. They want you to succeed; a good strong application narrative helps them see the beauty of your argument and your solution to the problem you face in your school.

Organize Your Approach

by Neva Fenno, M.S.Ed. MLIS

money backpack briefcase

You are getting ready to write the grant, you may have a notebook filled with notes from encounters you’ve had with stakeholders about the direction for your project and your funding priorities.

Now is the time to organize your thoughts in an outline as you develop the structure for your project. Sometimes the foundation will share a winning application with a fledgling applicant. Don’t steal the words, but certainly use it as a template for what you write. Here’s a template I have used for sections to include in the narrative but check the grantor’s application guidelines very carefully. Each grant narrative is a unique opportunity to explain your school’s priorities and needs.

Organize/structure the proposal.

  • Abstract (consider writing your abstract last; it will allow for more concise, project specific information)
  • Problem Statement or Significance of Project
  • Project Purpose (overall goal and specific objectives)
  • Research Design or work plan (activities and timelines)
  • Applicant qualifications and capabilities
  • Evaluation Plan – assessments
  • Budget (summary and justifications – refer back to the design/work plan)
  • Sustainability (how will you pay for the program when the grant is gone?)
  • Appendix (everything else)

Follow the grantor’s instructions for formatting to the letter. A common mistake grant seekers make is to send in an application that has 25 pages when the instructions said not to exceed 15 double spaced pages. The double spaced part is important too – they mean it and will not read one that is single spaced, you’ll have to wait until next year to try again.

If they want the application signed by the superintendent, the principal will not be enough, they want the superintendent, and it proves the district is in support of this effort. Many grant writers venture off on their own to write a grant. They think the end will justify the means, that they will be a hero for taking initiative. Not in this case. Be sure all those in authority in your district are informed about your school’s project and the rationale for your grant approach. Work with your principal, she may want to include people in the loop that you might not have thought about.

Many grant seekers make another mistake by running all over town collecting letters of support from various dignitaries. Unless they specifically request 3 letters of support from members of the community, don’t look for those supporters, their letters will annoy the grantor. Toward the end of the process, after many phone calls have been made to the foundation to tighten the narrative, and cross every “t”, a phone call from the superintendent thanking the foundation for giving you the opportunity to apply might be a nice touch.

This is the time you may want to bring your school district business manager into the mix. He or she has done a million budgets; they know what one is supposed to look like. If successful, your grant funds will have an impact on the district’s general budget, you want to make sure they know what you’re up to. You’re also looking for sustainability. Who will pay for your project when the grant ends? You business manager may have some ideas about this important piece of the puzzle.

Use the form the grantor provides for the budget, now is not the time to be creative. There is almost always a separate page called “budget justification”. This is the place where line by line you explain in greater detail how the funds requested will be spent. Don’t estimate, get quotes from suppliers, explain that you have sent three requests out for bid, the prices you are quoting are the lowest of the three. I will go into much more detail about building budgets in future articles, this is a broad brush stroke of the process. The bidding process will require an article all its own for instance.

Foundation and corporate grants generally will not pay for staff. So if you’re putting salaries in the budget, you should have prior approval from the foundation for that expense. Likewise, building projects, if you’re writing a grant for construction of a building, this needs to be pre-approved. Building projects are the single most difficult appeal to make, they are better left to the city budget.

Am I Spinning My Wheels?

money backpack briefcase

After you have a few grant applications under your belt, and you still don’t have a grant in hand, it’s easy to become discouraged. Be brave, there are hundreds (probably thousands) of grant opportunities out there just waiting for the right program idea to attract and woo grant makers. I hear teachers ask, “What am I doing wrong?” My response is always, “You’re not doing anything wrong, just excercise patience and persistence.” There are some key tips to improving your chances of success, but mostly it’s believing in your school, your programs and your idea that will bring home the bacon. Grant writing is also about building relationships. When you identify a potential grantor, don’t be shy, get to know the people in the organization.

The two main types of competitive grants that we are interested in:

1)    Foundation grants

2)    Corporate grants

These are the grant opportunities you will find in the Grants Database on the Discount School Supply® website.

“Competitive” means that you have an equal opportunity to secure the funds available from the grantor, assuming you meet eligibility requirements, and you have a program that meets the grantor’s agenda. Corporations and foundations set up their funding arms to solve problems they feel are important in their communities. Get to know what these issues are, the Grants Database provides links to the organization’s website, you will find plenty of information there for learning what they have set out to accomplish with their charity.

Most of the thousands of foundations that give grant money to schools will continue to do so year after year. They are required to give a certain amount of grant money each year in order to keep their tax-exempt status. While it is true that some foundations may give less money than they have in the past, due to economic downturns, they will still be sponsoring grants. Good news is, as we approach fall of 2013, corporate profits are up, a piece of those profits must go out to the community. Unfortunately, foundations do not typically advertise their grant programs. You have to search for opportunities in a grant database or find them on the Internet. That’s where the Grants Database comes in—it will become a valuable tool as you move forward to snag those dollars.

Schools that write good, strong, competitive grant proposals well before the deadline will get their share. And schools that consistently and persistently apply for grants year after year, will reap benefits. Don’t get discouraged, you can make sure your school gets its share of available grants.

  • Keep your program ideas aligned to the Common Core State Standards.
  • Be data driven
  • Use your test scores to illustrate your needs.

For instance, if you need a new reading program, include graphs and charts about reading scores. Much of this data can be found right in your own district office, or your state education department will no doubt supply the information you need on their websites.  Funding for supplies can often be found as an “in-kind” donation. If you have a technology company in your town, they might step up and give your school some new computers. Or if you already have a grant for an after school program, approach another foundation for a “matching grant”. This foundation’s job will be to provide that last piece of support you need to make your program a success. Make sure their contribution is not treated like an “extra”; the funder needs the acclaim and advertising that comes with any community gift.

