“Show me the money”: That was the theme sounded by hundreds of educators and grant seekers who attended the Grants & Funding for School Technology West conference hosted by eSchool News and held in San Diego April 29 and 30.

The assembled experts–foundation and corporate executives, federal program officers, fundraising specialists, educators, and consultants–were happy to comply. In three general sessions and 18 technical sessions, the experts revealed their secrets to securing technology funding for schools.

The panelists agreed that an unprecedented amount of money is available for school technology this year, and sources of funding continue to multiply. But, as fundraising consultant and eSchool News columnist Deborah Ward cautioned, “Funders want to fund projects and ideas, not equipment.”

As technology funding has increased, so, too, have funders’ expectations–and schools’ accountability. In order to receive funding, schools need to have a clear plan for using technology to improve teaching and learning, conference-goers learned.

Writing a winning proposal is easy–provided you’ve got a well-developed project with clearly defined goals, said Gary Carnow, director of technology and information services for the Alhambra School District in California. Carnow’s session offered grant seekers a “Start-to-Finish Guide” to creating such a fundable project.

At the idea-generating stage, learn to ask the right questions, Carnow said. Questions should focus on learning objectives. For example, what is being done to develop students’ higher order thinking skills? (And how can you develop a technology project that will address this question?)

Terry Crane, president of Jostens Learning Corp. and the CEO Forum on Education and Technology, underscored the importance of accountability. In her keynote address, titled “Reaching the Promise of Technology in Education,” Crane presented her three R’s for school technology: Results, resources, and reform. The three go hand in hand, she said: In order to get resources, you need to show results.

Delia Duffey, project director for the Texas Education Agency, echoed these sentiments in a session called “Regional Issues: How Fundraising Differs Among Regions.” Despite regional differences in fundraising, Duffey pointed to three things that remain constant wherever you are: (1) The No. 1 thing you need to get funding is a technology plan (“This is not Santa Claus–don’t send me your wish list”); (2) You also need a strong collaboration with partners; and (3) Curriculum must drive the technology, not the other way around.

State of the eRate

Having given out $1.66 billion in telecommunications discounts last year, the eRate is the largest single source for technology funding. Kate Moore, president of the Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) of the Universal Service Administrative Co.–the group that administers the eRate–briefed attendees on the state of the program in a general session sponsored by 3Com Corp.

More than 80 percent of all public schools were represented in the first-year funding commitments, Moore said. After some initial growing pains, the money is finally flowing: As of April 30, about $201 million had been disbursed to service providers for refunds to customers who had paid for services in full last year, and another $48 million had been authorized for discounts on services yet to be implemented.

Only five percent of last year’s applicants have appealed their funding decisions, Moore said. At the time of the conference, about a third of those appeals had been addressed.

Some new eRate news from Moore: Schools that wish to take advantage of the extended three-month grace period for the implementation of wiring projects must fill out a Form 486 to let the SLD know they’ll be extending the implementation of their projects.

As for year two, one way the SLD hopes to improve the program will be to issue a Receipt Acknowledgement Letter, which will let applicants know the agency has received their application within the window. The letter also will confirm the information they supplied. This became an issue during last year’s program, as some schools waited all summer without knowing whether they even existed in the agency’s system.

Year two funding commitments will go out in waves again like last year, Moore said–but this year, the waves will follow a regular schedule, so schools will know when to expect each wave.

Another change: The SLD will proceed to notify applicants on their “priority one” services–telecommunications services and internet access–before the agency knows whether it can fund their requests for internal connections. Schools that applied for both types of services on the same application can expect to receive two separate funding decision letters.

“This has been a tough year, but also a rewarding one,” Moore told attendees. She thanked them for their patience with the program in its first year and also took questions from the audience.

Federal and corporate funders

In a session titled “Federal Technology Funding Program Update,” Allen Schmieder of JDL Technologies and Mike Haney of the National Science Foundation presented an overview of other federal funding sources. From technology-specific programs, such as the Technology Literacy Challenge Fund, to general programs that can support technology, such as Title 1, the federal government provides billions of dollars that can be used for technology initiatives, Schmieder said.

