Know What the Foundation Wants

In my career as a grants administrator I have observed many grant writers as they navigate their way through the grant writing process. Sometimes it is somewhat painful to watch.

The writer will get a call from a teacher or community member who says, “Hey, I heard about this cool grant given by the XYZ Foundation. Our school really needs new football helmets for the kids, can you try to see if we can get one”.

So the grant writer calls the foundation and asks for the application package. These days they are almost always referred to a website where they will find the details of how the foundation provides funds for schools and non-profit organizations. The grant writer reads through the package briefly and then works furiously to come up with a flashy project that underscores the need for football helmets in the school. Concussion statistics are mined and horror stories told about injuries suffered by kids as they play sports.

At no time did the grant writer go to the part of the website that highlights projects currently being sponsored by the foundation, to try to see if there are patterns, or if there is a specific area of education that interests the grantor. Foundations and the philanthropic arms of corporations always have specific areas of interest and support types of projects that address these interests. Read carefully through every single successful grant recipient’s project summary. Get some phone numbers, and call the administrators in those school districts to find out more about how they developed their projects for funding. They may actually share their narratives and budgets with you, although, in general I have found they won’t. People tend to guard their hard work, and it’s easy to see why. They worked hours and hours to develop their applications, they don’t want to “give away the punch line”.

I remember a situation in our school. We wanted to develop a STEM program in our high school that would include an after school program and expensive equipment for robotics experiments. We thought we had thoroughly identified where the funds might be acquired, from a corporation with a branch office in our town. For three years we wrote applications with all the bells and whistles the corporation seemed to be attracted to, with no success.

At a grant writer’s conference I happened to sit at the lunch table with two schools that had achieved funding from this source. I was all ears as they talked about their programs. They both had STEM after school programs so I could not understand “why them and not us”? Then they mentioned they had formed a partnership with their local community colleges to design and put together their programs. I went back to source material and sure enough, there was a thread through many applications that included partnerships with institutions of higher learning. Facilities, teachers, coordinators and schedules were crafted to form solid links between the public schools and the colleges. The colleges often had access to the equipment they would need for the robotics idea, so that part of the budget would be covered. Grantors generally don’t like to pay for equipment and supplies. They are more interested in the “how will we do this” part of a program.

So that was how I learned this valuable set of lessons, try to find patterns among the programs developed by grant winners, there are wonderful tools and organizational lessons in them. The other lesson was to network with other schools at every opportunity, it’s good for your health to get out once in a while, but it can also be profitable.

Let us know about lessons you learn as you venture out into the world of grants.


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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.

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