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.

Then step back and be amazed at the people who step up to ask how they can help (if you’ve found the right hook and gathering opportunity). Take business cards, and spend some time getting to know the folks that stepped up. After the event, call each one and ask them to attend a second event where you vow to get down to business and not waste their time. This is no time for obfuscation or lack of transparency. The stakes are too high. Be honest with everyone from the start. You’ve identified some weaknesses in your test scores, come to some conclusions about how you need to raise the scores, and now realize you’ll need some funding to plan and implement a project for solving academic problems. Even if you’re raising money for a playground, make it about the learning. In the playground, you are carving out a community garden that uses math and science standards and skills to build.

If you want to raise funds for band instruments or sports equipment and can’t find the academic links, you will probably want to work up a fund raising plan. There’s a huge difference between grantsmanship and fund raising. The latter is usually a one shot deal, with a specific budget and set of goals. The other requires lengthy planning and development in a strict project management environment (check my article archives for details on project management).

Starting From Scratch

If this article is gibberish to you, that’s ok, you just need to start from the beginning. If you don’t know who your local business leaders are, take a Saturday and drive around town, jotting down names of local businesses big and small and develop a mailing list. Or, on a string of Sundays, attend different church services and the coffee hours that happen afterwards. The pastries are always great and you’ll meet some terrific people. Don’t be shy, but don’t make up some story about looking for a new church (unless you are). People know when the motives are pure and when they’re not. After a few weeks of this busy work, you’ll have a bucket full of business cards and a great start for putting your plans in place.

There will also be opportunities to attend events initiated by the funding organizations too. Buy a subscription to the local newspaper and check out the “community calendar” section religiously.

You may be surprised at what you find. There may be some very wealthy people in town with foundations and trusts set up to provide grants for schools. You’ll learn the difference between foundation and corporate giving. There are subtle differences that are worth your attention.

Some resources for your search:

US Chamber of Commerce – Find your local chapter
DMoz – Spectacular directory for finding partners in the business community.
Planning events for Business Leaders
Fraternal Organizations
Planning an Open House for Your School (parents are great sources of info)
Funding Gaps in Your Budget

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


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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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