Schools looking for competitive sources of federal funds should keep in mind the “Four Pillars” of technology identified by the Clinton administration, Shmieder recommended. These Four Pillars–hardware, access and connectivity, staff development, and content resources–represent the general “program priorities” that the federal government uses in its evaluation of technology, he said.

Schmieder also offered this tip to grant seekers: Volunteer as a peer reviewer to get an insider’s view of federal programs. These programs enlist the aid of other educators to help evaluate proposals, Schmieder explained. By serving as a peer reviewer, you’ll improve your understanding of what the programs are looking to fund.

Educators learned the “Essential Elements of Corporate Grantsmanship” from Marilyn Reznick of the AT&T Foundation, C.J. Van Pelt of the Cisco Foundation, and Michele Cavataio of the AOL Foundation. The key elements of a successful proposal, from the perspective of a corporate foundation: Brevity, clarity, and a compelling case, Van Pelt said.

Grant seekers need to convey a match between a corporate foundation’s mission and their own, she added. Express your case in terms that a corporation would understand: Purpose, cost, and measurable benefits.

One preference common to both federal and corporate funders, the sessions revealed, is that funders look for collaborative projects. Funders like to see that you’ve exhausted your local connections before you turn to them for money, panelists explained.

Writing effective proposals

Educators learned not only where the money was, but also how to get it. Some of the most effective sessions focused on the art of grant writing itself: Wielding words to win money for schools.

Savvy grant writer Michael Gershowitz presented a session titled “Telling the Story: Writing Proposals that Get Read (and Funded!).” Gershowitz, who himself has raised $80 million for school technology projects, likened grantwriting to his former profession, journalism.

Like a journalist, a grant writer must tell a good story–and fit it into the space limitation. “Most people write so densely that you have to work to understand the proposal,” Gershowitz said.

How can you tell a good story? By writing about the people who will benefit from the grant–the students or parents or teachers whose lives will be touched. “Case studies are interesting, statistics are not,” he said.

When you do use statistics–and you won’t be able to avoid them–make them interesting. Don’t overwhelm the reader; instead, use only the most startling ones, he said.

Deborah Ward followed Gershowitz with a two-part session called “Crafting the Winning Grant Proposal.” Ward took conference attendees step-by-step through the sections of a grant proposal, pointing out what makes a proposal compelling.

She also told them where to look for funds. “Start with a project idea, then look for a match,” she said. Don’t restrict your search to grants that have the word “technology” in the title, she added; for example, a Pennsylvania district got the state Department of Environmental Protection to fund a grant for covering its running track with recycled rubber.

Both Gershowitz and Ward stressed that a grant seeker should spend the most time on research, not writing. Gershowitz said he spends about 20 percent of his time on writing and 80 percent on research and project development. Yet both also noted that funding depends largely on how well you can communicate your project to the funder.

Tips and Techniques

Al Zeisler, president of the Integrated Technology Education Group, briefed attendees on the relationship between the planning and funding of school technology projects. Zeisler said you should plan well into the future when budgeting for technology, such as installing twice as many data ports as you think you’ll need. He also said it’s important to consider ergonomic factors when developing your technology projects.

In a session titled “Making Your Strategic Plan a Powerful Fundraising Tool,” Stephen Andrade, chairman of the technology department at Johnson & Wales University, called a laser-beam focus “the X-factor” to reaping huge rewards.

Rebecca Flowers, director of strategic alliances for eSchool News, revealed the keys to researching grant prospects and matching those prospects with grant seekers’ needs. Find out as much as you can about potential funders, she said–and apply only to those with whom you have a chance.

Rick Bauer, chief information officer for The Hill School of Pottstown, Pa., spoke on the topic, “Approaching Corporate Funders: What Sells!” Appeal to business leaders for pre-professional development, he said–capitalize on their demand for skilled workers in the next century.

Grants & Funding For School Technology West was co-sponsored by Teacher Universe, with additional financial support from 3Com Corp., Acer Computer Corp., Advantage Learning, America Online, Dell Computer Corp., Innovative Communications Inc., Sphere Communications Inc., and Visionary Systems.