Author Archives: Neva Fenno

About Neva Fenno

Neva Fenno, M.S.Ed., MLIS, has been a special education teacher, school library media specialist, curriculum specialist and grants manager for several urban school districts in New York and Massachusetts for 30 years. As grants manager for 7 years, she managed up to $28,000,000 a year in federal, state, foundation and corporate grants from application through fiscal administration. She has hundreds of stories to tell, not all successes, but from each story there is a lesson to be learned.

Think Like a Grantor

It’s exciting to take on a grant application that will solve challenges in our schools. It’s always a learning process to get down into the weeds of an application and analyze data that points to weaknesses in your academic achievement (who knew?).

However, the devil in the details can obscure your vision. Minutiae creates myopia and we can lose track of what we want to do; the big picture. One way to keep your hand on the success throttle is to look up occasionally and think like a grantor.

Ask yourself these questions:

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Five Big No-No’s in Your Grant Application

It’s really hard to write grants in a vacuum. Someone has asked you to write a grant to pay for XYZ project in your school. But, if you don’t have any background information, you don’t know the why of the appeal for funds. Here are five big factors to consider before you start to write. They will help you sharpen your vision and show you’ve done your homework.

  • You need to know what your potential funding partner is paying for these days. The error in thinking comes when an applicant clones a good proposal and sends it out to multiple funders. This implies that the applicant has not done their homework to research potential grantors to determine funding priorities. Every foundation or corporate funding entity has a reason for his or her largesse. Lately, it’s been all about improvement in academic achievement. It is in everyone’s best interest to work together to bring our kids out of academic doldrums and excel in school. Find out what the funder values, is it STEM projects? Technology? Do your homework using the Grants Database to find funding partners who are in alignment with what you are trying to do.

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Working With Your Local Business Community

When you’re a grant writer for your school or district, you need all the help you can get. We’ve talked about working in committee within your school to develop and manage a project, but what about the wider community? Every town or city has a business community that stands ready to do “good works” as part of their marketing plans. You may have a local chapter of the Chamber of Commerce, or in very small towns, an Elks Club or other fraternal organization where business leaders meet, if only to have a beer together on a Saturday night. Don’t knock it, many a grant comes from conversations over a great bottle of beer.

These people, no matter how loosely organized share one thing; they’re trying to improve their own business in town by mingling and networking with other business leaders. You’ll learn in grant writing that there is some altruism in the job, but it’s mostly about finding a sweet spot, what is this person’s agenda for helping? In an “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” world, you can develop relationships with your town business leaders that benefit both parties.
One way to get the ball rolling is to hold an open house for the community. Work with your school leadership team to come up with a hook, maybe raising funds for the school library, a music event, or art gallery opening along the halls of the school. Make sure you put on your tie, or pearls and pumps and be active in the planning of the event. At some point, you want everyone in the auditorium (or gym) for speechifying. Your speech is short, but pithy. Explain who you are, why you are there, and what you need from the assembled throng.

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Research Sources for Grant Success

Early in your grant writing adventures, you should establish some habits. It will save time later if, for your budgets and narratives, you have some background information on hand. Every grant application has certain qualities shared with all the others. The grantor needs to know who you are before he can buy into your project. Demographic research about your state, town and school should be collected and saved in a central location so it can be accessed again and again. Update your narrative paragraphs containing statistics often. I get demographic information from several standard places.

You can rely on these sources for information about residents in your town. They include information on local families, their income, home ownership, etc. A grantor needs to know your town has needs. Even “high end” communities have needs. If you are in a school in a wealthy town, find out where low-income families live. You can target many of your grant narrative appeals to those members of the larger community.

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Grants for Libraries

This is not an article about politics, but it helps to know a bit about politics when you are seeking a grant. When George W. Bush was president, his wife Laura took on school libraries as a project while she was in the White House.  In like fashion, Michelle Obama has been working with military families and has worked diligently in the area of nutrition for children to put a spotlight on obesity in American children. First ladies generally get what they want, and in these cases, they secured funding for their areas of concern.

From 2002 to 2010 there was a federal grant called “Improving Literacy Through School Libraries“. Laura Bush worked with many people and groups to create a grant opportunity that provided support for schools that wanted to elevate library programs in their schools and a way to improve academic achievement. I applied for it unsuccessfully for three years. I learned a great deal about writing government sponsored grants in the process so it was not a complete loss. For instance, many grant writers spend time collecting letters of support from their government representatives. In general, this is not a great way to spend your time, but in this case, it should have been an important part of any application; this grant was highly political. I only focus on this grant because it instilled a winning formula for approaching grant projects:

Align projects to Common Core Standards and academic achievement in your school.

