The five biggest fables about school fund raising

Grantsmanship is a tricky business for anyone. The competition can be fierce, the rejection letters even fiercer. It’s especially hard for the untrained person, who oftentimes is thrown a Request for Proposal (RFP) and given maybe a couple of days to put together a sleek, persuasive, multi-year proposal.

Nobody can give you more time when you face an unrealistic deadline, but having a practical appreciation for what you’ll encounter should be a help.

So, based on what I’ve learned, here are five of the greatest misconceptions people harbor about getting grants.

Myth 1: Tons of money are available for hardware and software

I’ll start with this one, because a large number of your colleagues still believe that, as long as you can show your schools are “technologically depressed” you don’t need a great idea or a project concept to sell to funding sources.

But anyone who has pursued several grants during the last two or three years has a clear grasp of the competitiveness of grant seeking today. Funders are looking for innovative projects, new and exciting collaborative partnerships, and improvements in student achievement. Saying in a needs statement that “my district has 25 Apple IIes, but it really needs 50 Power Books” is not going to impress most grant readers, nor will it make your proposal stand out in the crowd.

Even worse, your district’s need for technology can’t be based on the fact that the district next door just got some and it’s not fair to your students! You must identify a need to be met or a problem to be solved and technology should be the means of making this happen, but not the sole focus.

Myth 2: RFP Guidelines are made to be broken

I believe that RFP guidelines exist for several reasons. To keep the playing field equal, everyone has to follow the same rules. And if you don’t follow the rules you get punished! In the grants world, if you violate the guidelines your punishment can go two ways.

For example, let’s take a look at page limits. The RFP limits you to 10 pages, but you have 11 1/2 pages and you just can’t (or don’t want to) edit it anymore. One of two things could happen when you turn in your grant: It will be thrown out without being read, or any pages after 10 will be thrown away. If this happens, you will more than likely get just a few points—or no points — for any sections on the pages after the limit.

Remember the competitiveness I referred to under the first myth? RFP guidelines are a way to narrow down the number of proposals that need to be reviewed. And look at this from the funder’s standpoint. If you can’t follow the guidelines, will you turn reports in that are completed correctly and on time? Take the guidelines seriously!

Myth 3: There’s no such thing as the “grant police”

I have had people ask me if you really have to do what you say you’re going to do in a proposal if you get funded. I can’t imagine what would lead people to think that they can get money from a funding source which they can spend in whatever manner they see fit, regardless of what they said they were going to do!

Yes, you’re expected to fulfill your obligations, but if problems do arise and you need to make changes to the project, notify the funding source immediately, not at the end of the project when you submit a final report. It will be tough to maintain your credibility and go after other funding if you develop a reputation for changing projects without notification—and it will be impossible to secure continuation funding. We probably all have read about or know someone who had to give money back because he or she violated the conditions of the grant. Don’t be one of these people!

Myth 4: Collaboration is an option in today’s grants

For the novice grant seeker it is important to realize that many state and federal grants today require collaborative partners in proposals. Grants such as the Technology Innovation Challenge Grant, for example, tell you the kinds of partners you should consider having in your consortium that is a requirement for applying.

This should be one of the requirements you pay particular attention to when you read an RFP for the first time. It is difficult, if not impossible, to establish a collaborative relationship four weeks before a proposal is due. I advise school district personnel to form and maintain collaborative relationships on an on-going basis.

As a grant seeker for a school district, you should know who your partners are and what their needs are. You should have discussions with partners and potential partners to find out mutual concerns and to discuss ways that you can work together to meet each others’ needs.

Look to your local community first— your vendors, local businesses, other nonprofits and other for-profits. Look to people in other parts of your state, people in other parts of the United States . . . you get the idea!

Myth 5: Grant writers write grants, don’t they?

Unfortunately, there are many people who are under the mistaken impression that grant writers lock themselves away in an isolated room somewhere and emerge in a few days with a fully executed grant proposal. After all, isn’t that what they’re supposed to do?

Grant writers need to have the information from the people who will be putting the project into action. Otherwise, they will design a project that others are going to have to live with if they get funded. Most staff want to have a large say in what the goals, objectives and activities for a project will be when they have to make happen.

One of the important roles of a grant writer is to take information from different people and put it all together in one succinct style that sounds like “one voice.”

And while we’re on the subject of writing grants, another parallel myth is that grant writers spend the majority of their time writing. Most, if not all, of the people I know who do this for a living spend the least amount of time writing! What takes up the majority of the time?

Doing research on what funding is available for the projects that the school district wants to get funded . . . networking with other grant writers to find out about upcoming grants or how the last grant reading session went . . . attending RFP workshops to get information directly from the funding sources and to get questions answered before a proposal is even started . . . working with district staff to fine tune ideas for projects and to identify potential partners . . . talking with funding sources to identify the ones that are most likely to fund a specific project . . . working on resubmitting proposals that were rejected.

Obviously, getting grants is an on-going process that requires perseverance and lots of time. And as I learned in one of my graduate school classes, never forget that “grantmakers and grantseekers are made of the same thing—scar tissue!”

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