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:

  1. Why is the foundation giving money to schools? What is their agenda?
  2. What’s in it for the foundation?
  3. Does the foundation have the staying power needed to provide sustainability?
  4. What do former recipients have to say about the foundation?
  5. What does a fundable project look like for this foundation?

Every foundation has a reason or reasons for its philanthropy. It is true that by law, a foundation must give a certain percentage of their resources to avoid paying excise tax. On the surface, we know they are receiving hefty tax benefits for their largesse, but are there issues of importance for the founders of the company? Picture the lobby of their corporate headquarters. Whose painted portrait hangs over the mantle in the board room? What was or is important to that person? He/she started as a member of your community, made money, then turned around to give some of it away…..why?

Maybe Mr. Smith of the Smith Cereal Company started out poor and is now interested in providing nutrition for families in need. Would you write an application for funds for your theater arts program? Probably not.  But this is exactly what many people do. Foundations receive hundreds of applications each year from schools and non-profit organizations from grant writers who have not done their homework. The foundation has a rubric they use to score applications (always available on their website), but appeals with no relevant focus end up in the circular file very quickly. Many foundations never accept proposals from organizations without an invitation. Don’t be a grant applicant outlier. Make sure the foundation accepts proposals from uninvited applicants.

Fortunately, almost all grant applications are completed online, and foundations have developed information rich websites that will answer eligibility questions. Before you pick up the phone to introduce yourself to a foundation grant liaison, make sure you’ve answered the questions above. They will remember you as someone who has taken the time to learn about the company. They have egos too. Every grant they fund is designed to shine a favorable light on the grantor. Don’t kid yourself; grant giving is often a sophisticated marketing tool for a company. That’s not bad, just something you need to be aware of. Learn some business-speak, but don’t overwhelm the grantor with jargon from the education world. You are probably drawn to grant writing because you’re a good communicator, now’s the time to polish those skills.

Questions 4 and 5 above are about history. Every foundation has a history of providing resources to organizations like yours. On their websites they list the schools they have supported. It’s a short hop from the foundation site to the website of the school that received the funds. Find out who was responsible for the application from that school and get in touch with her. You’ll find she will give you lots of great tips, and these days, she may even share her application with you. It used to be true that no self respecting grant writer would ever share their application with another grant applicant. It represents a huge effort and is not easily torn from their hands. Today though, people are willing to share their work; it’s in everyone’s best interest to work together. You might find a way to be a partner with the former recipient, a way to carry on their good work.

Why foundations give away their money.
A philanthropist tells his story.
5% minimum payout requirement.
50 largest donor foundations (some surprises here).
Sample foundation scoring rubric.

Leave a comment or question, I’d love to pass along any tips you want to add.


This entry was posted in Grant Research, Grant Writing on by .

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.

One thought on “Think Like a Grantor

  1. Adam Lovinus

    Hi Neva! I referenced your blog for an article I wrote about how ed-tech specialists refreshing classroom technology for more students and fewer budget resources. It went live just now –

    I wanted to call out the importance of building ed-tech budgets with grant money, and thought your content was some of the best out there to getting started doing this.

    My audience is a lot of small school IT pros, and educators that DIY their classroom tech.

    So nice work! I thought you might find my article relevant for your audience as well, so feel free to share with your readers if you like it.

    Thank you, and have a great one!


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