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Want to Write Grants Full Time?

When I wrote my first grant, I was a Library Media Specialist, happily ensconced in my tower of learning and my developing collection of books. I love teaching kids to become lifelong learners. If you had told me I was going to become a school administrator in the Central Office, with responsibility for all district grants, I would have told you “No Way”.

The first effort was a small Verizon mini-grant, to buy some much-needed technology for the Library. I was able to come up with a compelling argument for the materials; I linked the supplies to test scores and district achievement data. I used this formula again, and again, and was successful in ramping up the dollar amounts each time. My Principal was very happy, so was I.

During lunch and after school I found myself researching grant sources and talking to teachers about what they needed to improve academic achievement in their classrooms. I lurked on sites like LinkedIn and sections for professional grant writers and global philanthropists. All of my grant-related activities were attracting attention, and eventually I was offered a job. The rest is history.

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What Could You Do With a $100,000,000 Grant?

“Could Do” not “Would Do”

In 2010, the Newark Public Schools were given a unique opportunity to try to answer that question. Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), in a moment of great largesse, provided the failing school system with funds to turn it around. He hoped he could set the stage for replicable, systemic change. He also hoped that his dollars would be matched with other funds. Like other billionaires (Bill and Melinda Gates come to mind), he knew he was in a unique position to step in to help. Kudos to all who try.

My favorite (and most successful) example of this is the $800,000 gift from Stephen Colbert to the teachers of South Carolina (his home state). He auctioned off pieces from the set of his show “The Colbert Report” (last episode was December 18, 2014) to raise the funds. I believe the success came from the vehicle he used for distribution. In full disclosure, he’s on the Board of the crowdfunding site “”, and this was the conduit for his generosity. He promised to fund all South Carolina teacher requests for mini-grants. Teachers log in to the site and briefly describe a project they would love to implement if money could be found. An average project costs $689.00. iPads, band instruments, art supplies, and other modest wishes came true for hard working teachers; elegant, simple, and effective philanthropy.

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Getting Around Obstacles to Grant Success

Last time I talked about ethical standards for grant writers and carefully obeying rules. This time I’m going to travel to my dark side and talk about rules that can be broken and how to break them.

My favorite rule to break is:

“Grants must be written in committee”

Principals need to form committees so they can assign tasks to people who are becoming pests.  I have found in my experience that committees become unwieldy and stand in their own way. The key to writing in committee is having clear leadership. When someone tries to challenge the leader, it’s important to be sure that everyone has a task to match his or her talents. There are even good roles for complainers; these folks are good researchers. When they object to an issue, and they begin to complain, the leader reminds them of their “librarian” role and asks them to get the facts so everyone can make good decisions. After all, sometimes they’re right and you don’t want to push them away and antagonize, give them tools to prove their positions, and then be sure their research fits in to your overall narrative. This is how you publicly recognize their contributions.

In general though, I work best when I work alone.

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The Politics of Grant Writing

I guess it’s because we’re one year away from a Presidential election. The candidates are polishing their resumes (such as they are) and Donald Trump is holding court with the American people. All of these things have inspired me to write about the politics of grant writing.

First, the obvious, when you’re looking at Federal and pass-through State grants, it matters who’s in the White House. In general, when Democrats are in the WH, there is more money for grant programs like Title I, Educator Quality, and Special Education allocations. When Republicans are in charge, wheels spin in a frantic effort to curtail or eliminate the federal government’s role in funding public education. Lately, the democratic environment has positioned the government to increase these grant programs, trying to level the playing field for the poorest and most fragile of our children to succeed.

Foundation and Corporate grants are a little different; they rely on the general economy to extend their philanthropic reach. Private grantors, as ruled by federal law, must devote a percentage of their profits to giving programs of many kinds, the most important through grant programs.

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Ethical Standards for Grant Writers

Every true professional works within certain ethical guidelines and this is certainly true for grant writers. Even if you work at it part time, and teach full time, you’ll be putting on a tighter ethical hat when you enter your grant world. You are dealing with and managing money. The temptations to abuse the trust you’ve been given are there, but not if you’ve set up your office and standards to be strictly ethical in the first place.

One of the reasons it’s so difficult to buy things for your classroom through regular school district channels, is the layers of oversight that are built in to the purchasing process. It’s driven by state law and experience gained from lessons learned. Be grateful, it will release you to pay firm attention to the task at hand, raising money for your kids. Leave the purchasing process to the purchasing professionals.

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