With persistence and patience, the brass ring will get closer all the time!

Step 7: Beating the Grants Deadline

Over the last few months, we have discussed the seven steps needed to find, research, and write successful grant applications.  As a reminder, the steps include:

  1. Finding a problem in your school that needs correcting,
  2. Developing a solution to the problem,
  3. Finding a grant that fits your situation,
  4. Confirming that you are eligible for that grant,
  5. Gathering the application and all the data you will need to complete your grant application,
  6. Actually completing the application, and
  7. Getting your application to the grantor by the grant’s deadline

The last one, getting your application to the grantor on deadline, is critical. I have seen beautiful grant application packages thrown out because they didn’t arrive on time. Months of hard work go out the window. With many foundations and federal grants, there is only one opportunity in a year to apply. Those applicants now must wait a year to try again. If it’s due by 5:00 Eastern Standard Time on Friday, they mean it. No exceptions, no excuses. Be sure you review how the application must be submitted—electronically or in the mail? Federal grants have always had a secure portal for applications. It has always been (in my experience) a tortuous experience; give yourself plenty of time to learn how to use the digital application process. You will get frustrated; take a deep breath, you’ll get there.

But it’s like many things with grants, the devil is in the details. By now, if you’ve followed through the first 6 steps, this one will be so ingrained in your thinking that it will be no problem. Right?

With the potential for emergencies in mind, you should always set a deadline for completing your grant application a minimum of one week before it is due. Even a week will not guarantee that a mailed application will arrive on time. You also need to be absolutely certain whether the deadline the grantor established refers to the postmark on the application or the date when the application must reach the grantor’s office. If you do not know that information, call or email the grant’s contact person to make certain. If the U.S. Postal Service is the conduit, be sure to send things certified mail, return receipt. The extra cost will be well worth the peace of mind.

For tracking your grant writing projects, you might want to buy a big wall easel to capture all your brainstorming, thinking webs, dates etc., They have them at Discount School Supply®.  Check out the Colorations® Wall Easel.

The first grant application you write is always the most difficult. Eventually you will be so good at it that the steps are automatic. But when you become good at this, you will be a hero, and that’s obviously a good thing!

Step 6: Completing Your Grant Application the Right Way

Once you’ve completed the first five steps in the grant process, you are ready to start filling out the grant application. You have already done a tremendous amount of work. You’ve identified a problem in your school that needs correcting, developed a solution, found a grant that fits your situation, confirmed that you are eligible for that grant, and gathered the application and all the data you will need to complete your grant application.

Completing an application is not all that difficult if you’ve done your homework — but it’s almost impossible if you haven’t. Your primary concern as you begin the application process is to carefully follow all instructions. You don’t want to be disqualified for something as simple as using the wrong type font or font size in your application. And, yes, some grantors are that particular.

Be sure to include four major components in any application regardless of how the application is laid out.

  • Describe the problem you have at your school with sufficient statistics to prove that you truly have a problem.
  • Give a detailed summary of your solution to this problem and give statistics or other information to show why you believe your solution will produce positive results.
  • Include an evaluation component to show how you will track progress throughout the program and exactly how you will determine the gains that were made at the end of the program.
  • Include a budget that shows where every dollar of the requested grant money will be spent.

Regardless of the way an application is organized, be sure you carefully complete every section. Some applications may have sections that don’t seem to apply to your situation. You have to remember, however, that competitive grants are generally scored on a point system. Every section of the application is worth a certain number of points. If you don’t complete a section, you get no points for that part of the application. Many applications are so competitive that a score of “zero” on one section will likely eliminate you from the competition.

As you complete the application, you might come to a section that asks you to describe the community involvement aspect of your plan. But what if you hadn’t planned on having a community involvement component? You must realize that if community involvement was not important to the grantor, it would not be a part of the application. If the section is there, it behooves you to go back to the solution you’ve developed and add a community involvement component. If you leave that section blank, you are not likely to be among the final competitors for the grant money.

Each section of a grant application is so important that you need to complete it as if it were the only section you were submitting. Why? Because you need to earn every point possible to stay competitive in your hunt for grant money.

As you complete your application, avoid using “cut and paste” information provided by vendors. Yes, they have great writers who prepare those descriptions, but you are doomed if the same descriptions show up on several applications for the same grant. The scorers see it as evidence that you are relying on a canned solution to your problem rather than personalizing your solution to fit your school’s needs. Similarly, you need to be careful about centering your whole grant request around a single commercial product. Grant money is typically awarded to those schools that seek money to establish well-rounded programs with multiple components — not to schools   that just want money to buy a single product.

Also, be sure you complete the application with language that is clear and concise. Don’t try to sound fancy or more educated than you are. You’re not trying to convince the grant readers how smart you are. You are trying to show them that you understand the problems at your school, and that you’ve come up with what you believe to be the right solution. To begin to put that solution into place, you need their grant money. It’s also always a good idea to let the grant readers know how much district money and other resources will be applied to the problem. Again, be straightforward, clear, and concise.

Completing a grant application is not all that difficult if you’ve done the necessary preliminary work. It’s exciting to know that you are in competition with other grant writers to get money for your school. If you closely follow the directions that accompany the application, lay out your problem clearly, describe your solution in detail, include an effective evaluation component, and develop a budget that is realistic and all-inclusive, then you will win grant money most of the time.

You will also get better with practice. As soon as you finish one application, start looking for your next grant. If you follow the steps that I’ve laid out over the past few posts, when it comes time to sit at your desk to complete a grant application, you’ll find that applying for most grants is really not that difficult.