Okay, I Have a Dream. Now How Do I Fund It? Tips for the Beginning Classroom Grant Writer

I started grant writing out of the ugly desperation of a $9 budget versus my students’ expectations of technological glory. We had floppy drives in 21st century and they wanted to make stuff. For awhile, I brought in a lot of my own personal equipment but there comes a time when you have to stop that or quit teaching. After a few years, it was pretty much, “Well, what’s the worst that could happen? It’s not like we’re gonna lose money.”

Several thousand dollars and a truly epic room makeover later, my students’ dreams have only grown in glory (kids are crazy like that) so we’re still writing and we seem to be winning more often than not. Dr. Terri Cullen (@DrTerriOU) described it as “snowballing”; I like think it’s because we are improving with practice.

I am pretty sure there are people who are better at grant writing than me; I go for grants that are $10,000 or less. Maybe one day I’ll tackle a biggie but, for now, I am happy with how the smaller size ones add up. (2010 me’s jaw just dropped thinking of $10,000 as small potatoes.) I’ve been getting asked for tips lately. In fact, I presented beginning grant writing at Podstock (resource) in Kansas last week so it seemed the right time to put it all out there and blog. While I can’t guarantee that what works for me will work for everyone, it’s not going to stop me from sharing my top 10 in hopes that it might.

10. Dream, in parts

The overall vision for “The @ction Lab” (yes, I named my classroom) is to put the “laboratory” back into computer lab by turning it into a creative space for collaboration, experimentation, and discovery. It’s an awesome vision, right? But expensive. Rather than put all my eggs into a basket and tackle a big grant, we were able to break our dream down into discrete parts and then write small grants for each project. It’s good to write them as standalone projects because they are easier for you to describe and the grant readers to digest (just because you have the whole big picture doesn’t mean you have to tell all about on every grant). If your district has a foundation, I would recommend writing for them since your competition is limited.

I like small grants. When you start small, you get a chance to really build up your confidence and skills. For example, you learn how to manage your grant money. It’s important to learn the particular ins and outs of money in your district: Is there someone you need permission from before you can apply for a grant? Are you allowed to write for matching funds? (Matching funds is when you win a grant for a certain amount of money, but your district needs to come up with an equal amount in order to fund the project.) Are there limitations on items you are allowed to include in your budget? Find out and be sure to keep documentation. I once almost lost $7500 because my budget approval got lost somewhere in the chain. Luckily, I never delete emails.

Some grants give you a lot of freedom while others only allow you to spend the money on field trips or professional development. Having your big picture/vision/dream is important in order for you to spend your money strategically.

9. Sell it

I am not great at self-promotion but I realize that you have to sell the project. If you can’t explain why your project is significant then why should people give you money? I would emphasize the significance and not your Tale of Woe. Most schools are struggling right now so you can’t depend on that to make a grant organization pick you; you have to make your project/school/class stand out and especially stand out as an entity that will succeed.

I’d also like you to consider The Cute Name. It is a truth that I tried to deny, but I can fight no longer: Giving your project a catchy, even pun-y, title is worth it. I’m not sure if it’s simply something that sticks in the head of grant readers but if you can come up with a good title, do it.

8. Read the directions

This one seemed pretty obvious to me, but then I started reading grant applications and was stunned by the sheer amount of recklessness. I have read fourth grade essays with a better grasp of parameters and appropriateness. If you are applying for a grant, read the directions. Read ALL the directions because every grant is different. I admit I keep a list of projects (and a wishlist of items with prices) and try to fit grants to them, but you still have follow the directions and adjust accordingly. You may want to look for things like budget. Is there a budget or are they just giving you product? If there is a budget, are you allowed to change it later? If something goes on sale, can you spend the difference on more stuff? Are there limits on vendors? Can you spend the money on stipends? If you have questions, I would not hesitate to contact the grant organization. I call and email frequently and no one’s blocked me yet. In fact, I sometimes get great unasked for advice.

7. Research the grant and grantees

Most organizations are getting good karma for giving away their money so there should be a lot of promotional material for you to review from past winners. Sometimes you get really lucky and they even give you a case study. I recommend reading everything you can about the grant and grant winners. Look for patterns and try to reflect specific terms used in the grant documentation.

