Write a Grant
Getting a grant doesn’t require a Ph.D. A solid idea and a simple plan can go a long way.
By Cynthia McCabe
Educators with a plan to improve their students’ learning environment often have to turn to grants. But just the thought of writing the requisite proposal sends many diving for the extra-strength aspirin. We talked to those who are well-versed in the grant game to get their suggestions for crafting the ideal pitch.
“Writing a grant is like riding a bike. Once you learn how, you’ll never forget,” says the NEA Foundation’s Jesse Graytock. He reviews the hundreds of grant applications sent each year to the Foundation, which awarded roughly $750,000 this year through more than 80 separate grants. Here are tips for catching his attention, or the notice of government agencies, private groups, corporations, and others willing to open their wallets and help.
Don’t let self-doubt take you out of contention. When Nate Meyer, an eighth-grade language arts and social studies teacher in Downs, Illinois, came up with a plan to create a history-themed mini-golf course for his students, he took a deep breath and filled out an application for a small, $300 grant from the Association of Illinois Middle Schools. To his surprise, he got it. “While this was a drop in the bucket funding-wise, it gave me the confidence to apply for an NEA grant,” Meyer says.
Keep the writing simpleIt’s a grant proposal, not a doctoral thesis. This is where many folks get hung up. “A grant should not sound like chemistry,” says Graytock. While it’s important to follow the grantee’s instructions, few will want a 25-page dissertation. Keeping it simple starts with the abstract or objective. For the grants that he reviews, Graytock wants a two- or three-sentence summary of the project. Then lay out the specifics of the program in bullet points. Don’t try to compete with J.K. Rowling on page count.
Ditto with the organizationWhen it comes to organizing the narrative part of your application, the authors of Getting the Grant: How Educators Can Write Winning Proposals and Manage Successful Projects encourage thinking like the reviewer who will be examining it. Make that person’s job easier by matching your headings and subheadings directly with the major and minor selection criteria laid out in the request for proposals. “When the reviewers can quickly and efficiently find the narrative associated with each of the selection criteria, they can happily proceed,” write the authors.
Junk the jargonImpose a ban on “eduspeak” and unfamiliar acronyms. Nowhere in your grant should the following sentence appear: “Using a group of school-age learners, we will endeavor to capitalize on NCLB-specific requirements and shift the paradigm for meeting tangible literary and technological benchmarks.” Reviewers will be much happier to read: “We want to provide one class of third-graders the equipment needed to produce a book report podcast.”
Identify measurable points and objectivesFollow up that straightforward statement with specific, measurable goals. Action phrases like “students will demonstrate,” or “they will complete a three-segment project” are a must, Thompson says. Nebulous terms like “students will learn,” or “my class will come to understand,” aren’t specific enough when trying to explain how the project will benefit them.
Bring in other disciplines, technologyIt’s a fact of life these days that no classroom is an island. Science teachers have to work on reading skills, and social studies teachers have to add lessons on angles while teaching about the pyramids at Giza. Grantees are often looking for this type of cross-pollination, too, to get more bang for their buck. Pulling in one or two other subjects will bolster your proposal. Also, analyze your activity and determine whether there is a way to strengthen it with the use of electronics or the development of a related Web site or podcast. The technological “gee whiz” factor can go a long way with grant committees.
Ask for helpSan Luis, Arizona, math teacher Jesus Arrizon wouldn’t have considered writing a proposal until his district grants coordinator encouraged him and offered to help him apply for a grant for his program for high-risk middle school students. Coordinators can also be invaluable when it comes to carving out the time to tackle a grant proposal. Arrizon was worried that lack of time would be an issue, but “at the end of [the first grant process] I said, ‘Okay, I’m not going to let these opportunities go by,’” he says. And the help doesn’t have to come from someone who’s on the district payroll. When Beth Swantz, a fourth-grade teacher in Kalona, Iowa, was trying for a technology grant recently, she asked her husband—who is neither a teacher nor a techie—to read it and see if it made sense to him. Fresh eyes can scan your proposal for embarrassing typos or grammatical errors.
Beyond Candy Bars and Pizza Kits
Teachers from tiny Kalona Elementary aren’t afraid to hunt down big money.
What is it about the tiny school of 250 students perched in rural Kalona, Iowa, (population, 2,293) that makes people want to give it so much money? In the past four years, teachers at Kalona Elementary have snagged more than $1 million in grants.
Suzie Swartzendruber, Beth Swantz, and Phyllis Casper have uncanny success when it comes to earning grant money.
Photo by Mark Tade/Gazette Communications
Media specialists Beth Swantz and Phyllis Casper got a $25,000 grant from the state and a $5,000 grant from the NEA Foundation to teach students oral history skills through podcasting. Gym teacher Jackie Bailey and guidance counselor Nora Kehoe earned $10,000 from the state for a program to get students eating a “mystery vegetable or fruit” every Friday and to outfit every student with custom-fitted bike helmets.
Colleagues Edye Freeman, a foreign language teacher, and Suzie Swartzendruber, a Title I reading and math and ESL teacher, landed the biggest fish of all: $885,000 of federal grant money for two three-year programs in Chinese and Arabic. “It’s very, very unusual,” acknowledges Swantz, who is proud of the staff’s prowess.
It starts with educators’ desire to innovate, to stretch the limits of required curriculum even if it means doing the legwork to fund the extras. “Teachers like me are saying, ‘What else can I do because I’m tired of all the textbook rigamarole,’” Swantz says. “With all the testing...I had given up almost all the fun things about teaching.” She brought the fun back with a plan to get money for iPods and microphones for her students to record interviews that would ultimately become oral history podcasts (Swantz made sure her idea aligned with state standards).
A supportive administration is crucial, Kalona’s teachers say. Their former principal encouraged those who were interested to seek grant opportunities to enhance required lessons, Swantz says. Colleagues can provide invaluable feedback, too, says Swartzendruber. “If I have an idea and take it to my administrators, if it sounds lousy, they’ll let me know.”
Going for a grant isn’t limited to teachers of core subjects, says Bailey. “I knew that there are quite a number of PE grants. My problem is just finding the time to sit down and write it and know what I’m doing.” When she feels unsure, Bailey taps her fellow teachers who have more experience with grants. “We have such a community spirit here that if someone finds out about a grant, they share the information.”
Illustration: David Clark
On the Web
Turning Cache into Cash
Typing “education grants” into Google yields well over a million hits. But never fear. We've compiled some helpful sites for education grants or tips on landing them.
NEA Foundation Grants
Fundsnet Services Online
Learning Is for Everyone Grants and Funding