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Professional Opinion

What's The Big Idea?

Practical advice from a successful grant-writing team.

It began in 1994 as a small project that brought together a newly hired deputy superintendent and development officer. Great teamwork, perseverance and the lessons we've learned during the past eight years have resulted in $38 million in competitive grants for our small urban district.

That first project began with a superintendent directive to conduct a brainstorming session for a new grant opportunity. When we asked what the grant was about, participants excitedly responded that it was "about $50,000." It was a very brief meeting.

The Biggest Lessons

Grants offer money but aren't about money. They're about ideas and plans that ultimately convey vision and achievability to the reviewer. Financially bankrupt districts can win grant monies. Educationally bankrupt districts need not apply. Other lessons learned:

1. Think Big Picture. Vision is process, not product. It is the ideal state toward which you set your compass. Your educational vision is larger than any single grant, yet every grant you write must help in reaching that larger vision.
2. Think Big, Incrementally. You can't do it all at once. Look for grants that fit into your framework of planning. Initially, these may not be large grants, but success scaffolds your plan and builds capacity for obtaining larger monies.
3. Top Down, Bottom Up, Across. If you are the sole proprietor of your vision, it is doomed. Vision is a collective process. Communication (especially the often forgotten listening component) is essential to collaboration. For many programs, applications from consortiums of school districts and community organizations are preferred. Seek partners with similar vision and more diverse demographics if yours is not a high poverty district.
4. Walk the Walk. Trust is the key to establishing and sustaining working collaborations. The plan, responsibilities, expectations and lines of communication must be clear from the onset. There should be no surprises. Regardless of your "status" as the lead educational agency, there should be no unilateral decisions.
5. Make It Personal. Local, regional and national networks are essential components of the grant process. E-mail, phone or visit grantors, i.e. program directors. Contact will not give you an "in" for the review process, but grantors can provide a framework of expectations beyond the written request for proposals.
6. Seek a constant. Look for state, federal, corporate and foundation grants. Be vigilant. Use grant publications and subscribing to list servs and mailing lists. True success is the ability to spot opportunity.
7. Follow Directions. Grantors give money for the very specific purposes outlined in the application. Respond to all questions. Flowery dissertations that miss the point also miss the money. Pay attention to detail. An outstanding 20-page proposal is worthless if there's a 15-page limit. Write, edit, re-write and have multiple internal "reviewers."
8. Look Back, Look Forward. Successful implementation is key to obtaining new grants. How are you meeting the goals promised in your proposal? External assessment can bring objectivity to your project.
9. Know It's Not Your Money. Grants aren't intended to be mutated into some "good purpose" beyond the application. Besides being unethical, and potentially illegal, it's a bad financial and emotional practice.
10. It's Okay to Say No. If a grant doesn't move you closer to your vision, it is best to pass. Do you have the personnel, time and matching funding to implement such a project now? Pursue grants simultaneously only if they are compatible. For example, two grants that each provide 30 hours of professional development for the same teachers in the same year would be impossible to implement. Risk is part of the grant-writing process. It's personal.

Risking Ideas Means Risking Failure

Success may not come "overnight." The level of your persistence is directly related to the strength of your belief in the vision.

John Falco is superintendent and Suzanne DeWald is development officer of Schenectady (N.Y.) City School District. Their recent collaborations have resulted in several federal technology grants, as well as grants for elementary counseling, middle school drug prevention and safety, and 21st century community learning.