I am something of a persistent stalker (ask my principal) and have also been known to contact grant winners for their proposals and/or advice. Everyone has been cool about it. If you ask me about a specific grant, I will usually give you a copy of my proposal. I don’t think that anyone is looking to copy proposals, it’s just comforting to see what has been accepted.

6. Don’t be afraid to go sideways

STEM and physical fitness seem to be the main grant “hooks” I see lately. I teach computers but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to apply for a physical fitness grant. An art teacher can apply for a math grant; a math teacher can apply for an art grant as long as the project fits the grant. If you can make it work, do it.

5. Sustainability

I’m dying to do a wearables project with kids making bracelets with LEDs. Unfortunately, most of the STEM grants I find want projects that will be sustainable. The wearables project is all consumables; I could do the project for one year and then I’d be out of material. So even though the bracelets are #1 on my list, I wrote the grant for a drone because the drone will be used for years. I’m still looking for the right grant for wearables.

4. Know who’s judging you

Some grants go through several rounds. For example, the first round might be grants read by teachers and other volunteers scoring by rubrics. The second round might be foundation members arguing without a rubric. Sometimes the grant organization tells you how you are being judged; if they don’t tell you, ask.

We all know that there are buzz words in education: PBL, STEM, active learning, and so on. If your grant is being read by educators and you are using buzz words, you better know what they mean and use them correctly. If your grant is being read by non-educators, you need to stay away from the jargon and explain yourself clearly. Remember, you are writing for understanding not to prove how clever you are.

3. Give options

I learned this from another grant writer. Imagine you have an organization that gives away its yearly bucket of money until its gone and they only have $2000 left at the end of the day. They throw out all the grant applications over $2000. There’s two grants left and you wrote for $3000 because they said you could write up to $5000. Boo! If the grant application allows for it, write budgets for different levels and make sure that each level is a complete project in itself. Last year, I wrote a grant with options for $1,500 and $4,000 and got $3,000.

Voya Unsung Heroes actually requires you to write for different tiers of $2,000, $5,000, $10,000, and $25,000.

2. Cold reader + 1

I usually have a lot of people read my grants before applying but I recommend a minimum of 2: a cold reader and a non-educator. To me, a cold reader is someone who is reading it cold. They have never heard you talk about it before so they aren’t filling in information you didn’t actually write. If you are lucky enough to have a rubric, give your cold reader the rubric and have them score you.

I would also suggest you have one person read for content and another for writing. Several grant organizations have stated that if it is between two grants of equal merit, they are going to the one with better writing.

Frankly, I have students read through my grants (this is probably why I switch between singular and plural possessive). They are the most honest readers you will ever have. For serious.

1. Follow through

Many moons ago, when I was fresh and new, I won a Donors Choose grant. It was the year that Stephen Colbert promised to sing Rebecca Black’s “Friday” if so many Donors Choose projects were funded by his fans (Video). Well, I was one of the lucky beneficiaries and got Flip cameras (RIP). However, I didn’t send all my thank you letters to my awesome donors. I was young. It was the end of the year. I was moving classrooms. Wah, wah, wah. I didn’t do it. Now I am unable to ever use Donors Choose and let me tell you I am sorry about that. Learn from my mistakes!

Now I make duplicates, I keep receipts, I have thank you cards -the whole shebang. I know better. You must follow through, especially because it can sometimes have consequences. For instance, if you do not complete the post-fellowship reporting for Fund for Teachers, they will tell the IRS that the money is income and then you have to pay taxes on it.

On the bright side, if you follow through spectacularly, it can lead to more money! The money could be from the same organization because you’ve proven yourself trustworthy. The money could come from a new organization because you have a proven track record. Either way, you win.

I’m at the point where I can juggle a few grants at a time and still follow through on my obligations. It helps that I keep a 3-year plan of grant cycles and when I want to apply for certain ones (#listersgottalist) to help stay balanced.

Okay, phew, I’m done now. I hope someone actually reads this and I hope you get to do something awesome with grant money this year. If you do and I helped, drop me a line!